Monday, March 30, 2015

Who was Mary Magdalene?

Who was Mary Magdalene? Church tradition tells us that she was the ‘repentant sinner’ who in Luke’s gospel washed the feet of Jesus with her tears, before drying them with her long hair and anointing them with precious ointment from an alabaster jar. This is the way in which Mary has been portrayed countless times in art, but this idea of her is based upon a mistaken assumption by Pope Gregory I in the 6th-century, who seems to have confused Mary, the sister of Martha, with Mary Magdalene – a confusion of names which has turned into a traditional portrayal of Mary Magdalene as ‘the woman with the alabaster jar’.

How is it possible, then, that what seems to be such an obvious misunderstanding about these passages in scripture could last for fourteen long centuries? A story which endures for so long tends to point to greater truths. Can we reach beyond this early pope’s misunderstanding to discover why this image of Mary has had such a powerful hold on the human imagination?

Some three centuries before the pope made his erroneous assumption, a manuscript was written that would lay undiscovered in the Egyptian sands before being rediscovered many centuries later in an ancient rubbish dump near the town of Oxyrhynchus – a valuable archaeological site which has also yielded some of the poetry of Sappho. The manuscript is now known as the Gospel of Mary. It offers us a very different picture of Mary Magdalene from the Mary of church tradition: a Mary who is the most loved of Jesus’ disciples, who is the closest to him, and to whom he entrusts the inner mysteries of his teachings. In this rediscovered gospel Mary offers these teachings to the other disciples: instructions about the visions of the mind, the perceptions of the spirit, and the ascent of the soul. 

Intriguingly, we are told that Mary addressed these teachings to her ‘brothers and sisters’, making it clear that other female disciples were present, and were therefore also among this inner circle of followers. Mary tells these things to the disciples after Jesus’ last post-resurrection appearance. The other disciples are feeling alone, afraid and demoralized, but it is Mary who rallies them, who urges them to keep their courage, and who assures them that they are not alone. In this text Mary emerges as a woman of deep spiritual insight, personal courage and dignity. Is there any way in which we might square this very different Mary of the gospel which bears her name with the Mary who holds the ‘alabaster jar’ of church tradition?

The woman is the vessel. She is the bearer of new life, and so is also the bearer of the most treasured and valued mystic secrets. The awe which surrounds the woman as the carrier of the miracle of life has been expressed in figurines carved from mammoth ivory many thousands of years old. To hold these mysteries is to hold a vessel, whether that vessel is expressed in the idea of the womb itself, or in the Holy Grail, or in an alabaster jar whose contents are described as the most precious and costly of all.

In the expression of this larger truth, we might come to realize that in this sense Mary Magdalene is all women, and all women are Mary Magdalene. And what at first might seem like misinterpretations of scripture are actually reflections of far larger realities, and these realities lie beyond the control of mere human misunderstandings. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Crossing: Hallelujah ~ Russian Orthodox Choir

Following his video of my poem Invocation, my husband David Bergen has now made a second video featuring my poem The Crossing, with an animated version of the beautiful painting by Abram Efimovich Arkhipov which originally inspired me to write my poem.

The poem on my blog can be read on
The Crossing

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Flight and Pursuit

Desperate situations call for desperate measures. A true free spirit, the wood nymph Daphne is never happier than when she is roaming the forests. The dappled sunlight of the forest glades are more than home to her: they are her preferred company, and she vows that she would sooner keep herself chaste than exchange the familiar company of the surrounding trees for a partner in life.

All might have continued to go well for Daphne, were it not for the fateful day when the glorious god Apollo happens to catch sight of her as she dances in a sunlit glade. At once smitten by her beauty and charm, the god approaches Daphne and attempts to seduce her. Now, Apollo is used to having his way, whether with mortal or with nymph. But for the first time ever he finds his advances rejected. In a moment’s distraction Daphne seizes her chance to flee the god’s amorous advances and runs away as fast as she can, hoping that her familiarity with the forest trails might offer her an advantage in her flight.

But Daphne’s knowledge of the secret paths through her beloved forest is proving no advantage when matched against a god’s bruised ego. Wounded pride mixed with ardour for the fleeing nymph only fuels the pace of Apollo’s pursuit. At the last moment of her flight, when the god is so close behind her that she can feel his hot breath on her back, Daphne calls out in panic to her father, the river god Peneios. 

The great river stirs angrily, and white-topped waves slap its banks in a frenzy of fury as Peneios sees the plight which his daughter is in. Unable to leave his watery domain, the river god makes a last-resort move to save his daughter. Just as Apollo reaches out to seize the nymph, his all-too-eager hands grasp, not soft and yielding female flesh, but bark and branches and dark green leaves. Peneios with his powers has changed his daughter into a laurel tree: one more tree among all of its fellows in the wood nymph’s beloved forest.

A handful of laurel leaves are Apollo’s only gain. How to save face? How to restore a god’s bruised ego? By declaring a defeat to be a victory and founding a tradition. Apollo decrees that from that moment on, a crown of laurel leaves will become the worthy symbol of a victor. And the god promptly begins the tradition by weaving for himself a crown from the leaves that just moments before had been the living flesh of the beautiful nymph.

How often has it happened that reality has been turned on its head, and those who have been bettered have, through one means or another, insisted that they have in fact triumphed? Saving face in such a way is familiar enough to us from our own current news events. But in the story of Daphne and Apollo we can perceive a deeper meaning. Sometimes circumstances force us to change, and to change dramatically, and we become something other than that which we were before. It might not always be a change which we have wished for ourselves, but it has been a change made necessary for our survival, in whatever form that might take.

But Daphne’s fate also gives us reason to hope. The nymph’s essential nature was that of her own beloved forest, and her essence did not change. Instead it became absorbed into what she truly loved the most. Even in dramatic change, even undergoing apparent complete metamorphosis, our true essence survives in some form, and endures beyond even the great change at life’s end.

Apollo and Daphne by John Willam Waterhouse