The Mary Magdalene Controversies
by Arne J. de Keijzer
Was She the "Sinful Woman"?
Many contributors to Secrets of Mary Magdalene refer to the now infamous sermon by Pope Gregory the Great (540–604), in which he conflated two other women --- Mary of Bethany and the anonymous "woman in the city, who was a sinner" --- with Mary Magdalene. In one fell swoop, he delivered what is considered by many modern scholars to be the final blow in the marginalization of women in the early Catholic Church in general, and Mary Magdalene in particular. This sermon cut off an ongoing discussion about Mary Magdalene's identity at the time and put her good name in a box labeled "penitent sinner." The box would not be opened again for 1,378 years.
Many possible explanations exist for Gregory's actions. Perhaps the unfortunate melding was done due to a need to simplify complex biblical elements in an era of theological and political uncertainty. For example, some of the bishops of the church felt that the various gospels, along with a wide debate among teachers on what to teach, created too much disarray. Or, as some say, maybe it was part of a conspiracy by church fathers to stamp out the last vestiges of female power. Whatever the motivation, this judgment of Mary Magdalene as prostitute and penitent quickly became a reference point for Catholic theology, perpetuated by a subtle but important means. Gregory declared that the reading from the pulpit to mark Mary Magdalene's feast day, July 22, would henceforth be from Luke 7, which reads as follows:
. . . behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, and stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him [to eat in his house] saw it, he spake with himself, saying, this man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner (7:36–9).
In 591, Pope Gregory declared his interpretation of this verse:
She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did the seven devils signify, if not all vices? . . . It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord's feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer's feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance, for as much as she had wrongly held God in contempt.
In great part because of pressure from within the church, the Vatican finally overruled this interpretation about Mary Magdalene in 1969, with neither an apology nor even an official statement. The Second Vatican Council simply altered the reading for the feast day as part of a general reform of the church calendar regarding the way many saints were to be remembered. The Roman missal and the Roman calendar now directed the reading be changed to the Gospel of John, Chapter 20, verses 1–2 and 11–18.
1 The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre.
2 Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the LORD out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.
11 But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre,
12 And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.
13 And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my LORD, and I know not where they have laid him.
14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.
15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.
16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.
17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.
18 Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the LORD, and that he had spoken these things unto her.
Thereby Pope John Paul II reversed his predecessor and changed Mary Magdalene back from a repentant sinner to a person who emerges from the gospel as central to the Resurrection story --- as well as in her own right.
Sex in the Temple
The Tradition of the Sacred Prostitute
An interview with Nancy Qualls-Corbett
Feminine spirituality is derived from the pairing of the carnal with the sacred, argues Nancy Qualls-Corbett, a Jungian analyst and authority on the relationship between sexuality and spirituality. Our search for spiritual meaning, therefore, is not just a journey toward religion, but also toward psychology she argues, invoking Carl Jung, the pioneering Swiss psychologist who emphasized that the psyche could best be understood through exploring the worlds of dreams, art, mythology, world religion, and philosophy.
Jung was a clinician, but was also steeped in the realms of Eastern philosophy, alchemy, astrology, art, literature, symbolism, and archetypes. He stressed that modern humans rely too heavily on science and logic and would benefit from integrating spirituality and appreciation of the unconscious realm in their daily lives. The Jungian influence on Dan Brown and his Harvard symbologist character, Robert Langdon, is arguably strong. So, too, is the Jungian influence on many of the New Age writers, who write on themes that include Gnosticism, neopaganism, and metaphoric interpretations of Mary Magdalene's experience.
Jung was also known for his emphasis on male and female archetypes, as well as the importance of balancing their respective role in a dualist union.
For Nancy Qualls-Corbett, this balance is lost in a Christian dogma that has excluded "anything feminine from its picture of God, much to the psychic detriment of the faith." She continues, "Without a feminine base of any kind we have churches that developed as one-sided or neurotic structures," thanks to the way in which "Mary Magdalene was demeaned and marginalized by the men who took power in the early patriarchal church and fundamentally warped its foundation." Even today, she continues, we are disinclined to associate anything or anyone who is consecrated to God and made sacred with that which is considered sensuous and carnal. Yet when "our world was young . . . there was no conflict between one's human sexual nature and one's religious or spiritual nature. Each gave life and meaning to the other and provided an important balance in the world of antiquity: a union of the divine with the mortal."
We spoke with Nancy Qualls-Corbett about her book The Sacred Prostitute to gain a deeper understanding of how such themes were manifested in ancient times. Her answers shed light on the ways in which these traditions continue to have an impact and also reveal some surprising commonalities between Mary Magdalene and Qualls-Corbett's vision of the "sacred prostitute."
Quite a few scholars and other experts have made many of us familiar with such terms as sacred union and sacred marriage. But sacred prostitution? Please help us understand that concept.
Excavated from the ruins of the earliest civilizations in Babylonia and Sumer, ancient clay tablets, vase paintings, and little statues dating from approximately 18,000 BCE describe or depict women who performed love's act in the Temple of Love. This was an act of worship and the priestess of the goddess of love was a sacred prostitute. She welcomed the world-weary stranger into the privacy of this sanctified place and offered herself to him under the aegis of the goddess. In the presence of the divine goddess, this ritual was transforming. The sacred prostitute, perhaps an initiate, could experience the fullness of womanhood, her feminine nature awakened to life. The element of divine love now resided in her. The stranger, too, experienced the mysteries of sex and religion that accompanied the regeneration of the soul. This sacred sexual act was considered a ritual of hieros gamos or the sacred marriage as it represented the spiritual union of the divine with the mortal.
In other ancient locales, the ritual of sacred marriage was experienced in slightly different ways. At the New Year's celebration, called the "Fixing of Destiny," people sang hymns to the goddess: "The king goes with lifted head to the holy lap, / He goes with lifted head to the holy lap of Inanna." Inanna refers to the Sumerian goddess of love and fertility, who assured the fecundity of the land and human life with her blessing of love and the art of lovemaking. The king, representing the god, and a chosen sacred prostitute, representing the goddess, were led to the ziggurat whereby their mating insured fertility of the land. Her human emotions and creative, bodily energies united the personal and the suprapersonal. She touched basic regenerative powers and, thereby, as the goddess incarnate, assured the continuity of life and love. The sacred prostitute was the human vessel wherein earthly and spiritual forces united. An enactment of the sacred marriage, as portrayed recently in both The Da Vinci Code and the Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut, reflects this sensibility.
In later civilizations Inanna, and other goddesses, became more differentiated; one goddess was identified with fertility or a Mother Goddess, while a distinct other was worshiped for feminine sexual beauty. The Greeks, for instance, knew the former as Demeter, while Aphrodite was venerated for her splendor in physical beauty, love, passion, and delight. The goddess of love and the goddess of fertility were revered as the divine feminine.
Why did the concept of the sacred prostitute originate? How did it translate into the reality of the time?
Women who performed the menial tasks in the temples were thought to be in close relationship with the goddess and thus empowered to grant blessings. It is thought also that this ritual may have been a vestige from earlier primitive ceremonies when the tribal chief deflowered the maiden prior to her marriage. Another hypothesis is that as the goddess and her consort bestowed fertility to the land, the act should be imitated by women who sought her blessing.
In different cultures at different time periods women became sacred prostitutes. This was no disgrace but rather an honor. They were considered "the wife of the god." In certain locales only women of noble birth could participate. In Thebes the wife of the high priest was entitled "chief concubine." The third-century BCE Greek historian Herodotus wrote, "Babylonian custom . . . compels every woman of the land once in her life to sit in the temple of love and have intercourse with some stranger." At the temples of Aphrodite in Eryx, Corinth, and Comanas, according to Strabo, a first-century Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian, sacred prostitutes numbered in the thousands. They were accorded social status and were educated. In some cases, they remained politically and legally equal to men by their right to inherit land. It was believed that as the goddess brought her gifts of love --- the arts of lovemaking, passion, and joy --- from her heavenly realm to mortals below, the sacred prostitute, as priestess of the goddess, imparted this blessing to humankind.
How does Mary Magdalene fit in?
Although clouded in confusion from biblical scripture, I think and feel that Mary Magdalene was endowed with the selfsame attributes as the sacred prostitute. In many ways she followed her heart, although the way must have been arduous. I can only imagine what courage and inward strength she possessed to counter the defining role of womanhood at that time. Luke describes her, and other women followers, as being of "substance," which is usually interpreted as financially supportive. Yet the word has additional meanings, like "consequential" and "necessary." Is this not more in keeping with her role?
You've based your analysis on Jung's archetypes. What is an archetype? Why do we have them --- what role do they play in human thinking and behavior?
Dr. Jung referred to the deeper strata of the psyche as the collective unconscious, differentiating it from the personal unconscious that contains repressed material from an individual's personal experiences. The collective unconscious contains psychic components --- the archetypes --- which are omnipresent, unchanging, and common to all people. Like instincts, they are inherited. As psychic energy they have the ability to regulate, modify consciousness, and color one's experience of the world; therefore, they may be thought of as patterns of behavior. The hero or witch, for example, is an archetypal image that arises spontaneously from dreams and myths. These images are products of the unconscious manifesting in consciousness as symbols. Behind the symbol's visible and objective meaning is an invisible and more profound meaning: what is the hero or witch "energy" within me and how does it propel me to act?
We can say in effect that we don't "have" archetypes; the archetypes "have" us. When we speak of the goddess of love we speak of an archetypal image. When we fall in love, we feel ecstatically energized when that one particular archetype is activated. Homer's ode to Aphrodite describes her as beautiful, radiant, and a lover of laughter. We feel the same pattern. We send our beloved red roses, a symbol of love, because it is the flower of Aphrodite.
You have said that by losing the feminine form from its picture of God, the Christian church has become a "neurotic structure. How and when did the goddess become, as you have also put it, "disembodied"? And what are its implications?
In world mythologies we find two distinct aspects of the feminine archetype: static or motherly, and dynamic or erotic. The archetypal images of the mother and the sensuous woman are also prominent in Christian mythology, but these images are altered by conscious beliefs. The mother archetypal image, Mary, is revered as virginal, asexual --- not a full-breasted, wide-hipped reflection of fecundity as the mother goddess in ancient days was perceived. The erotic feminine archetypal image, Mary Magdalene, is debased, called a prostitute, and condemned for her sexuality, which was identified as temptation and mortification of the flesh.
I see this attitude changing as indicated by the current intense interest in Mary Magdalene coupled with conscious challenging of outmoded beliefs that diminish or debase feminine nature. The archetypal image of the erotic feminine, symbolized by Mary Magdalene, the human woman, reconnects us to the aspect of the divine feminine in our innermost being, as did the sacred prostitute.
Tell us about the demise of sacred prostitution. How did the goddess become "disembodied"?
Through the ages the prevailing matriarchal system evolved into one that was patriarchal. Once agriculture and religion were the primary nucleus of life; later the focus shifted to commerce, war, and control of more expansive lands. The act of giving birth and sustaining life were no longer held in the same high esteem as that of heroic conquering deeds. Gradually, through millenniums to approximately 5000 BCE, women became subordinate because their roles were no longer important in the context of these new values. Through the passing centuries the pantheon of gods and goddesses crumbled as one Supreme God was recognized. The Temple of Love gave way to the House of the Lord. Sexual pleasure and spiritual values could no longer coexist; life's joys on earth were repressed as man sought eternal life. The goddess and her advocacy of rekindling the soul through sexual expression was now debased and seen as evil.
There was, of course, little trace of the divine feminine in the newly founded Christian church's hierarchical structure of popes, bishops, and priests. To a small degree it was incorporated in Eastern Orthodoxy as Theotokos and Sophia, and later, the attributes of the sacred feminine were assimilated into the image of the Blessed Virgin Mother, especially in Catholic countries. The church declared Christendom to be the bride of God, Christ and Ecclesia as sponsus and sponsa. While a beautiful sentiment, this is a rather esoteric and abstract image, a vision that is difficult to connect with emotionally. A great dichotomy was experienced in the Middle Ages when Gothic cathedrals rose to heavenly heights in veneration of Mary, but human women were burned as witches. The "disembodiment" of the goddess meant regressive attitudes toward nature's fertility, feminine values of relatedness, and the spiritual component inherent in lovemaking.
What does repressing the feminine do to us, as individuals and within a society? How can we "regenerate" ourselves?
When the feminine principle of Eros is repressed, there is no connection to one's inner being, to humanity, and to nature. Without the mediating quality of relatedness, power raises a mighty hand. A sense of power creates hubris or an inflated ego, which in turn pollutes the heart and makes one hardened and cynical. These attitudes are reflected in society. Thinking is more valued than feeling; science more valued than the arts. There is no balance. Societal values become hard-edged as militarism, consumerism, and politics are held in high esteem. And human loving emotions and nature turn to dust.
Without the element of divine love mediating sexual experience, gratification is short lived. We lose reverence for the bountifulness of nature and all living things. The heart is not touched, the soul is not nourished, and the spiritual dimension is not realized. Men lose the experience of intimacy not only with external woman, but also with their own unconscious feminine nature, the anima. Likewise, women, without beholding the blessed gifts of feminine nature, either despise or abuse their body, or use it in flagrant ways to satisfy ego needs. An ancient myth of Aphrodite tells of women who met her with disdain, ridiculed and mocked her. She turned them all into stone. By the same token, women today are not immune to becoming hardened and stony when no regard to the divine feminine is held.
I'm afraid there is no magic elixir for regeneration. Beginning steps for men and women alike may be as simple as making an effort to marvel at the goddess's moon or to admire a delicate red rose. We can act in ways to show genuine concern to humanity and our planet. We cannot reconstruct the Temple of Love in our external world, but we can build it from within. We can recall the blessing of the goddess and, like the sacred prostitute, bring her gifts into the world.
What is the true strength of the divine feminine? How is it reflected in women today?
The strength that women of all times possess is manifested in an inner connectedness with the feminine nature. Her being is not dependent on the reaction of others. She does what she does because it is congruent with inner explorations of her unique self --- the absolute antithesis of enacting a role of a "sexy woman." When working and living within a patriarchal system, she may not be able to change the system, but neither does she allow it to change her. The woman who is in allegiance with her feminine nature may not be considered beautiful, sexy, or provocative by today's standards; she is more fully recognized by her countenance: a warm receptive glow that emanates from within. There is a definitive quality about her presence that all but defies definition. This woman holds the blessing of the divine feminine not for personal ego aggrandizement but with reverence, in order to carry it forward into the world.
Kathleen McGowan's story has the kind of conclusion that most writers can only dream of. After more than two decades spent researching and writing her trilogy, The Magdalene Line, McGowan began the process of searching for an agent. Although there was interest, no publishing deal was forthcoming, and she ultimately decided to self-publish the first volume of the trilogy, The Expected One, in March of 2004.
The book attracted attention almost immediately. It ended up in the hands of a major literary agent, leading McGowan to a major, million-dollar book deal with Simon & Schuster. Meanwhile, the original, self-published version of her book goes for $100 on eBay.
Many novels focusing on their authors' vision of Mary Magdalene have been published in the last twenty years. McGowan's looks like it could become the best known and most widely read --- in part because of her talent as a writer, in part because of her personal story, and in part owing to this particular moment when people all over the world and of many faiths have taken a new interest in this historic character about whom we know so little but imagine so much. For McGowan, who in her spare time is developing film and TV versions of her book and personal story, all of the new-found attention is just icing on the cake. Her relationship with Mary Magdalene, which began when she was ten years old, is not about fame and fortune. It's about courage, endurance, faith --- and bringing a sense of grace, balance, and truth to the world. Her books, she feels, are, in the end, her contribution to this pursuit.
I blame Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. They started it.
When I was ten years old, my hip and progressive mother packed my older brothers and me into the Ford Falcon station wagon and headed off to see the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar in our local movie theater. It was love at first sight for all of us. We stopped at the record store on the way home and bought the vinyl version of the soundtrack --- a pricey double album that was a little out of our family budget at the time, but the three of us begged for it until Mom relented.
That summer, we literally wore the grooves out of those records as we played them on our portable stereo. We acted out the entire drama from start to finish as we sang along with the soundtrack and danced around the patio. This ritual occurred literally every day for at least a month. The boys split up the lead roles and fought over who would play Jesus and Judas, but because I was the only girl and there was a solitary female character, that role was mine exclusively. We called it the Summer of Superstar, and I spent every day of July in my tenth year reenacting Mary Magdalene's devotion to Jesus while wrapped in my mother's red poncho. To this day, I do a wicked impersonation of Yvonne Elliman singing "I Don't Know How to Love Him." At that young age, I could never have guessed just what kind of mental and spiritual groundwork had been formed in my consciousness during that Summer of Superstar.
Cut to my late teens as I evolved from fledgling journalism student into idealistic writer and activist. I moved to Europe and immersed myself in the tumultuous politics of Northern Ireland throughout the 1980s. It was during this period that I developed an increasingly skeptical perspective on recorded, and therefore accepted, history. As an eyewitness to dramatic and often violent events, I realized that in every single circumstance the reported version bore virtually no resemblance to what had transpired before my eyes. The recounting of these occurrences in the media was often entirely unrecognizable to me; these documented versions were written through layers of political, social, and personal bias. My youthful idealism was crushed as I realized that the "truth" was lost forever.
Or was it?
I began to feel an overwhelming obligation to question history. With all that I discovered, I realized that I was now on the razor's edge of a potentially radical perspective --- that I essentially didn't trust anything that had been written down as historical evidence!
So where did that leave me? I was a historian who no longer trusted history, a journalist who believed there were no credible sources available to me in libraries or on microfiche. Where was I going to find the answers I sought?
A family history of storytelling through my maternal Irish lineage led me to the ultimate answer: folklore. It sounds like a quaint and innocuous word, but it is a powerful and highly durable tradition, as ancient as humanity itself. My own experiences in Ireland reinforced my ultimate belief in the importance of the oral and cultural traditions that make up folklore, and why they are often the richest source of understanding we have of the human experience. During my days in Belfast, I interviewed members of secret political societies and members of underground paramilitary groups. The most valuable insight always came from stories that were related by insiders, firsthand accounts that included details of events and traditions that had been passed down from father to son, mother to daughter, for as long as anyone could remember. None of this information can be found in print anywhere. It is preserved solely in the minds of the local residents, for reasons no less immense than those of life and death.
These localized events on the Belfast streets became my microcosm. If they were continually reconstituted and altered by major press, what did this mean when that concept was applied to the macrocosm of world history? Wouldn't the tendency to manipulate the truth become greater and more absolute as we looked further back to the past, to a time when only the very wealthy, highly educated, and politically victorious were able to record events?
As a woman, I wanted to take this idea one step further. Since the dawn of written records, the vast majority of materials that scholars consider academically acceptable have been created by men of a certain social and political status. We believe in the veracity of documents simply because they can be "authenticated" to a specific time period. But carbon dating ink and paper cannot tell us anything about the perspective or potential agenda of the human hand that committed those words to paper. Rarely do we take into account that they were written during darker days when women held less status than livestock, or were even believed to have no souls! How many magnificent stories have been lost to us because the women who starred in them weren't deemed important enough, or even human enough, to merit mention? How many women have been removed completely from history?
Then there are those women who were so powerful and instrumental in world governments that they could not be ignored. Many who did find their place in the history books were remembered as notorious villains --- adulteresses, schemers, deceivers, even murderers. Were those characterizations fair, or were they political propaganda used to discredit women who dared to assert their intelligence and power? Armed with these questions and my escalating sense of mistrust for what has been academically accepted as historical evidence, I set out to research and write a book about infamous women. I called it Maligned and Misunderstood and started working with some of history's most notorious ladies, including Marie Antoinette and Lucrezia Borgia.
It was just one of many synchronicities that would change my life when in 1993 as I wrote the book, a revival of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar arrived in Los Angeles. I simply had to see the show in person, but at the time believed that this was just an act of warm nostalgia. As the actress playing Mary Magdalene took the stage and I sang along to the words I knew so well from my childhood, I realized that on some subconscious level I had been prepared to understand her story some twenty years earlier. As an adult woman, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the power and importance of Mary's legacy. Was it possible that she really was closer to Jesus than any other follower? And yet history preserves her legacy as that of a prostitute and a fallen woman. Was Mary Magdalene the queen of the maligned and misunderstood in history? I was beginning to think so.
I set out to gain a greater awareness of this New Testament enigma in terms of her importance as a follower of Christ. I knew that the reforms of Vatican II had made some effort to correct the injustice of Magdalene's tarnished reputation as it had been first created by Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century when he conflated her story with that of an unnamed sinner. This was my starting point. But I discovered that the church's explanation, well intentioned though it may have been, was less effective than a retraction at the bottom of page thirty-eight for a story that has been headline news for many years. It became my intention to incorporate Mary Magdalene's story as one of many within the context of an entire body of work that spanned twenty centuries. But Mary Magdalene had a different plan for me, and began to make it known with irresistible force.
I was subsequently haunted by a series of recurring dreams that featured the intertwined lives of Mary Magdalene and Jesus. Unexplainable and often supernatural occurrences led me to investigate research leads that took me to four continents. While I performed my due diligence and read every historical and academic account I could get my hands on, I found most of these disappointing. They asked more questions than they answered, and only left me wanting more. I followed my heart and my head as I explored the other research avenue that had never let me down --- oral tradition. My interest in Mary's folklore turned to obsession as I experienced fascinating ancient cultural traditions that have been preserved with love and a fervent passion throughout western Europe. I was invited into the inner sanctum of secret societies and met with guardians of information so sacred that it astonishes me to this day that they, and the information they protect, exist --- and have done so for two thousand years.
The folklore and traditions of Europe also provided new insight into some of Mary's mysteries, those that have never been explained in any way that I found palatable through traditional scholarship. A rich and beautiful version of Mary Magdalene's life story was revealed to me, one that depicts her clearly as not only the "apostle of the apostles" but as no less than a dynastic queen and the legal wife and beloved of Jesus Christ. I believe with all of my heart that Mary Magdalene was not only a leader in the early church, but the individual to whom Jesus entrusted his sacred mission. I tell this story in its entirety, as well as the story of my personal journey of discovery, in my fact-based novel, The Expected One.
Additionally, a treasure trove of information exists for the spiritual seeker, most written from the second to fourth centuries, that is not included in the traditional church canon. There are thousands of pages of material to discover: alternate gospels, Acts of Apostles, and miscellaneous writings that reveal details and insights into the life and times of Jesus that will be completely new to readers who have never before looked beyond the four evangelists. I believe that exploring all of this material, including the folklore and traditions of Europe and the Middle East, with an open mind and heart will build a bridge of light and understanding among the many divisions of Christianity, and beyond.
Fascinating details about the belief in Mary Magdalene's importance can be found in the great art of the Renaissance and beyond, as great masters painted her repeatedly. The majority of women in Botticelli's allegorical paintings --- like the expectant goddess at the heart of Primavera and the lovely woman in the scallop shell from Birth of Venus --- are indeed representations of Mary Magdalene. This Mary is the muse of many other masters, including Ghirlandaio, El Greco, Poussin, and even Salvador Dali. She can be found in fairy tales, nursery rhymes ("Mary had a little lamb . . .") and ancient troubadour songs written in tribute to this most virtuous and sadly unreachable lady. In many ways, the modern rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar is a new type of oral tradition --- an artistic means of telling an important story through the passion and power of music. Indeed, I have since met with hundreds of fans of the Webber-Rice musical who credit the power of the music with turning them into devoted Christians! And while the portrayal of Magdalene in that modern work perpetuates the unfortunate idea of her as a prostitute, I credit that it also shows her as a woman of enduring faith and grace.
There are elements of Mary Magdalene's story as I tell it that cannot be corroborated through any readily acceptable academic sources. They exist as oral traditions and have been preserved in highly protected environments by those who have feared repercussions for centuries. My personal experience years earlier in Belfast helped me to understand the mindset of a culture that does not commit its beliefs to writing because to do so would only lead to persecution, arrest and even death. The ancient followers of Mary Magdalene, known as the Cathars, lived with the fear of such retaliation, and for good reason: they were hunted down by the medieval church, brutally tortured and executed in the most horrific ways. Over a million people were massacred in the south of France for their "heretical" belief in the role of Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus and subsequently as the true spiritual founder of Christianity in the Western world. The Cathar people learned through unimaginable hardship that the only way to survive would be to keep their knowledge and traditions highly protected and secretive. They remain so to this day, where secret societies quietly preserve the pure faith of their people --- the teachings of Jesus as they were brought to Europe by his beloved spiritual partner.
Through my years of research, I have discussed, questioned, argued, and even conceded many points with clerics and believers from a number of faiths. I am blessed to have friends and associates from many spiritual arenas, including Catholic priests, Lutheran ministers, Gnostic practitioners, and pagan priestesses. In Israel, I encountered Jewish scholars and mystics, as well as Orthodox guardians of Christianity's sacred sites. My father is a Baptist, my husband a devout Catholic, my mother a descendant of Ireland's most ancient traditions of goddess and nature worship. All of these individuals are a part of the mosaic of my belief system. Despite the myriad differences in their philosophies, each of these people blessed me with the same gift: the ability to exchange ideas and engage in dialogue freely and without anger.
And that is, for me, the essence of Mary Magdalene's story. She has taught me so much about courage, endurance, and faith over these years of exploration. I have found that Mary's message is one of love, tolerance, forgiveness, and personal accountability. It is a message of unity and nonjudgment for all people of all belief systems. It is my greatest joy that the consciousness of the world is being challenged and raised through the revival of Mary Magdalene's true story. It is her time to shine now, by returning us as humans to a state of grace and balance through her wisdom.
And that's where you'll find me if you'd care to join me as a pilgrim on the path of seeking and understanding, as one who wants desperately to learn how to create heaven on earth in the way that Jesus and Mary intended to teach us. I'm easy to spot --- I'll be wearing red and singing along to the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Excerpted from SECRETS OF MARY MAGDALENE © Copyright 2011 by Dan Burstein and Arne de Keijzer. Reprinted with permission by CDS Books. All rights reserved.