A Pilgrimage in Search of our Spiritual Roots
Encountering Mary Magdalene
by Kathe Schaaf and Kay Lindahl
We are living in a time of profound spiritual crisis – and opportunity. As old systems break down, it is clear patriarchy is no longer a viable option. Everywhere around us we see the harm and imbalance that has resulted from the lost wisdom of the feminine on this planet. How can we animate a powerful wave of feminine spiritual leadership that will ground and nurture a new way of being on this planet now? How can women be inspired to step more fully and authentically into the current leadership vacuum? And when we sit in silence, we hear an answer whispered from Spirit: explore the wholeness of Mary Magdalene.
Like many women we know, we feel a sense of urgency to understand more about our own spiritual roots, to discover the true history of our female spiritual lineage and to reconnect with our own natural spiritual authority. We are two women raised as Christians who share a spiritual lineage from the regions bordering the Baltic Sea in northern Europe. We know only scattered bits of the history of how the voice of the feminine was silenced in our Christian tradition since its earliest days. We see around us how women are often paralyzed by a lack of spiritual authority and confidence. It is a convoluted and mysterious path we find ourselves on, but we sense it is vital now more than ever for we women to tap into our own deepest wells of spiritual wisdom and healing.
Travelling to the South of France
So it was that we came to travel to the south of France to encounter Mary Magdalene on a week-long pilgrimage. Led by Kayleen Asbo and Kathryn Lazaretti, our group of 13 American women surrendered to a gentle rhythm that began and ended each day with vesper services in the restored Chapter Room of the 12th century Benedictine monastery where we stayed. Each day offered a tapestry of history, art, music, prayers, sensory, and interactive experiences. We spent hours exploring the wisdom gospels. We visited sacred sites, including Magdalene’s grotto high up on the slopes of St. Baume. We visited the local markets in small villages where people live simply and close to the earth. And we did indeed encounter Mary Magdalene, hidden in plain sight everywhere we went.
She stood larger than life painted in soft, earthy shades on the walls of St. Michel du Var, a contemporary French Orthodox monastery. Her relics are on display in a massive cathedral dedicated to her, Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. Each year on the 22nd of July, thousands of pilgrims celebrate her Feast Day by climbing up to her cavern on St. Baume. Her image adorns bracelets and necklaces, candles and altar cloths sold in church gift shops and village markets. One day our van driver spontaneously told us that his family has honored and prayed to Mary Magdalene for 1200 years, that she protected them and offered them grace.
It was a profound experience to walk on this beautiful land and to know that the Sacred Feminine has been revered here uninterrupted for thousands of years, layers of spiritual architecture that offer a thru-line of feminine spiritual leadership from Isis to Magdalene and beyond. Something shifted in our spiritual DNA. As we came to know Mary Magdalene, we came to know ourselves in a new way.
The Broken Lineage of Feminine Spirituality
We also came to understand more about the broken lineage of feminine spirituality in the Christian religion that began with Magdalene, continued through centuries of brutal repression, and still haunts and hobbles so many women to this day. Just last June, the Catholic Church finally rescinded its 2,000-year-old stance on Mary Magdalene, declaring that she was not a prostitute after all, but an Apostle. In fact, the Pope went so far as to name her The First Apostle, since she was the first to encounter the resurrected Christ and broadcast that message.
In the Gospel of Mary of Magdala, we are given a glimpse of the events that follow. As the disciples are gathered in the days after the resurrection, Peter says to Mary, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than all other women. Tell us the words of the Savior that you remember, the things which you know that we don’t because we have not heard them.” What happens next is a turning point for women and for the early church.
Magdalene proceeds to share a vision and a teaching from Jesus. When she finishes with silence, Andrew is the first to speak, saying “I do not believe that the Savior said these things for indeed these teachings are strange ideas.” Peter quickly agrees. “Did he then speak to a woman in private without our knowing about it? Are we to turn around and listen to her? Did he choose her over us?” (Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, page 17) Mary Magdalene weeps, perhaps with the dawning realization that these transformative teachings of a risen Christ would never be carried forward by the male disciples who did not have ‘eyes to see or ears to hear.’ In these first days of the early church, we begin to see a pattern that continues to this day: Despite what Christ himself taught and modeled, Christianity does not know what do with women – or with their gifts in service of the sacred.
Adjacent to the sacred cave on St. Baume is a monastery founded in 415 CE by John Cassian. A life-size tableau depicts the crucifixion, with Mary Magdalene on her knees in prayer at the feet of Jesus on the center cross. We sat in silent witness of this scene, sharing her deep grief at this horrible loss, this violent death of her Beloved Rabboni (or teacher).
But we also wept for what we know now, that Magdalene did not yet know: that this was only the beginning of a series of profound losses for women and for humanity. The powerful teachings that Jesus shared with her about love and finding the light within would not be carried forward by the male disciples; the church that would emerge would be focused more on fear than love even 2000 years later; and she and other female disciples would not be allowed to teach or preach or lead in that patriarchal religion for many centuries to come.
For every powerful symbol of Mary Magdalene that we encountered in France, we also saw evidence of the persistent subjugation and even hatred of the feminine in the Christian faith. In our history lessons in the Chapter Room, we saw multiple sacred works of art produced through the centuries with Magdalene’s image painted over – literally erased from the image and from history. At St. Maximin, we were shocked by a large painting of Mary Magdalene in which she had been slashed with a blade, cut from her throat to her feet. The history of the Languedoc region itself is interwoven with stories of the brutal crusades which sought for centuries to rid the world of ‘heresy’ – which often seemed to somehow involve silencing any lingering voice of Mary Magdalene in particular and women in general.
Coming of age in the 20th century Christian church, both of us became aware of a painful disconnect between what we were taught and what we were experiencing as women. We were taught that God is beyond gender, and yet God was always talked about in masculine terms. We saw that women had only certain roles in the church, which until recently did not include serving on the main governing body, serving at the altar, reading the lessons, much less leading as a minister, pastor or priest.
Sorrow and Joy
At the same time, we heard the profoundly inclusive message of Jesus, who welcomed women as disciples. He chose women as the first witnesses of his resurrection, and yet His church did not offer us as women a place to stand. Though we did not have the language then, we were sensing the missing grace of the Divine Feminine.
Our own pilgrimage was interwoven with Kay’s personal journey of grieving the death of her beloved husband. Magdalene must have experienced excruciating grief at the death of her beloved teacher just as women today are feeling deep grief at the state of our world. What we learned from Magdalene about resurrection offered solace to Kay and can guide all of us in the process of grieving the profound losses we are experiencing now.
When we remember that resurrection is spiritual, not physical, we can understand that it is about life AND death. If we think of one of our hands representing life and the other representing death, this teaching says that by bringing both hands together in love and relationship we begin to understand the oneness and wholeness of everything. Holiness can be found when we trust the mystery to integrate opposites into one perfect whole. The fullness of life includes both/and. It is not life or death; it is life and death. It is sorrow and joy, gratitude and sadness, tears and laughter. Knowing that we can hold it all as one is a huge gift and a deep spiritual practice.
Another teaching that really touched us is this understanding of the value of tears. Mary Magdalene tells us that whenever we are moved to tears by beauty, we are expressing our souls. Frederick Buechner describes this practice in Whistling in the Dark (1988):
Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.
Mary Magdalene holds a key to where we should go next to heal the spiritual heart of humanity. She offers a key to restore the natural spiritual authority of women – especially Christian women who so often find themselves without an authentic and animating connection to their spiritual roots. We believe Magdalene was an apostle and a passionate teacher of the messages of Jesus.
Even more importantly, the Mary Magdalene we encountered in France is an animator, capable of awakening and enlivening a new kind of spiritual leadership on this planet for both men and women. Just as she remained dedicated to remembering and broadcasting the truths Jesus taught her, we dedicate ourselves to re-membering and broadcasting the true stories of women’s spiritual leadership that are hidden in plain sight in Christian history. John Shea reminds us in Stories of God, “When order crumbles, mystery rises.” The mysteries of the Divine Feminine are bubbling up through the cracks in the old paradigms, offering comfort and wholeness.
Header Photo: Mary Magdalene speaking to the angels – Photo: Wikimedia Commons