I believe the current resurgence of interest in Mary Magdalen does reflect a collective desire for the divine incarnate in a woman’s body.
July 22nd. In the Village of St Maximin in the South of France, a (real) blackened skull with topped with gold hair (that looks a bit like a battle helmet) is being lovingly paraded through the streets in celebration of Mary Magdalen’s feast day. Except for this annual airing, the skull resides atop a gold bust of the saint in a glass case in the crypt of the basilica. Just under where her heart would be is a small glass cylinder reputed to contain a shred of tissue from Mary Magdalen’s breast bone, the place where Jesus touched her on Resurrection morning warning her: Noli me tangere. Don’t touch me. Not yet.
Incarnation is all about touch. Though most of us no longer venerate—or battle over—the relics of saints, there is something touching about our longing for the divine made tangible, vulnerable, human.
I am the descendant of nine generations of Episcopal Priests and briefly considered becoming the tenth because the ordination of women was still illegal when I graduated from college. When it passed in 1976, I felt liberated from this cause and went back to what I really wanted to do: write novels. I eventually left the Episcopal Church to become a member of The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). In silent worship, new images of the divine emerged, and I began a quest in life and in writing for the divine feminine which eventually led me out of Quaker Meeting into pagan circles and interfaith ministry.
I was drawn to the concept of the goddess as immanent, present in all things. I reveled in her many names and the vast lore that exists in all cultures if you look back far enough. Though I could no longer call myself Christian, I still felt connected to Jesus, specifically to his feet that walked the earth, got dusty and needed to be washed—sometimes with tears! I felt a longing for more than the immortal goddess, giving birth to and/or destroying the universe, mourning and resurrecting sons and lovers, seeking the odd lost daughter or sister.
I wanted that goddess made flesh, a goddess who could have a bad hair day or a blister on her foot, who loved and suffered and made mistakes like the rest of us. A mortal woman, who, despite or because of her faults, could transcend herself in acts of courage and compassion. A woman who could be at once human and divine. Just like Jesus. Just like us.
Enter Maeve, my Celtic Mary Magdalen, with whom I’ve spent twenty years, telling a story, which includes all the above and then some, in what grew to be four novels. Though my take is a little different (my Magdalen is no one’s disciple and never converts) I believe the current resurgence of interest in Mary Magdalen does reflect a collective desire for the divine incarnate in a woman’s body. As I grew older (way older) than Jesus’s thirty-three earthly years, I found I also wanted a deity who had anguished over a teenaged child and taken on the care of an aging mother-in-law. If that weren’t enough, in her last volume, Maeve sets out on a heartbreaking quest through her war-torn homeland even as she faces her own old age and death. As a novelist, I spared Maeve nothing. She goes with us all the way.
It would be fun to go to Southern France to celebrate Mary Magdalen in terrain where her lore and veneration abound. But wherever we are we can ponder the mystery of incarnation, its joys, terrors, sorrows, its profound yet simple sensual delights. My martial arts teacher once said to me: We are here to be in bodies. What a strange and beautiful mystery! Today let’s celebrate. I’ll close with a poem I wrote last year on Mary Magdalen’s Feast Day.
Mary Magdalen’s Feast Day
I wonder why your feast
day dawns in deep July?
Does the wild thyme
and lavender bloom
in southern France as it does
in my garden here?
Do you like the scent of it
under your bare feet
lingering on your fingers
when you brush it with your hand?
Sensuous one, cat in the sun,
ripe fruit bursting on the tongue,
tonight I will sing your songs
as I know them
I will call you Maeve
I will call my friends to your feast.
There will be figs!
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known for The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring the feisty Celtic Magdalen who is nobody’s disciple. An ordained interfaith minister, Cunningham is in private practice as a counselor. She is also the director of the Center at High Valley where she celebrates the Celtic Cross Quarter Days. She lives in New York State’s Hudson Valley. For more: www.passionofmarymagdalen.com and www.highvalley.org.