Women and Spirituality: Mary Magdalene

Ananya Sri Ram Rajan – USA  

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Now known as the Apostle of the Apostles’ by the Vatican in 2016, dear Mary Magdalene has come a long way. Originally known in the Bible as a repentant woman whom Jesus cast seven demons from, she was thought to be a prostitute. For years, Mary Magdalene has been an enigma in the life of Jesus. Did she really exist? Was she a prostitute? Was she the physical lover of Jesus? These questions say more about us as a humanity and our inquisitiveness than anything else. Perhaps it is our need to view Jesus as a human being no different from ourselves, living a human life with human desires. But the controversy over Mary Magdalene and her relationship with Jesus has been one of curiosity for many—scholars, theologians, and feminists to name a few.

Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity(2011) provides an insightful look into the mysterious being known as Mary based on the canonical and Gnostic Gospels, as well as other teachings and research. Her goal in the book is to “reclaim Mary Magdelene’s legitimate role as a teacher and apostle.” (Considering this, I wonder what influence Cynthia’s work had toward the Vatican’s decision.) Bourgeault looks at Mary from three different aspects: as the Apostle, as the Beloved, and as the symbol for the Unitive Wisdom. It is from these different views that we are able to look at the role that Mary Magdalene plays as a woman, a disciple, and a teacher of the Wisdom Tradition, guiding individuals in their spiritual journey. 

Mary as a Woman

History shows us that in the first century, Jewish culture was oppressively patriarchal. A woman’s place was in the home raising children as her intellectual abilities were considered inferior to that of a man. This is shown in many of the teachings of great philosophers of the time. Despite the profound insights that came from great thinkers, the connection between their own individual origin and the origin of the universe somehow did not compute. The divine feminine embodied in the female (and male) form somehow played no role in the creation of these thinkers. (How they think they arrived on the planet is beyond me.) But perhaps this shows why a Jewish man who spends time with women, shares teachings with them, and honors them so deeply is considered disreputable in one way and extraordinary in another. The cultural code was broken. Whether we believe the story of Jesus or not, the allegory of Jesus’ impact on Mary (and there are many stories of a “Mary”) are profound. In the story of Jesus’ life, he opened the door to a new way, thus availing women, and many other marginal populations, access to their own inner being. 

While this does not seem all that extraordinary today, it should. We still have thousands of women unable to take part in ritual, unable to hold higher clerical positions, and often thought to be deficient when it comes to spiritual matters. In my own life, I remember taking part in a Hindu ceremony for my son and being told women could not hear the Gayatri mantra spoken from the priest. But Hindus are not the only ones. Despite the Roman Catholic church honoring Mary, mother of Jesus, women still hold a lower status when it comes to the clerical. In some sects of the Islamic faith, the ceremony is done in the room where the men are gathered while the women are in another room. In the Mormon faith, husbands are a line to God. This list goes on. 

In the Gnostic Gospel of Phillip, he confirms that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ companion and that “Jesus loved her more than his students." He kissed her often on her face,and they said, ‘Why do you love her more than us?’ The savior answered, saying to them, ‘Why do I not love you like her? If a blind man and one who sees are together in darkness, they are the same. When light comes, the one who sees will see light. The blind man stays in darkness.” So, it is likely, that in Mary, Jesus found his equal because Mary saw the truth in the teachings and never doubted them or Jesus himself. It also explains the disbelief of Mary’s encounter with Jesus after his death by the disciples. The disbelief is not due to the encounter not making sense but more that if was with a woman to whom it happened. 

One often wonders what the world would be like if women, who once held respected and honored positions as spiritual counselor, healer, and wise woman of the community, had continued to hold those places of honor. What would it have meant for women in general and for spirituality and religion as a whole? Would fear have played such a strong role? Would we be more connected to the earth? How would it have changed how women view themselves? All these are questions we can ponder and let simmer. As the answers through visions, meditations, and intuitional knowing come to the surface, perhaps we will all, women and men alike, find our own authentic way of being. 

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