St. Mary Magdalene was a woman who was obvious, yet hidden. She was obvious in that she accompanied Jesus throughout much of His ministry and therefore she was seen with Him. She was said to be a very close friend of His, following Him after He healed her of some sort of terrible illness. All four gospels tell us that she was one of three women who were at the foot of the cross and who were also present at the tomb. She was the first one reported in the Gospels to have seen Jesus – (though it goes without saying that Jesus appeared to His mother first, something not included in the Gospels, no doubt, intentionally) – and she is the one who ran to the apostles in hiding saying, "I have seen the Lord!" Yet after the resurrection account she seems to have become somewhat hidden. For one who is sometimes referred to as “equal to an apostle” and who was obviously very close to Jesus, she seems to become obscure in her life after her encounter with Him.
One legend has it that not long after the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene went by boat to an unknown place in France and spent the rest of her days in a cave as a contemplative hermit. On the other hand the Greek Church indicates that she went to Ephesus with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and stayed there until her own death. Whichever is true, we know that she lived a significant part of her life after the Resurrection in a prayerful, contemplative lifestyle.
It seems odd that one who followed Jesus for much of His ministry, who was spoken of as an apostle to the apostles, who was decidedly and openly evangelizing while He was alive, would fade into the background after His death. It is important to recognize, however, that she had an important role as a woman of prayer and that her quiet role was very consistent with the message of Christ. For one, she followed in a long line of holy people who knew that it was not about them, but it was about Jesus. Take St. John the Baptist, for example, who years earlier had said: "He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30) referring to his acknowledgment that his ministry was to be forerunner of Christ; that is, he knew his job was to point to Jesus and then step out of the spotlight.
So, too, has it been for Mary, the Mother of Jesus. She knew she was to let go of Him when Jesus' ministry was to begin. In fact, according to the Gospel of John, Mary sort of nudged Jesus into beginning His ministry, as if to say she knew it was time to step out of the way so that He could do what He came to do. (John 2) What is important here is to remember that Mary spent her life pointing people to Jesus. She still does that as she continues in her very important role as intercessor for us and for the world. Everything she has done in her earthly life and in her life after her Assumption into Heaven is to point us to Jesus. As with St. John the Baptist, it is about Jesus, not about her.
Therefore, the fact that Mary Magdalene would have spent the latter part of her life in a contemplative role should not surprise us. She is doing what she was called to do: to step aside and live life not about her or her ministry, but to live her life for Jesus. She chose to live her life as given totally to Him. It was a unique call, very different from that of the twelve men, the apostles, who went out to different places proclaiming the gospel and then losing their lives. It is not to say that the men got the better part. (Being a martyr hardly sounds like the better part!) It is difficult to hear it intimated sometimes that men got the better things to do simply because they were men, and that this holds true today. You could argue “any which way to Sunday” that being a martyr was harder, and then you could argue just as fiercely that being a contemplative for years, and then dying in old age after years of solitude, is harder. But that would be missing the point entirely.
The point is that both the men who were apostles and St. Mary Magdalene (and I daresay any other women and men) had equally important functions. When we start to focus on whether men are favored over women, or whether active life is more holy than contemplative, or whether religious life is more important than married or single life, (or vice versa for each) then we are missing the point completely. Just as St. Paul said, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free person, there is not male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus," (Galatians 3:28). There is no lifestyle or role that is more or less important than the other. If we are truly living the message of Jesus Christ, then we are also trying to listen to His call to us. This means that to serve Jesus in the way we are called is what is most important for us. The call is unique and different for each person. To also paraphrase St. Paul who says it oh, so eloquently: if the Body of Christ had only one gift to offer, we would not be able to function. (See 1 Cor 12.)
Rather than debating the role of women as if it is somehow opposed to men, and rather than arguing the role of religious or clerical life as if it is somehow opposed to married or single life, we should be rejoicing in the variety of ways we can serve the Lord because of the variety of gifts He has given His people. Therefore instead of saying St. Mary Magdalene should have been an apostle, we can say she was an apostle. She was not called to preach as she traveled from town to town; she was called to "preach" silently in a cave by praying for the good of the Church and the world. She was called to appreciate silence and the beauty of God's presence which she found in solitude. She was called to prayer and reflection, because that was the pathway to her holiness. In her great love for Jesus, for whom she wept in the garden mistakenly thinking someone had stolen His body and wanting to do anything to get it back, she would spend the rest of her life contemplating the beauty of seeing Him face to face in earthly life and in His risen glory. I wonder: if any of us had seen the risen Jesus, would we want to spend time going around talking about it or would we want to simply spend time reflecting on that experience as we prayed for those who were struggling with whatever burdens they had? I believe the answer to this is as individual as each person. Any call to serve the Lord can be a path to holiness, and this is how St. Mary Magdalene lived out her call. It may have been her prayer that enabled the apostles who lived the active ministry to do what they did and to have the courage to die as they did. We will never know.
Our call is to accept our path to holiness, not to focus on that of another, wondering if one is more valid than the other. Our call is to let our gifts complement those of others, so that the Body of Christ is made whole with the gifts offered by the Spirit. This way we can work to make the Body of Christ whole through healing, mercy, compassion, gentleness, kindness, care, generosity, and most of all, love. Then like St. Mary Magdalene we can look at the beauty in the world, or in the eyes of another person, and say, "I have seen the Lord!"
May we be like St. Mary Magdalene in her early ministry when we need to follow the Lord in an active way, serving the needs of those around us! May we turn to St. Mary Magdalene when we need contemplation, discernment, and silence to be in the presence of the Risen Lord! May we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear so that we may follow whatever pathway to holiness is given to us! And may we, like St. Mary Magdalene, be able to say at some point every day, "I have seen the Lord!" Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus where all beauty and love resides! Peace!
The icon at the top is St. Mary Magdalen Contemplative of Contemplatives by Rev. William Hart McNichols and can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=288.
The two photos are mine. The first is from New Mexico. I chose this to give the sense of the desert as a place of solitude, but also of beauty. The second picture is from Ireland. When I visited there this was a place of peace, tranquility and beauty.
Heart Speaks to Heart