Today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, who through deep penitence, came to the Lord with contrite heart and He bestowed His divine mercy upon her, washing her sins clean. She then became perhaps his most ardent disciple. Quietly she followed Him, from the moment of her conversion, to the time He was to Ascend to His Father in Heaven.
She knew the love of the Lord and she knew there was nothing greater then His love. And she followed Him in silence, in humble demeanour, ever grateful for the gift of His ineffable mercy, and ever aware that she was nothing before His greatness.
Yet, in His eyes, she was one of His greatest victories, for He had brought her, a terrible sinner back to life. He had brought her into His Heart and was able to use such an example to show others the way.
It is in the Gospel of St. Luke that we find her story:
And one of the Pharisees desired him to eat with him. And he went into the house of the Pharisee, and sat down to meat. And behold a woman that was in the city, a sinner, when she knew that he sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment; And standing behind at his feet, she began to wash his feet, with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.’ ( Luke vii: 36-7).
And the Lord did say to the Pharisee:
Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much … And he said to her: ‘Thy sins are forgiven thee … Thy faith hath made thee safe, go in peace.’ (Luke vii: 47-50).
In Westminster Cathedral, London, high above the confessionals, hangs a large mural of St. Mary Magdalene.
And, of course, she has been placed there for a very important reason. Whilst the faithful prepare for confession, she stands before them, offering her wisdom, of the softening and humbling of the heart. For she knows intimately what it is to be in a state of humility, before the One to Whom we owe everything.
St. Mary Magdalene is very important for me, as I believe she greatly helped me in my conversion.
One day, in the glorious sunshine of summer, on a Swiss mountainside, my life was about to change. At the time, I was a fully-fledged New Ager, filled with my own ideas about life, meaning, the spiritual world and how things ‘are’. In other words, I was rather arrogant.
And on this retreat, alone, camping in the Swiss Alps, I discovered on that mountainside a tiny Catholic chapel. I was compelled to go in.
Once inside, my life began to change. My New Age precepts were challenged. For I felt a surprising sense of home in this chapel, unbeknown to me.
This sense of home was not simply about this actual chapel. It was about the Person Who resided there, Jesus Christ. In this chapel, I discovered Him, for He was there. It was not like an ‘energy’, which, in my New Age world, I was accustomed to, one which resided in no particular place, but seemed to flow everywhere.
No, this was an experience of a Person, greater than I can ever express, Who did indeed exist in this particular place – because this place was His Church.
And there in that tiny chapel, I felt shame. Shame filled me, as I realised how much I believed myself unworthy of entering such a holy place. And consequently, I had slandered the Church. This, too, filled me with shame. Yet the love and acceptance I felt in that chapel was all-embracing. I had never felt anything like this before. Whatever I was or had done, I felt accepted and loved.
But the more I felt this love, the more I felt my shame. And the shame was about my pride, which had itself judged what was worthy and what was not. My pride had judged what was true and what was not. I had removed myself from my God and lived by my own rules.
Yet, my shame was also about the life I had lived, where I had been incredibly sinful. I was ashamed of many of my past actions. For here, I was placed before the purity of my God. And when we are placed before His purity, we cannot but be ashamed of our sinfulness.
The light shining from His Heart into our hearts, illumines the darkness. And I was ashamed, for His loving mercy had in some way touched my heart, softening it, as St. Mary Magdalene’s heart had been softened, illumining my darkness.
And on my knees, contrite of heart, I wept and I wept and I wept.
I wept, because I realised that Jesus loved me, however sinful I was, however unclean or impure. I felt loved by Him, for simply being me and I wept for the relief of it. And I wept for the shame of never having known this. And I wept for the wrongs I had committed. I wept because my sins hurt my Lord and they hurt me.
At the time, I knew very little about St. Mary Magdalene, but when I recall my experience, I feel that she was in some way leading me to penitence, just as she leads those in preparation for confession in Westminster Cathedral – just as she leads many people day in day out to Our Lord.
In Butler’s Life of the Saints, he writes about the connection between St. Mary Magdalene and the Prodigal Son. The Prodigal Son leaves his father’s house for a different life. He travels by his own laws, in his own way, rejecting all that his father has given him. Butler writes these words about his rebellious life:
The source of all his misfortunes is a love of independence and of his own will. He is full of his own wisdom, and of a certain self-sufficiency … All who contradict his passions, or tell him the truth, are odious to him.
Butler saw these same tendencies in the way in which St. Mary Magdalene had lived by her own rules, falling ever greater into sin. I too recognise these powerful tendencies in my own New Age life.
In the Catholic faith, we attempt to harness our passions and utilise them for the greater glory of God. Whilst in the life of wilfulness, directed by one’s own will, rather than that of the Lord, the passions are that which guides life. It is like a rebellion against the Father. And such a rebellion can only harm the soul, as alone it is led further and further away from God’s loving mercy and tender Heart.
St. Mary Magdalene is a wonderful example to us of someone who did indeed harness her passions, having lived wildly by her own will. And through her example we learn of the depth of God’s merciful love.
Butler writes about the Lord having pierced the heart of St. Mary Magdalene, which is why she was able to be so deeply penitent, throwing herself at Our Lord’s feet. And there, she offered Him her contrite gifts. She offered her tears, to cleanse his feet, her hair to wipe them dry, and the precious ointment, to anoint them. And through these humble acts, she publicly proclaimed to the world that He is the One Who forgives, He is the Lord, for He is the Christ. As Butler notes, she is the first to confess this.
And just as she is the first to confess that Jesus is indeed Our Lord and Saviour, she is also the first to witness His Glorious Resurrection.
Having been present at the foot of the Cross and the laying of Our Lord’s body in the tomb, we find St. Mary Magdalene returning to anoint His body. And again she weeps, for she discovers the tomb to be empty. Then, having run to fetch the others, she finds herself once more there, alone.
And there alone, she weeps, early in the morning when it is still dark, for she cannot yet see.
And even when Our Lord appears before her, she still does not see, for the light has not yet touched her eyes. Yet, when He calls her by name, ‘Mary’, overcome with joy, she sees. And, being the first to witness the Resurrected Christ and carried the joyous news, in obedience to Our Lord’s will, to the Apostles, she is known as the Apostola Apostolorum (The Apostle’s Apostle).
And the very world she helped bring me out of, the New Age, attempts to sully her name. It attempts to sully the relationship between Our Lord and St. Mary Magdalene. For it disseminates slanderous stories about a physical love affair between them.
Yes, of course, they have a love affair, but one that is interior and perfectly chaste. For how can Our Lord be anything other?
There are such forces attempting with all their might to destroy the faith. And they will use any means possible, the devil has no scruples! The New Age happens to be an incredibly fertile breeding ground for such endeavours. For those within it are often deeply opposed to Christianity.
And with our dear St. Mary Magdalene, they are having a field day. So, let us remember who she really is.
Let us once more turn to Butler, where he paraphrases a beautiful account of this penitent soul, from Cardinal Berulle. He writes:
This is a new order of souls which consists in the spirit, in the interior, and is invisible to men, but visible and glorious to the eyes of God and the angels. An order of souls crucified with Jesus … the order and school of love by the martyrdom of the heart; which by learning to die to the world and inordinate self-love, lives to God and his pure love.
This happiness we attain to, by being united in spirit to Jesus crucified, as Magdalen was at the foot of his cross. She suffered by love what he suffered in his body …The same cross crucified Jesus and Magdalen … the thorns pierced her heart … and her soul was bathed in all his sorrows; but the crucifixion was in both a martyrdom of love; and that love which triumphed over Jesus by making him die on the cross, crucified her heart … so that she could say in a two fold sense, “My love is crucified”.’
These words beautifully illumine the nature of the interiority and love of the union between Our Lord and St. Mary Magdalene. Frequently depicted with head lowered, her demeanour symbolises the interior hidden nature of this love. It is a love that is all consuming and devoted wholeheartedly to her Divine Spouse. It is the same nature of love, with which religious take their vows, carrying their Divine Spouse interiorly within their hearts.
Yet, St. Mary Magdalene personally knew the Lord. She walked with him upon the earth. Not only was she the greatest Penitent but also the most ardent female disciple. With bowed head, contrite heart, humble and weeping, she is constant example of humility and gratitude.
For, Our Lord brought her out of her misery and slavery to sin – He saved her and gave her life. Therefore, ever grateful, she lived in total humility and love of Him, following wherever He went and bringing penitents, like myself, to Him.
Thou, St. Mary Magdalene, hast helped bring me to life. For that greatest of gifts, I am deeply and ever grateful.
St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us sinners. St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us.