Feast of St. Mary Magdalene


Hope this isn’t “beating a dead horse,” but her feast July 22 offers a good time to revisit what happened to this central figure in Christianity. In the seventh century,  Pope Gregory lent authority to a mistake: the conflation of texts about 3 women in scripture. The mud-slinging against Mary Magdalene continued until a correction in 1969, but the good news of scholarship takes a long time to reach the public. In many groups, one still hears the identification of her with a prostitute. Or in Dan Brown’s novel, the wife of Jesus.

All four gospels agree she was one of the first witnesses to the resurrection, apostle to the apostles. Why did early church fathers shift her role to financier/ crazy woman/Peter’s rival, or ignore her? Partial answers include sexism, misogyny, opposition to women’s leadership, growing emphasis on celibacy. For 1400 years, the authority of a major woman witness was sadly reduced. The amount of energy that has gone into suppressing Mary Magdalene’s voice indicates she must have posed a huge threat to the religious establishment.

Reclaiming her true identity, we can appreciate how Jesus calling her name in the garden after his resurrection is a pivotal turning point, not only for her but for all subsequent human history. She was the first to realize that God can vanquish even death. Which makes all other obstacles seem minor.

Patron Saint of the Environment

The month of July is laced with wonderful saints’ feasts. Seeing them intertwined with the events I’ve planned for this month is a visible reminder that we’re all together in this “magnificent enterprise which is God’s work” (St. Ignatius, 7/31).

First is Kateri Tekakwitha, July 14. Biographical details are sparse: daughter of a Mohawk chief and a Christian, Algonquin mother, she was orphaned when her family was wiped out by the smallpox epidemic of 1660, which left her pock-marked and half blind. Adopted by her uncle, she asked for baptism at age 20, and celebrated it in a chapel festively decorated with feathers, ribbons, flowers, and beads. The beauty of nature, which she had always loved, took on new intensity because she knew the creator.

The Mohawks, however, could not accept her conversion and ridiculed her. Eventually she made a long journey on foot to the Sault mission south of Montreal in Canada, where she could live among other Native American Christians. Early French biographers describe her as solid and joyful. She nursed the sick and dying with remarkable cheer, considering that her own health was precarious. Her joy was so contagious that children were drawn to her for storytelling. She showed a key hallmark of holiness: people wanted to be around her. At her burial there was no mourning, only public rejoicing.

At a time when much progress to preserve clean air, water and wilderness is threatened with dismantling, we can ask Kateri for wisdom, reverence, and her sense of the earth’s irreplaceable sacredness.

Soren’s Metaphors

Soren Kierkegaard is no beach read. But one of the wisest spiritual directors I ever had quickly discovered that the fastest way to my heart was through metaphor. As every teacher knows, we learn by comparing the unfamiliar with the familiar. If a complex quadratic equation can be compared to 2 + 3 = 5, it’s the first step to understanding. For that reason, I was intrigued by Soren’s metaphors. Not that I’m an expert, but here are a few nuggets from his  book Provocations:

  • We’re like children who play and talk together. But then comes the message to go home. “That is, God calls to us.” Just as the child can’t get stuck in the illusion that his relationship with the other children is the whole thing, so too adults must turn home to God.
  • A desert wanderer is thrilled to find the refreshing coolness of a spring. So too, God is faithful and unchanging. Even more remarkable, God is like a spring that seeks the thirsty traveler, so is always available. This spring doesn’t stay in the same place; it follows wherever we go, and can be found wherever we are.
  • And what if a desert dweller found a spring within his or her own tent? The person who is always turned outward thinks happiness lies outside him or herself. But turning within, one finds “water gushing up to eternal life.”

Kierkegaard has little sympathy for the institutional church, which he compares to a hospital where all the patients are dying. Efforts to find the cause of their illness fail, because it comes from the building. “This whole pile of lumber of an established Church, which from time immemorial has not been ventilated…the air has developed poison.”

No wonder the title is Provocations!

The Feast of the Sacred Heart–6/23

Admittedly, my approach to this feast is colored by 17 years of education with the Religious of the Sacred Heart. I could belt out “Coeur de Jesus” with the best of them, but secretly admired my parents for refusing to drive across town for the celebration of the feast at school. School? In summer? When we’d so recently been freed?

That wasn’t the only ambivalence. Ever the sensitive-to-hypocrisy teen, I noticed that though the talk was about love, the practical reality was a fierce discipline, a pervasive obsession with rules, silence and order. Wiser people have counseled, “Let it go!” That was simply the era, a perhaps desperate attempt to corral hundreds of chattering girls. Other writers have explained that the feast itself represents progress from 17th century piety, with its emphasis on the externals of religion.

But somehow the rigidity softened at the front gate. There stood a statue which remains an icon somewhere deep in the psyche. It was a large representation of Jesus as the Sacred Heart, with the odd heart-outside-the-body typical of that art. But more important: his arms were flung wide in welcome. His hands didn’t hurl thunderbolts or brandish law books.

The stance epitomized St. Margaret Mary Alacoque’s insight: “The divine heart…is an ocean full of joy to drown all our sadness…” When she tried to convince others of this broadly inclusive approach, authorities called her delusional. (If only the prune-faces could’ve been around when she was vindicated: for the feast proclaimed in 1856, her canonization in 1920.)

That set the stage. Then in adulthood, I could understand Richard Rohr’s superb book, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, where he explains that we can do nothing to make God love us more. “All is given all the time!” because God can’t not love.

If I could really believe that, live out of it, I’d have it made. We all would. So, thanks to the Sacred Heart for that good grounding.

Le Chambon, USA?

If you don’t know the story of ordinary French villagers saving an estimated 2500 Jews under the noses of the Vichy police and Gestapo, check out “Weapons of the Spirit” on YouTube. Over and over, those interviewed describe how the innocent were protected by people who simply called it the “right thing to do.” Word spread on the grapevine that Jews could find shelter in the village, and they arrived there hungry, tired, frightened and desperate.

Against all odds, they found safety—not a single Jew was taken; a betrayal never happened in Le Chambon. Children could continue their educations, and they were fed as nutritiously as was possible, given strict rationing. (One French family named their pig “Adolf,” for Hitler.)

The leader of the resistance was Andre Trocme, a Huguenot pastor whose tradition knew persecution first-hand. He and his wife Magda had four children, but when the 1942 order came to deliver all Jews for deportation, he took the enormous risk of refusing to participate in fear and hatred.  Read more of their story in All Saints by Robert Ellsberg.

Why does this seem so relevant today? Of the million children orphaned in Syria, the US has taken a miniscule number. Children of immigrants, even those who’ve been here 20 years or more, are afraid to go to school because their parents might be gone when they return. Deportations of even those with no criminal history who are gainfully employed have skyrocketed, splitting countless families. ICE agents lurk outside churches.

Former President Obama praised the “quiet, sturdy courage” of people who’ve risen to the occasion no matter what the crisis. In the current circumstances, each will find a unique way to resist the administration’s vicious activity, their anti-Muslim bans on travel as well as the clubs taken to environmental policy, health insurance, Medicaid and protection of the poor.  Five years ago, Walmart heirs (ONE family, the Waltons) owned more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans, and they’ve been getting richer ever since. These are the folks Trump seeks to protect with tax breaks? It makes one want to rant like the prophet Amos. More positively, the time is ripe for the US to develop its own, unique pockets of resistance like Le Chambon.

Learning from the Pope’s Stance

Dr. Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston and author of three #1 New York Times bestsellers says her research shows that the people with the deepest compassion are also those with the clearest boundaries. Pope Francis demonstrated that visibly in his recent meeting with President Trump.

While the latter grinned broadly, the pope looked dour. His usual cheerful countenance was replaced by a look of the utmost gravity. He refused to smile for any of the photo ops., leading commentators to wonder what had happened to his sunny personality.

One expert explained it this way: Pope Francis spent most of his adult life fighting fascism in Argentina, so he can smell a fascist a mile away. He could not possibly approve Trump’s plans to take health care coverage from 23 million people, to enrich the billionaires (the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart empire, would receive a $52 Billion tax cut if the administration gets Congress to destroy the Estate Tax) and gut the safety net for the poor, to trash the environment, build an outrageously expensive and ill-considered wall with Mexico and deport even innocent immigrants.

At the time, when Francis gifted Trump with his encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si,” he couldn’t have predicted how blatantly it would be ignored. Several days later, the president pulled the US out of the Paris accords on climate change. Trump might as well have tossed the careful, thoughtful document out the window of Air Force 1 over the Atlantic.

No one knows for sure the papal motives, but his stance seemed to say, “I’ll have this meeting because it is my job. But in no way will you imply my support for your terrible agenda with its total lack of compassion.”

Perhaps if the pope’s photo could be taken with the governors of CA, NY and WA, along with the numerous mayors who’ve independently signed on to the Paris agreement to reduce greenhouse gas, a trace of his smile might return.


One of the most striking sentences in the  reading from Acts (2:4) describes people speaking different languages, yet still being understood. We all know that even those who speak the same language can have a hard time communicating. Pentecost reverses The Tower of Babel story, which tries to explain why people began speaking in different languages. The people that day achieved understanding, despite their linguistic differences.


Pentecost continues today, as African students in an ESL classroom learn English and across the hall, North Americans learn Spanish. A young California woman who had emergency gall bladder surgery in a Tokyo hospital felt alone and afraid, unable to communicate with or understand her nurses and doctors. She was placed in the oncology ward because a few nurses there knew some English. But another patient broke down the language barrier. She simply lifted her hospital gown and showed the American her scar, a silent signal that she could relate to the girl’s pain.


One way to celebrate Pentecost is to appreciate the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in our lives. The processes of ordinary living are so fragile, so immensely significant, so fraught with terror, that we desperately need someone beyond ourselves. We need the warmth and power of the Spirit to help us in whatever we have undertaken.


If you look back over the last 5, 10 or 20 years, where could you could say this? “Ah yes. So you, life-giving Spirit and Guide, were there all along.”