Monday, May 29, 2017


Saint Mary Magdalene: Prophetess of Eucharistic Love.  By Fr. Sean Davidson, Ignatius Press, 2017.

 Who is Saint Mary Magdalene?  While most people have heard of her, the old adage about “what they think they know just isn’t so” is definitely in play here.  As Fr. Sean Davidson’s book Saint Mary Magdalene: Prophetess of Eucharistic Love illustrates, the average person has derived knowledge of Mary Magdalene from popular culture sources like The Da Vinci Code and other books and movies that provide a fictionalized and largely theoretical portrayal of her.  Even Christian-themed depictions of Jesus’s life have crafted characterizations of Mary Magdalene that may not be entirely accurate or may rely on widespread misconceptions.

 As is often the case, Fr. Davidson realized that there is a paucity of scholarly sources on the life and legacy of Saint Mary Magdalene, and there is only one solution to such a problem: to write a book of his own.  He writes:

 “All of the great works on Saint Mary Magdalene that I know of are in French.  (Perhaps there are some books of this kind in English, but I would have difficulty in providing the name of one.)  I considered translating one of the books written by Henri Lacordaire, Pierre de Bérulle or a more modern work by Jean-Pierre Ravotti.  In the end, however, I decided to take the more audacious step of putting on paper what I have come to accept as a faithful image of her who has become one of my favorite saints.”

 Before reading this book, I was completely unaware of the controversy and intense debate over who Mary Magdalene, based on the evidence from the Scriptures.  Fr. Davidson notes that there was a great deal of debate of Mary Magdalene in the early years of the Church, which culminated in a doctrinal schism between the Western and Eastern schisms, leading to a solid answer, which has recently become an open question.

 In the Bible, Mary Magdalene is a woman who was exorcised of seven demons by Jesus and who later discovered the empty tomb of Christ, later proclaiming that he had risen.  The Gospel of Luke also describes a sinful woman who repented and begged Jesus’s forgiveness, washing Jesus’s feet with her tears and hair.  Also, there is Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, mentioned in the Gospel of John.  Many faithful Christians believe– and indeed, the early leaders of Western Church argued this position– that the three women are one and the same.  In contrast, the Eastern religious leaders largely contended that the three women are separate figures, and the Eastern Orthodox Church soon made this a matter of doctrine.  Many leading Protestants concurred in this assessment.  Though the Catholic Church has a tradition of viewing the figures as a single woman, it is now acceptable for the faithful to come to differing conclusions, based on different interpretations, and indeed, there have been dramatic shifts in perspectives, leading to cultural and language differences.  In the English-speaking world, there are many thinkers who now contend that there were three different women mentioned in the Bible, but in France, many people still believe that all three are the same woman.

 Throughout the book, Davidson addresses how differing interpretations of Mary Magdalene’s past and character have been portrayed over time, before moving on to discussing how her life and legacy can be inspirational to the faithful.

 “Before we immerse ourselves in a meditation of the scriptural texts that will teach us many secrets about the interior journey to holiness of Saint Mary Magdalene, it is first necessary to mention the contemporary controversy surrounding her identity; and in order to do this, we will also be obliged to discuss some questions of an exegetical nature.  The goal of this first part of the book will be to show the reasonableness of continuing to believe the traditional portrait of the saint that the Church of ancient times painted for her children.  Since the identity of Saint Mary Madgalene is today somewhat of an open question, and since the Church has left us the freedom to reflect upon and debate it, we must also affirm that the faithful are free to reject the traditional image we will present.  The Church herself has no official position on this question, and even in her modern liturgy she no longer explicitly associates Saint Mary Madgalene with the repentant sinner of the Gospel of Luke.  In recent years there has been too much debate among the greatest of biblical scholars for the Church to propose as certain what is so seriously contested.”

 According to Church tradition, Mary Magdalene and her siblings left what is now referred to as the Middle East for what would later become France.  Evangelization proved highly successful, but eventually Mary Magdalene grew tired of a public role, and returned to private contemplation, spending her remaining years in a cave in southern France, reflecting on the loving face of Jesus.  In keeping with the traditional view that Mary Magdalene was sister to Lazarus and Martha, Fr. Davidson notes that Jesus spoke of Mary’s choice of contemplation and faith was “the better part,” while Martha’s attention to household tasks, though worthy, were in many ways lesser than spiritual devotion.

 “Saint Mary Magdalene no doubt spoke to all she met about the Risen Lord’s apparitions to her, and in this way the Catholic and apostolic Faith planted the deepest roots in the fertile soil of Gaul.  The grace bequeathed to this privileged people has never failed to produce the most magnificent examples of holiness throughout the history of the Church.  It is as though the love with which Christ loved the family of Bethany has somehow been shared with the people of France; they have received an unending stream of private revelations of that love.  Saint Mary Magdalene participated in this initial evangelization of Provence, but eventually her choice of the “better part,” that is to say, her desire to fix the gaze of her contemplative heart on the holy face of Jesus in an uninterrupted manner, overpowered her soul, and this time the contemplative vocation was never to be “taken from her” again.  She found what is perhaps one of the most perfect locations in the entire region for a life of peace and solitude, in a grotto halfway up the mountain of la Sainte Baume, and there she lived out the final years of her mortal life.”

 Additionally, special stress is placed on the greatest female figure in the New Testament– Mary, Mother of Jesus.  Fr. Davidson reflects and hypothesizes about the relationship between Mary and Mary Magdalene, and how the former’s influence may have shaped the latter’s faith and future spiritual life.  Fr. Davidson explores what an amazing thing it is to be free of sin, and to desire the love of Jesus, and how placing such goals as one’s primary purpose in life can mean for oneself and those around one.

 “What a rare and delightful creature Mary was.  Her beauty came from deep within her soul; it was the beauty of love.  Magdalene would look upon her and weep that she had thrown her innocence away.  Yet the presence of the Mother never discouraged her but brought with it a deep sense of hope.  In her company, Magdalene never felt judged, but rather loved, respected and understood.  She wanted nothing now but to become like this woman clothed in the light of holiness and who had at last shown her what… beauty really is.  She would treasure every minute she was privileged to spend in the presence of this Mystical Rose, whose warm and welcoming heart seemed to contain nothing but love.  In her was nothing ugly or insincere, and Magdalene could only marvel at this woman filled with grace!”

 In popular culture, there is also a prevalent rumor that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were romantically involved, and Fr. Davidson makes a point of debunking that belief on the grounds that it was contrary to the character of Jesus, and that had such a relationship existed or even had been likely to have existed, then it would have been well documented during that time.

 “The Lord allowed the sinful woman to approach him because it is in this contact with the real bodily presence of the Word made flesh that one is sanctified  The Pharisee, not really knowing who Christ was and thinking of the ordinary sinful tendencies of human beings, could look upon this with only great suspicion.  Like the Pharisee, certain people who read this text, who are conscience of their own sinful tendencies and who do not really know Christ, have insinuated that there may have been some kind of impropriety between Jesus and the woman.  From this have flowed numerous theories about a carnal relationship between the Lord and Saint Mary Magdalene.  The promoters of such theories have one thing in common: they do not understand that Jesus Christ is God Incarnate!  He is the Holy of Holies, purer than the angels in body and soul and the only marriage he has come into the world to establish is that between God and mankind.  The sacred humanity of Christ is the very fountain of grace and purity for all of the great saints, who because of his impeccable holiness were empowered to live lives free from the blemish of grave sin.  During Christ’s earthly life his adversaries desperately sought to find some sin to hold against him, but all they could come up with were a few distortions of certain statements he had made.  So immaculate was his life that nobody at that time would have believed he could be guilty of any base sin.  If accusing him of sexual impropriety never entered the minds of the people who hated him the most two thousand years ago, it is foolish to do so today.”

 We may not know all of the details of Saint Mary Magdalene’s life and spiritual legacy for certain, but Fr. Davidson contends that what we do know can lead us to a fuller understanding of the rewards of the contemplative life.

 –Chris Chan