She said, “I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to him, ‘Lord, I saw you today in a vision.  ‘He answered me, ‘How wonderful you are for not wavering at seeing me!  For where the mind is, there is the treasure.’

~Mary Magdalene, Gospel of Mary

I began life as a Christian child faithfully going to Sunday school every week of my life. By age thirteen I had completely rejected Christianity.  At the time I had no idea of the power of story, symbolism and myth.  I knew nothing of the way the precepts and principles of culture, gender, and family seep through our personalities leaving indelible traces of their passage.

I felt like a “misplaced zygote” an ugly duckling.  Oh, how I longed for community of like-minded people, a golden circle who loved ideas and conversation and me!   I certainly had no idea it was a spiritual community I was searching for and it is only now, in retrospect, I see, at the root of this longing, those long ago Sunday school stories of a small band of faithful companions roaming the countryside in constant dialog and conversation.

So there I was a teenage existentialist – when into my hands dropped a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  Inside it, sitting around Jubal Henshaw’s swimming pool was my golden circle.

Aside from the whole practical-mystic tenor of the book, two concepts from Stranger stand out clearly in my memory.  The first is the word “grok.”  It means to understand something holistically on an intuitive, heuristic and intellectual level.  It was my first Gnostic word.

The second concept was that of the Fair Witness.  In the book Anne, Jubal’s secretary has been “rigorously trained to observe, remember, and report without prejudice, distortion, lapses in memory, or personal involvement”.  To witness something officially she puts on a special robe of office and steps into the role of Fair Witness leaving behind any personal preference and prejudice.   Later I learned this is what a healer, a teacher, a priestess does, when she/he steps into the place of service.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the Fair Witness and about why this particular character struck me so forcibly.  I think she confirmed in me a deep sense of fair play and higher purpose.  She set me up for my encounter, years later, with the Magdalene.

In the next couple of essays I will be talking about Mary Magdalene as she emerges in the Nag Hammadi library and the Gospel of Mary.  But today I want to concentrate on her appearance in the New Testament gospels.

She first appears as a woman who has once been possessed by seven demons.  She encounters a teacher named Jeshua.  At some point thereafter he heals her of this possession by casting the demons out.  I’ll have more to say about the nature of the demons and the mystic number seven next time.  Right now I want you to think back for a minute and remember any moments of torment, confusion or terror you might have experienced in your life. 

Now multiply it by seven.

It might be that in order to witness without the distortion of entrenched beliefs one must endure a period of chaos, which, shatters all our absolutes.  Socrates said,  ‘The only thing I know is that I know nothing’.  Buddhism advocates “beginner’s mind” as the beginning of wisdom. 

I imagine, in Mary Magdalene, a mind brought to madness by a buzzing cloud of shattered dreams, expectations, idealizations, and ideologies.  Something had happened to turn her world upside down and completely disorient her.  Why else would any woman in any age be wandering around the countryside by herself acting crazy?  It wasn’t Jesus- he came later.  With a word, a touch or some simple act of kindness he brought her back to herself.  She knew who she was.  Her mind, emptied of confusion is clean, calm and replete with silence -the place of perfect witnessing.  When all things are new, all novelty has equal value. 

Imagine the balm a calm mind offers to the teacher who has been idealized, reviled, and misunderstood.  Someone who can hear the teachings without judgment or distortion.  How invaluable to have a companion who remembers one day’s journeying from the next, one supplication from another; who remembers honestly what you said yesterday or the day before, or the day before that.  And imagine how comforting it might be to have a sounding board to test your own sense of what is true.  It might keep you sane in a world of misinformation, contradiction and turbulent emotion.

There is another act of kindness a Fair Witness can provide to those around her.   She witnesses one’s life- stares with steady eyes at both triumph and disaster, at the sublime and the ridiculous, the momentous and the mundane.  Her robe of office is symbol for her training.  When she puts on the robe she relinquishes her own opinions and interpretations of what she sees.  What passes before her eyes remains your story, not hers.  A Fair Witness can remember your entire life and what it means to you.  When you look at her, rest assured that you really did glow when you were pregnant, that you did fall flat on your face walking across stage to get your diploma, that you actually caught that fly ball at the end of the ninth.  The Fair Witness is living proof that you exist, that you are real. 

Mary Magdalene did this for Christ. Again and again we see her as witness especially at Golgotha, standing without turning away, watching till the bitter end of a bloody execution.

Witnessing lies at the heart of compassion.  There is so little pain we can alleviate, so little suffering we may actually ease.  Most of the time all we can do is stand by.  “I hear you,” says the witness, “I see you.  You are not alone, some one is taking note.”  So often we shy away; refusing to look at the homeless man, the abused child, the battered wife, the palsied elder.  And so often the kindest most meaningful thing we could ever do is to look directly into their eyes with acknowledgement and comprehension.

 Today, I invite you to meditate on Mary Magdalene clothed in the robes of the Fair Witness.  I invite you to cloak yourself in that same robe and to try it on for size.

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One Comment on “Witness”

  1. saradode Says:

    I’m really excited to have found this blog! The concept of the ability to see and interpret clearly and without prejudice is something that’s been on my mind a great deal lately. Your comments also bring to mind this quote from Karen King’s book on the Gospel of Mary:

    “Mary has clearly achieved the purity of mind necessary to see the Savior and converse with him. The vision is a mark of that purity and her closeness to God. Note, too, that her stability is in marked contrast with the contentious fearfulness of the other disciples. Because the mind is not associated with the senses, it is not dimmed in the presence of the spirit. Madness and ecstasy are not necessary characteristics of true prophecy from the gospel of Mary’s point of view; rather the purified mind is clear and potent.”

    I’m afraid that that purity of vision regarding Yeshua’s mission may have been lacking in some of the interpretations, and that that has had consequences that would grieve him.

    I also agree wholeheartedly that, “And so often the kindest most meaningful thing we could ever do is to look directly into their eyes with acknowledgement and comprehension.” I’ve taught my son that, whenever he gives money or something to eat to a homeless person, it’s even more important that he look the person in the eyes and say something to him or her–as a human being to another human being who may have forgotten what it feels like to be treated as such.

    Can’t wait to read more…


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