Archive for the ‘Witness’ category

Apostle to the Apostles

June 14, 2009

Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all, addressing her brothers and sisters, “Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be irresolute. For his grace will be with you all and will shelter you.  Rather we should praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us true human beings.”

~Mary Magdalene, Gospel of Mary


I remember the first time someone told me to “walk my talk”.  I loved that statement.  It was pithy, real and simple.  Or so I thought ‑ being young enough not to know how complex and difficult those three words could get.  It is not easy to become an authentic being; a person whole enough within herself so that outer actions reflect inner integrity and wisdom.  Such becoming requires both fierce light and deep darkness.  Neither state is easy to endure.  Either can make one mad.

One of the first things we hear of Mary Magdalene is that she suffered the madness of possession.  Seven demons tormented her.  Seven has been accepted since ancient times by diverse cultures and religions1 as a magic and mystical number.  The Hindu tradition describes seven Chakras or power centers of the human body.  In the eighth chapter of the Gnostic, Gospel of Mary, the Magdalene describes the journey of the soul through seven “powers of wrath.” 

During my ordination process, I participated in a group study of this gospel and we women were excited to discover a parallel between Mary’s seven powers and the symbolic attributes attached to each of the seven Chakras.  To me, Mary Magdalene’s description in her gospel2 of the soul’s journey through “the seven powers of wrath” represents seven stages of initiation in which the human psyche moves through different levels of experience and attachment, separating out who she truly is from all the accretions, beliefs and misconceptions, which have gathered around each Chakra.  Each step brings her closer to becoming an authentic being.

Meeting the extraordinary teacher Jeshua was transformational for Mary.  She understood what he taught.  His words guided her on an inner journey of transformation.  Jeshua called the place of transformation, The Kingdom of Heaven.  Other teachers have called it “Enlightenment”, “Nirvana”, “Tao”… It is the place of all knowing- the heart of the paradox where we “gno” ourselves as the one in the many; the many in the one.   It is a place beyond words and description, which can only be approached through parable, metaphor and myth.

All the great teachers tell us that their wish and desire is for their students to become like them.  They all say it is possible and in fact easy; one must simply see and hear in a new way.  The word, “apostle” like the word “epistle” means, “messenger”.  These teachers saw themselves as messengers, carrying the information that there is another way of living and of being, another way of sensing the world.  Mary Magdalene learned what her teacher taught and she in turn taught her wisdom to others.

 And the disciples asked about Mary Magdalene,  “Why do you love her more than all of us?”2 

The answer: “Why do I not love you like her?” seems to speak to Mary Magdalene’s understanding of the Teacher’s message.  Mary has achieved gnosis- she understands the teachings completely with mind, body and spirit.  Over and over various gospels, be they Gnostic or Christian, show the Magdalene paying attention, understanding, teaching, and interpreting. 

The Eastern Orthodox Church has always honored Mary Magdalene as the Apostle to the Apostles.  Ostensibly this refers to her carrying the news of Christ’s resurrection to the other apostles.  Embedded in the story is the acknowledgement that this greatest honor was hers.  But why was she chosen above all others?  That question is never addressed.  Given the restrictions of their dogma, the Christian Church finds it almost impossible to admit that anyone, particularly a woman, could become as enlightened as Christ but clearly, as we see from the teachings ascribed to her in the Gnostic gospels, this is what happened.  Her authority as a leader, as a teacher came from the inner journey – into and back from madness where she faced her own demons and overcame them with the guidance and teaching of her beloved messenger.

So what does it mean to us?  How do we assume her title, follow her example and become an apostle to the apostles?  I think it means that the work of becoming is not an end in itself.  To what purpose do we undertake that inner journey, brave the dark night of the slog through slough of despair, find our voice, face the demons and learn to love ourselves?  We undertake it in order to enlighten others.  After we learn to “walk our talk,” after we begin to integrate and embody our wisdom, we must return to the beginning, turn the teaching around and begin to “talk our walk”.  This is the message of the Apostle to the Apostles – this is the Magdalene’s message to us.  The learning, the knowledge is the beginning of service.  Now that we “gno” what we “gno” it is our turn to teach, to inform, to carry the news, to relay the message.  The Magdalene invites us, by her example to share the harvest of our wisdom.

                                                                                                 Christine Irving©2007

 1 In almost all cultures the number seven represents:

completeness and totality

2 The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (Bg 8502,1)

3  The Gospel of Philip (NHC II 3.63.32ff)



June 14, 2009


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.