‘Advancement in the spiritual life is ultimately learning to be attentive to Christ wherever he is present and active in our lives,” Father Sean Davidson writes in Saint Mary Magdalene: Prophetess of Eucharistic Love. Who better to teach this than Mary Magdalene, who saw the risen Christ after the Resurrection?
Pope Francis made it a point to put her on the official Church calendar, and her feast day is now celebrated in Catholic churches around the world annually on July 22. Having served two years at the Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene in Provence, Father Davidson has become an expert on this saint and her relationship to the spiritual life, as his book makes clear. He shares here some of his insights about this woman, who is so prominent in Christianity.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s the most important thing for any Catholic, or anyone, to know about Mary Magdalene?
Father Sean Davidson: In my opinion, she is one of the greatest saints in Church history. A woman who lived in such intimacy with Jesus and Mary, a witness of the sorrow of the Cross and the joy of the Resurrection, is an extremely important historical figure, not to mention a mighty intercessor in heaven.
Lopez: What is it about Mary Magdalene that might help us better understand what the Church thinks about women? About mercy?
Father Davidson: Jesus Christ taught the world by example about the sublime dignity of women. In imitation of the Lord, Catholicism is called to elevate the authentic feminine genius and vocation. According to the Catechism, Jesus founded a Church whose Marian dimension precedes its Petrine dimension. By God’s design, the Blessed Virgin Mary is the most stunningly holy human person ever to walk the face of the earth. Her “Fiat” turned around the fate of the universe. I forget who it was who rightly said: “In man’s greatest hour, man was a woman!”
In his own days, Jesus went against the accepted cultural norms, showing us in the course of his ministry that women and men were of equal concern to him. His male disciples were surprised by his behavior. It was, above all, the female disciples of Christ who understood love well enough to stay faithful to him to the bitter end at Calvary. In calling Saint Mary Magdalene to the unparalleled dignity of being the first herald of the Resurrection, Jesus ushered in a new era, in which women would be called to be among his greatest missionaries, saints, and friends.
Saint Magdalene is the exemplar of the zealous female witness of Christ to the world. There is a most ancient work on the life of Saint Mary Magdalene — which was traditionally attributed to Blessed Rabanus Maurus, (780-856 AD) but whose authorship is disputed today — in which we read that Magdalene, who ended her days in Gaul, would proclaim the Gospel publicly and that all who heard her speak about Jesus would be moved to tears. The author tells us that she would hold up her own life story as proof of the mercy of the Lord. She, who had been liberated from seven demons not only found mercy and salvation but even reached the heights of holiness and intimacy with Christ.
In my book, I tried to show her as the first woman recreated by grace in the image of the new Eve. Carefully observing the modest and grace-filled mother of Jesus, the masterpiece of God’s love, Mary Magdalene would have learned what true feminine beauty looks like. The text attributed to Rabanus confirms that Magdalene was very close to Our Lady, sharing in her own mystical experiences and “supernal contemplation” after the Ascension. In one of his homilies, Saint Francis de Sales tells us that no woman was dearer to Our Lady’s maternal heart than Mary Magdalene. I would imagine that their closeness began to take shape during the public life of Christ, since we find them both together at the foot of the Cross in the Gospel of John.
Lopez: You write in the book about how you believe, along with some Church fathers and saints through the years, that Mary of Bethany — sister of Martha and “the better part” fame — is Mary Magdalene, a belief that is a matter of some debate. Assuming that this is true, for the purpose of reflecting on the richness of Mary Magdalene’s story, you explain that ultimately “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.” What would you say to someone who thinks that sounds an awful lot like she ran away from the world? Isn’t wanting to leave the world and pray a temptation to leave all of its pesky problems behind?
Father Davidson: If one were to desire to do so simply as a means of escape, then it might well be a temptation. However, contemplatives do not run from the sinful state of the world. Rather, they are called by the Lord into something far deeper. Just as Moses obtained the victory over the Amalekites by interceding on the mountaintop, the Church always has need of souls who will devote themselves to constant intercession and sacrifice. By means of their intercession, the Church can continue to win victories in her battle for the salvation of souls.
Contemplatives do not forget the world; they hold it up by means of their prayers. I am always reminded of the story from Saint Faustina’s diary about the women renewing their religious vows. Because of their love, the world was protected from a potential chastisement. On other occasions, she received similar insights. The love of a few chosen souls can have an effect upon the entire planet. There are invisible spiritual realities and supernatural laws that require the presence of consecrated contemplative souls in the Church at all times.
Even further, those devoted to a life of perpetual contemplation and adoration serve as a reminder to us all that we are just passing through this world on our way to our true home. Their detached state of existence only makes sense in the light of Christ’s promises of eternal life, and they act as a sign that calls us to constantly renew our faith in these promises. Having said all of that, it is important to acknowledge that contemplatives do not escape the problems of human existence and will also have their own fair share of struggles. They may “leave the sinful world” in some sense, but the sinful world does not leave them. Community life and the battle to overcome oneself provide them with plenty of daily difficulties. The truly contemplative soul will also have interior sorrows to bear, of which others are completely unaware.
Lopez: How could “spiritual freedom” possibly come from celibacy, and what does that have to do with Mary Magdalene?
Father Davidson: The Tradition portrays her as a contemplative mystic who lived for God alone after her encounter with Christ. I imagine that she was like one of those great converts whose conversion coincides with a calling to live in holy celibacy. Blessed Charles de Foucauld and Saint Augustine had a similar calling. Although marriage is a beautiful and holy vocation, designed to produce saints in the midst of the world, there are always souls called to the extraordinary vocation of celibacy for the Kingdom. Marriage and celibacy are complementary, each shedding light upon the other.
The celibate state of life is a prelude to that heavenly state in which “they neither marry, nor are given in marriage” but are fully immersed in the spiritual marriage of the Lamb. I remember reading somewhere that Jesus told a contemplative mystic in prayer that what he admired most in one of his saints, Saint Gertrude the Great — who herself had a strong devotion to Saint Mary Magdalene — was her freedom of heart. Celibacy for the Kingdom is a supernatural calling to make oneself perpetually available for the Lord and his Church. Attached to nothing on earth, the celibate soul must strive to attain an inner freedom so as to be ever at the service of the Gospel.
Lopez: “We cannot be indifferent to the sorrows of the world, but we cannot let our fears become disproportionate and ruin our lives,” you write. Are we a culture that is allowing that to happen on many fronts today? Letting fear ruin our lives?
Father Davidson: It seems to me that we do live in a time of great anxiety. The world has lost sight of God’s Providence, and so it has lost sight of the confidence that helps us to remain serene, even in the midst of a storm. Christians who do not spend enough time in silent prayer can be swept along by this tendency and lose the sense of security that comes from trust in God. Useless or exaggerated fears — often about things which will never even happen — can indeed ruin people’s lives. Daily proximity to the Blessed Sacrament helps us to overcome the inner disturbance that at times threatens to overwhelm us. Jesus is the only true healer of the soul, and we need him to correct our way of thinking. Because the world is so filled with noise and distractions today, we are perhaps in need of even more silent prayer than previous generations, if we want to be able to find peace of heart. Silent Mary, whose eyes were fixed on the face of Jesus, and whose mind was fixed upon his Word, was calm and peaceful, while Martha who lacked recollection, was troubled and anxious.
I will give the last word to Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, who has some beautiful insights into the nature of Saint Mary Magdalene’s vocation. She praises her as somebody who knew how to avoid those vain and distracting thoughts, which serve only to dissipate the peace of the soul. Magdalene learned to channel her mental energies and deepest desires into contemplation of Jesus Christ, thereby fixing her spirit upon the one thing necessary (Unum necessarium): “How indispensable this beautiful inner unity is for the soul that wants to live here below the life of the blessed, that is, of simple beings, of spirits. It seems to me the Master had that in mind when he spoke to Mary Magdalene of the Unum necessarium. How well that great saint understood this! The eye of her soul, enlightened by faith, recognized her God beneath the veil of his humanity; and in silence, in the unity of her powers, ‘she listened to what he told her.’ . . . Neither empty self-esteem nor exterior things could draw her out of her sacred silence.”
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.