Mary Magdalene, Disciple, Preaches to the Patriarchs in Purgatory

“When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. Now he that ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?” (Ephesians. 4:8-9)

“Then Mary stood up, greeted them all, and said to her brethren, ‘Do not weep and do not grieve nor be irresolute, for his grace will be entirely with you and will protect you. But rather let us praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us into men.’” (“The Gospel of Mary” [Magdalene], Nag Hammadi Library, the Gnostic Scriptures)

Through mazy wetland channels
Down the Styx
By light of fog and swamp gas,
Into a cavern, down to further mist
The ferry glides—
Docks by a silent green-black mead
Of sawgrass.

Translucent figures, bearded, seated,
A semi-circle, surround a woman
Gesturing with supple hands,
A prayer stole draped from her shoulders.
Some prop heads on knees, chin sideways,
They will not hear, or speak.
Others turn a shoulder to her,
Unaccustomed altogether
To women’s speech before men.

Now and again her belltone voice
Softly repeals their ancient ways
And igneous intransigence:
“In all my Holy Mountain do no harm,” she says.
They coldly gaze,
The graybeards Father Abraham with Isaac, Jacob, and sons,
Moses calling up plagues
Down to fall on enemies’ heads,
Joshua and Gideon blood-stained,
Purging the land,
David with his spears,
And garments of his trophy wives
And scrolls of battle-singing poems.

Socratically she tries to prod them–
Or is it diotimically? –
For answers.
“I had to work through harms myself,
Out of harm’s way,
Until I knew my gifts,” she grants,
“Seven Powers went out of me, they say.”
The patriarchs do not reply,
But murmur to each other:
“. . . those villages I razed and people wasted,
They were all unclean.”
“Now,” she says, “since Peter’s rooftop vision of the foods,
All blessed, nothing ill,
Everything is clean that God has made.
In all my holy mountain do no harm.

“Who is Peter?” Isaac asks,
“We don’t know anyone named ‘Rockie,’
Nor care what such a man might dream.
Moses taught respect for neighbors’ sheep and women;
They should be clean and protected.”
(Jacob cups his hand and whispers reminiscently to David
How he took Tamar by the roadside,
Daugher-in-law disguised,
And fathered yet more sons of her.)
The voice of the Magdalene peals again,
“In all my Holy Mountain do no harm.”

The length of a summer’s day she prods
In Stygian mist
And through a second day,
Till on the third she pulls from her sleeve
A pipe, and plays, hypnotically.
They slowly rise,
Still talking with each other,
And straggle in a ragged line behind her
To the ferry.
The waterman, at ease with a pole
Leans, ready to push them up to light.

The Trinity–A Travel Journal of Sunday Masses

Feast of Corpus Christi, Iowa City:

Wanting to beat the heat, I scouted for an early mass at the cavernous red-brick Church of St. Mary. On Saturday there’d been a scattering of mostly elderly people, saying the rosary with a middle-aged priest before confession time. The far end of the church presents an array of altarpiece pictures: brightly painted scenes around the central high altar piece, which used to have the broad stone altar just below it. Now of course, new style, the altar has been moved to the front of the chancel so the priest can stand behind it and face the people. Still it all seemed ethnic, south German.

I walked to ‘the Sunday 7:30,’ expecting to see a few sleepy-eyed assorted people. But no, the place was almost full, and a good-looking muscly young priest, as if right at home in farm country and with a fine singing voice, started mass by leading a stanza, a capello, of “We hold a treasure . . . in earthen vessels.” (No organist for that hour.) He said mass at what I think of as an Irish clip. His homily was short and peremptory, though he seemed intelligent–as if he could have done better but was in a hurry. I was thinking, I guess this is how things still are in the midwest. Then after the closing blessing, he suddenly announced that, surprisingly to him, he was being reassigned to St. So-&-so’s in Keokuck, and Father X from there would be replacing him here as associate pastor; this would be his last mass. A rustle of surprise greeted his announcement. Walking out the door, I saw some two dozen people gather around him to say good-byes.

Is this part of a pattern? Are some of the bishops taking a cue from the Chinese cultural revolution? Send the less conformable ones out to the boonies, where no one will listen to them anyhow? Might someone listen?

Late June, Pasadena:

St. Philip’s is another huge church, stucco and Spanishy outside, rather Italianate inside. My husband has some uncomfortable memory of this church from an earlier stint here, so does not come to the Saturday 5:00 p.m. He goes jogging instead. A mural, reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, with plump human figures, curves around the back of the chancel–a crowded scene, focusing on a central personage: St. Philip being martyred? Along the side walls of the church, long strip panels of shiny inlaid tiles present gold-tinged biblical scenes. A small altar at the right front, beneath a statue of Mary, has a large translucent blue holder with a candle burning.

A pleasant young Chicano priest with a mellow voice says mass, giving a learned homily, elucidating the three readings one by one. He ends with the epistle: “There exists among you neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor freeman, male nor female.” From there he goes to saying that we are obliged to feel how much God loves us and we love him–a favorite nunly topic for grade school kids. Can one feel something because of being obliged to feel it, I think? I listen up and wonder if he’ll be able to point a way into this ‘obligation.’ But no, he just goes back to the first reading, about the people after the slaughter at Megiddo, grieving as if for the loss of an only son, and says that’s how strong our feelings should be.

I am standing up to say the creed: “We believe in one God, the father almighty,” etc., when I feel the rear of my skirt tug away from the pew with a big piece of gum stuck and stringing. There’s a wiggly, whiny kid about ten behind me, who’s been punching his sister. I go into ‘competent-tolerant-mom-in-church’ mode and start pulling the gum loose from both ends, while bending sideways, continuing to say the creed, and rubbing each bit circularly into a bigger ball, so as to unglue it from my fingers and backside. It occurs to me that this could be a reason for not changing the creed in 1500 years. Who could remember it at such times if it changed often?

Early July, Davis Newman Center:

Masses here are noted for their intelligence, sustaining warmth, and off-the-chart liberalism. (This is the town where alley potholes are left unrepaired because their unique ecosystems of algae and clickbugs must be protected.) As you get books at the door, you look to the board of hymn numbers; the ones to be sung today with God as “she/her” have the female symbol by the number. The first will be “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard what God has ready for those who love her.”

There’s Charlie the retired university shop man, who still talks with his Jersey accent. He pipes up at the prayers of the faithful and turns his into a kind of mini-sermon with fancy words–a worker intellectual without an adequate medium. The music is up tempo, full harmony, folk-style singing with piano, guitar, flute, castanets. Almost everyone joins in with gusto. The place swings. The priest today is a visitor, but the community is so strong that he becomes both welcomed and welcomer in the momentum of the liturgy. For the psalm, each verse is read by a different person, standing up in place somewhere in the fan pattern of chairs around the altar. The last verse is, “You will show me the path of life: in your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand there are pleasures forever.”

When it comes time for the eucharistic service, as the consecration ends someone steps into the small brick bell tower, and gives the rope a few tugs for some indoor-outdoor clangs with the sung ‘Amens.’ The crackdown by the new bishop in Sacramento has changed the mode of pass-the-basket eucharist we used to have–we walk forward now, and the home-baked bread that volunteers used to bring every Sunday has been replaced by the white factory wafers. The sister assigned here is no longer allowed to read the gospel before her homily. She and Father Al read the segments of it antiphonally, then he blesses her by laying of hands on her head. The Spirit is strong here but the retrenching steps hurt.

The homily is about the trials of discipleship, from the day’s gospel reading: “keep your hand on the plow, let the dead bury their dead,” etc. The priest links them to Jesus’ prayer of “let it be as you will” in the Passion story, despite his fear and longing to give up. The priest says that any moment of our lives can pose us that kind of pain. This seems oddly post-modern, as if the business of self-construction remains ongoing through life no matter what, rather than being something finished in childhood. Or at least, maintenance and upgrading keep needing to be done on the house of the self–maybe sometimes a drastic earthquake retrofit in the basement? This is what being in California does for one’s metaphors. In Jungian terms, anima, ego, and persona must keep rediscovering a way of getting along, compromising to meet each other’s demands, or the psyche cannot thrive. For Freud I guess it was the id, ego, and super-ego, all having to be fed and not unbalance each other. Somehow it all sounds trinitarian. No wonder we tend to think of God in three persons.

As I listen, I start thinking about the trinity and the sacraments. The sacraments are Christ acting in ritual, giving us a communal presence that in turn leads us face to face with God as parent, ground of being. Christ carries us ‘up’ to ‘him,’ or ‘in’ maybe–in out of the cold. The way you come into a lit and scented church in winter, and your cheeks tingle. And then God the parent in turn emanates the Spirit, to go with us in our spread out moments–as fire of passion, or wind of change. So in a church community, there’s an ongoing circulation through these three persons or faces of God: son, to father, to spirit, again to the son, and so on. God is with us, Emmanuel, not as a thing or entity but as a live process, energizing our selfhood. The sacraments are the center and energy source of community.

Just as there’s a circulation of God in three persons in the faith community, there’s a circulation inside each believer. In contemplative or centering prayer, for instance, we put the actions of our conscious mind to rest, those thoughts and urges that are usually busy enacting selfhood–just as Christ emptied himself out in giving up life for his friends. Not because suffering is good but to take the hit of oppression himself so that they could carry on the God-filled life he had started with them. Centering prayer begins with a Christ motion of emptying out, emptying one’s thoughts; then it takes us into the fuller presence of the Spirit, who gives us sweetness and fire as divine love ‘for me.’ Through that phase, the Spirit then takes us face to face with God as ultimate parent, ground of us as valuing, yes-saying creatures (maybe then we’re attending to what Freud recognized as ‘the father of personal pre-history’–but attending with love). Then we stay in that gaze a while, dissolving into peace and losing our sense of boundaries and maybe of time. Finally, coming back around the other side of the circulation, we find the Spirit again in other forms: passion for justice, thanks and longing, creativity and love.

These in turn feed into sacramental life, so the personal circulation of triune God connects each believer into a communal circulation. And there’s an economy of exchanges. Giving up something, getting something else. Someone opening, someone closing. Replacing x with y, or displacing x onto y. Someone’s ‘yes,’ someone else’s ‘no.’ My giving, another’s receiving. Someone’s rise in status, another’s decrease for a time. My change, someone’s stasis. Some loving and enjoying, some conflict and anger. In all this there must be loss, even anguish. But in the church it can be bearable because our personal economies are, so to speak, overwritten by the circulation of triune presence. Each pain is taken up into the Christological pain, each joy into the flow of Spirit, back to the ground of the church’s calling, the god-presence as parent.

The church is still a mother, still feeding her children. A venerable image that bishops admire. The moves of authority and nostalgia shouldn’t be allowed to cut into her nurturing. Mothering is a combination of feeding, attention, indulgence, solicitude, encouragement, pleasure in the nurtured one’s responses and growth–chewing gum and all. Vatican II brought the nurturing alive, after centuries of bad parenting–at least since the counter-reformation. What are the recent retrenchments trying to do? Impose regimentation, suppression of women, dismissal without due process for church workers not submissive enough? It seeks a supposed ‘good old perfect way’—as though EWTN would show beautiful priests in beautiful lacy vestments saying changeless masses in a changeless, ghostly broadcast cyberspace, forever. So that after earth has long since fallen into the dying sun, some alien civilization can pick up the signal and watch it.

Some of this good old way goes back only a few centuries, to the Counter-reformation time in the sixteenth century, not to the middle ages even, much less to early Christian times. To be alive, the church like any living being must change and grow. Too much strait-jacketing might bring a state of affairs like the ending of the play Death of a Salesman–a spotless house and nobody home. But quite a few long-away Catholics are now returning. May we and they find new reconciliation, new hope.