So, Holy Week just passed.1 To a non-Christian such as myself, raised in a culture honouring Christian holidays, what this means to me is bunnies and Easter egg hunts and family dinners and a long weekend where we celebrate that winter is finally over and that it’s time to bust out the strappy sandals!
But really, holy week is about Jesus and his death and resurrection. I think. Hey, since it was just holy week, how ‘bout a confession?! I have never read The Bible.
And while I go along celebrating all these holidays that sprung out of this particular religious lineage, I haven’t spent much time honouring or thinking about the Jesus part of things because I grew up basically believing that religion sucks. Not that Jesus sucks. But that religion sucks.
I was raised by a couple of hippies, who in good granola form, named me Chela. It’s a Sanskrit word meaning disciple. And while I thought it was so uncool to be a ‘spiritual student’ with a name no one could pronounce as a child, my namesake has turned out to be an appropriate one. Though I wasn’t raised religious (and have always been a bit wary of it), there was no absence of spiritual exploration in my sweetly post-modern home.
We spent a great deal of time at the Hare-Krishna temples (presumably for that delicious free food), talked about Jesus and Buddha and Krishna and the importance of non-violence and loving kindness. We went to some classes where we learned about our ‘grounding chords’ which was my first introduction to meditation at about the age of 7. Throw in some chat about Astrology, reincarnation, intuition and auras (as in “Chela, pull your aura in, your energy is all over this house!” not even kidding people.) and you have a veritable spiritual stew. The teen years brought yoga and silent meditation retreats which everyone in the family figured would be good for a girl who couldn’t shut up or stop moving.
I’ve been to church a few times, a couple of handfuls perhaps, mostly on holidays. I have never felt entirely comfortable in churches, though always awestruck by the beauty of them and moved by how palpable the sacred feels within that space, I have never felt like I belonged there. Perhaps this is because in my early teens I attended mass at Christmas time. Hundreds piled into the Catholic Church, warmly welcomed. Signs that said 'All are Welcome' were in abundance and there was a sense of cheer and community in the air. There were songs and prayers and rituals that were beautiful and fascinating and everyone but me seemed to know about how these rituals all go down.
Then there was that moment where you go up and get a bit of bread and wine, what’s that called? Communion? At this point, we were invited up. Wait, correction, everyone who had been baptized was invited up. I had not been baptized. I was to remain seated. All were welcomed in perhaps, but not really. This experience reinforced my opinion that religion is thick with hypocrisy and I carried on with my own spiritual seeking and deepening, working with whatever traditions (usualy eastern) connected with my sense that living a deeply spiritual life has a great deal to do with Love, Surrender and Humility.
Fast forward a number of years and I am hanging out with my friend Chris Dierkes, who happens to be a priest. He’s telling me about an anointing ritual he’s doing at his church, where he is Jesus and he doesn’t have a Mary Magdalene.
So I’m an enneagram type 7, if you don’t know what that means, read this. In short, I’m game. I’m a yes to life. A bit of an experience glutton, if you will, and so my enthusiasm wasn’t the least bit tempered when I offered to play the part.
Over the coming days I started feeling resistance rising and I realized that the part of me that feels quite deeply like I don’t belong started swimming towards the surface. I had offered to do this because it seemed like it would be a neat experience. I could sense that part of me thought that this was hilarious, almost like I was about to get away with something, a non-Christian playing Mary Magdalene, what a scandal! I felt anxious and ashamed that perhaps my motivation to participate in such a thing was a little less than Holy. And while I don’t identify as a Christian, I certainly am not looking to make a mockery of Christianity or these dear people whom I deeply respect who have invited me to participate.
So, what choice does a girl have but to turn this into a transformational opportunity and endeavor to fully embody the spirit of Christ energy. Whatever that means. As it turns out, I was about to find out.
Now, it should be said that this was no average liturgy, (see Chris’ description below for more context.)2 This holy event was being led by Cynthia Bourgeault, who is actually a pretty big deal. Not as big a deal as Jesus of course, but a big deal when it comes to the sacred art of embodying and spreading his teachings. And even more specifically to the theme of this liturgy, the teachings and heart of Mary Magdalene (here’s a link to her book). Simply listening to her powerful and piercing sermon is enough to wake up the sleeping heart. Getting to actually participate with her is an honour that mustn’t be understated. So, Magdalene embodied? Pressure’s on!
When I read over my lines and realized that I didn’t know what some of the things I was saying meant, I decided if I was going to honour what was being asked of us in this liturgy, I should probably eat some humble pie and ask. I apologized for my ignorance, feeling both awkward and like an outsider and continued on with my intention to bring the kind of respect that this deserved.
It was then that I realized that no one cared that I am not Christian, no one cared that I hadn’t read The Bible or been baptized. Cynthia’s presence was so disarming and pregnant with love. There was nothing about roles or backgrounds or judgments or expectations. Only love. Love was radiating out of her and love was what she was asking of me. She (and Chris) guided me through what I would be doing with such tenderness there was no room to wonder if I was welcome.
Cynthia offered that I hold what I was doing not as playing the part of Mary Magdalene, but rather to open to the part of me that is Mary Magdalene, open to being the loving embodied spirit of Mary who is within us all.
It occurred to me as I sat down in my chair, across a vast stage from Chris, aka Jesus, that what I was embarking on was a little intense. This wasn’t a play. The people sitting in the pews were not here to be entertained, but were here to participate in a meaningful ritual. This is their spiritual practice, their path of devotion.
I could feel performance anxiety arising. I had to do this right. I could feel a sense of being an outsider arising; I had to prove my right to be here. I could feel my resistance to the intimacy of such a ritual. I had to grapple with that. Then, it occurred to me, if what was truly called for was to allow the spirit of Mary Magdalene to move through me, than all that was called for was to open in love.
So I decided if the spirit of Mary Magdalene is within me, perhaps she and I could have a little chat. I guess you can say that I prayed. I asked her to take care of it. Take care of my lines; take care of walking across and kneeling before Chris, take care of anointing, the whole shebang. I promised that I would do my best to just get out of the way and open my heart.
As simple as it may seem to open your heart, it’s actually not. Give it a go, I dare ya. Try holding all your hurt and fear and then open to that. Try feeling all the rage you feel towards yourself and others and open to that. Try feeling deeply into your longing to live life in a particular way and then open to that. What I am discovering about opening in love is how much strength and humility and trust it takes. Contraction and protection are so automatic. To open fully, or even open just a little, is to be naked in our own humanity. And while I believe that it may be the safest way to live, it is quite possibly the most frightening path to go down.
As the entire congregation chanted over and over in beautiful melody, it felt obvious that opening as love requires no knowledge of scripture, no baptism, no earning of anything, especially worthiness. It didn’t matter that I don’t know the full story of Mary Magdalene because I was not doing anything. All that was required of me was to open in love. Paradoxically, when trying to open in love, there are ample opportunities for contraction. The felt experience on this day was that in order to open as love, I needed to open to every other arising experience. Cynthia led a chant, followed by all who were present: “Slowly blooms the rose within. Slowly blooms the rose within.” Hearing this over and over, one can feel the call to open, like petals of the heart blooming, the dried and dead ones falling away.
So anxiety arose and I opened. Fear arose and I opened. Cynicism arose and I opened. I could feel layer upon layer, shells and callouses giving way and falling from my heart. Every thought that emerged, I opened to lovingly. Every sound of the songs, I opened to lovingly. The thought that I was about to say a bunch of lines about kissing my beloved3 and how totally weird that is to say to a priest who is also my good friend’s husband and what the hell am I doing here…well I just opened in love to that. The front of my body began vibrating with sensation, and I opened in love. It was the first time that I have felt so fully, so deeply that there was nothing to do but love and for no other reason than for love itself.
It seemed ridiculous, the petty thoughts that kept trying to take over, to close me off, to somehow make this about me instead of about love. Watching my thoughts and fears and anxieties was humbling. The small self, that little i began kicking and screaming. I could feel disgust arise within me, suddenly concerned once again with doing this right. Opening to my own humanity and pettiness and unconsciousness is possibly the most difficult. To not judge my own limitations, but to open to them tenderly is frightening. But in this moment, held by this church, by these people, by this teaching, if I couldn’t love myself in this moment, then perhaps I could step aside and allow the love of Mary that is within me to love my fragmented, imperfect, less that holy self.
And while I could feel the cracks in the armor of my heart giving way, I looked across at Chris and realized that I was about to anoint Jesus, not Chris. This feels ridiculous to say, not being a Christian. I could feel that the anointing that was coming was both the surrendering to death and the proclamation that love transcends even death. That this ritual was not about Jesus and Mary Magdalene as people, characters or even teachers, but a call to feel into our own death and resurrection, to feel into the places where we may open deeply and lovingly to all that is arising and dying.
Now, quite honestly, I don’t know if this is even what this part of The Bible is actually about. But as I sat there, tumbling open wider and wider, I could feel all the grief of loss and death that has been so real in my own personal life over the past couple of years. The literal deaths of loved ones and the painful deaths of meaningful relationships waved through me. And as I walked across to kneel before ‘Jesus’ and then reached my hand out to place on his heart, saying the line “Place me as a seal upon your heart, for love is as strong death”, I could feel that there is nothing to be done with pain but surrender. There is nothing to be done with loss but surrender. That in the face of death, the face of anguish and the darkest, most painful night, that strength may always be found in the profound humility it takes to open past every contraction and ache in full surrender of devotional love.
I notice my own fear of narcissism in writing this account, as the whole unfolding I have been making direct correlations to my own personal experience. ME as the heart of Mary, MY own losses and deaths as represented by the death of Christ, the anointing and sitting at the feet of Jesus as a surrender to death and to the power of love to prevail beyond death as a moment for healing for MY own small self. And yet, is this not what we are meant to be doing with these teachings? Allow them to press into us, penetrate us, deeply move and open us so that the love of the divine may move through us?
This whole experience has been unexpected and deeply moving. Where I first said I’d do something because it seemed like it would fill my excessive need for new and exciting experiences, it’s lured me into a place of tenderness within myself that I have been aching for and not known how to access. I am also struck by the power of tradition, specifically this one that I have turned my nose up at in the past. I feel deep gratitude for the opportunity to be with people and participate in a liturgy where the true teachings of Christianity were alive in all their fullness.
I am deeply moved by Cynthia Bourgeault’s work and can feel right down to my bones, the Love revolution she is bringing to this lineage. Where in the past I have felt that perhaps old school religion should be done away with entirely for the sake of our collective spiritual evolution, I am connecting to a wider view of how we can use these teachings and traditions to expand ourselves. That the teachings of Love and Communion may be resurrected and that Love is stronger than any of the darkness that humanity has played out in the name of God.
The liturgy recalls the story recorded in the New Testament Gospels of a woman who anoints Jesus in preparation for his coming death. Tradition holds that the woman was Mary Magdalene (a view Cynthia also holds). When Chela/Magdalene anointed me/Jesus we were re-enacting this scene. After Mary had anointed Jesus, we then anointed individuals in the congregation, who then anointed each other.
In the ancient Jewish world, kings were anointed with oil as a sign of God’s blessing and the reception of their dominion. Oil was the common element used in ancient forms of healing (so it’s both healing and empowering). The term in Hebrew for being anointed is messiah which translates into Greek as Christos (or Christ). When someone says Jesus Christ they are saying Jesus the Anointed One.
The story in the gospels of the woman who anoints Jesus means that she is declaring him, through the anointing, Messiah and King. Rather than a King in the worldly sense, this King, a carpenter’s son and teacher, is soon headed to death. Anointing also occurred after the death of a person. Mary Magdalene is remembered (in the Gospel of John) to be the one who went to anoint the dead body of Jesus in the tomb.
In this context, the death of Jesus is seen therefore not as the bloody sacrifice to a vengeful god, but the path of total self-sacrifice in love.
Cynthia argues that by placing the Magdalenic anointing at the beginning of Holy Week, Jesus’ execution on Good Friday is bookended on both sides by an anointing by Mary. In the middle of which (on Holy Thursday, commemorating the Last Supper), Jesus washes or anoints the feet of his disciples, just as Mary anointed his feet.
3. Song of Solomon, Ch 1, verse 2….link at http://bible.cc/songs/1-2.htm