Being Mary: Holy week, even for the not-so-Holy

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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.

eucharistThen 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.


 1. Western Christian Holy Week- April 17-24

 2. The worship service we participated in was created by Cynthia Bourgeault, based on an earlier version she had witnessed at a monastery in France.  

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.
Jesus is following Mary Magdalene’s example and this way of envisioning Holy Week is one in which Jesus gives as he has received.  We see Mary Magdalene as one who accompanies Jesus throughout the entire process of his last days:  anointing, Last Supper, Crucifixion, The Tomb, and the Resurrection (where Magdalene is recorded as the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection).  

The story of Mary anointing Jesus is a deeply sensual, even erotic one.  Cynthia told me that one of the main problems (in her mind) with Western society is that we always immediately turn Eros into sexuality.  I'll say that, from my experience, that energy manifested between Magdalene and Jesus (Chela and I).  This was mainly Chela's doing.  She deeply entered the space and really gave herself fully into it.  People afterwards told me that it was the most intimate thing they had ever witnessed--some even mentioned that at first they felt they were intruding on what was an intensely intimate (but not sexual) encounter between the two of us.  I can certainly say that church has never seen anything quite like that done it in all its years.   

 3. Song of Solomon, Ch 1, verse 2….link at

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  • Comment Link Chloe Monday, 09 May 2011 19:24 posted by Chloe

    Wow Chela, this piece is deeply moving. I even teared up a few times (OK, that may not be too surprising given who I am)- your naked vulnerability is so apparent.

    As your good friend who happens to be Chris' wife, I can honestly say that I am so glad that you and Chris shared this rich and deeply profound experience. Few people would have brought such transparency and Heart to the liturgy.

    You are such a twinkling and courageous woman who continues to inspire me.

  • Comment Link Sandy Hughes Monday, 09 May 2011 19:58 posted by Sandy Hughes

    Awesome, Chela! Simply awesome... the timely opportunity, the profoundly deep experience and the brilliant sharing. Nice!

  • Comment Link chela Monday, 09 May 2011 21:13 posted by chela


    And your comment made me cry! (again, not surprising.)

    Sandy! Thanks for the love.

    Here's to a love fest people. opening...

  • Comment Link Miriam Monday, 09 May 2011 21:32 posted by Miriam

    Brilliant, Chela -- inside and outside and all around deeply penetratingly brilliant. Thank you for opening us so fully to the experience and for sharing this with us. My Heart is open wider now. Much love, Miriam

  • Comment Link mihee Tuesday, 10 May 2011 02:32 posted by mihee

    Dear Chela, thank you for writing this. The beauty of the evening transpires through your words. It's a gift to be writing like this and I'm grateful you took the time to share this.

  • Comment Link Catherine W Tuesday, 10 May 2011 22:16 posted by Catherine W

    Just to clarify a point, and having gone to university with a bunch of theologians, the Greeks described 7 types of love, of which Eros is only one. There is agipe, philae and so on, not sure of rest. Agipe/agape is the strongest, refering to a breaking of bread together, philae is I think related to friendship. Saying Western society always turns Eros into sexuality is an incorrect expression as Eros is the sexual type of love as defined by the Ancient Greeks. It is better to say Love is always thought of as Eros by Westerners. There is a part of one of the gospels that doesn't translate well because of the lack of distiction where Jesus asks Peter(after his resurrection) "do you love me Peter" 3x. One of those times philae is used instead of agape which is actually why Peter gets upset as the strength of feeling implied is less.

  • Comment Link Isabelle P. Tuesday, 10 May 2011 22:40 posted by Isabelle P.

    Dear Cgela,
    It seems to me that you were aching to let go of some old toxic emotions. This was a perfect setting for you, so it seems.
    Personally, I can't stand chanting or any religious type of gathering, so it would probably not have worked for me... Love is a kind of energy that can be found anywhere if one bothers to look for it!

    Good for you though!

  • Comment Link Catherine W Tuesday, 10 May 2011 22:41 posted by Catherine W

    p.s. it was a lovely and moving experience to read about

  • Comment Link Dutch Bieber Tuesday, 10 May 2011 22:45 posted by Dutch Bieber

    As you began I was suspicious. But you showed me that it can happen honestly, and be deeply involving.

  • Comment Link OV Saturday, 14 May 2011 01:59 posted by OV

    This was a beautiful experience in many ways. It was nice to read Chela's perspective and the background leading up to this. For us sitting in the audience there was no performance anxiety, though those that had been to Cynthia's workshop earlier that day were given a heads up that they would be participating as well. After Chris and Chela anointed each other there were tiny oil pots passed out and each person would first be anointed and then anoint another. I found it very emotional, and I suspect that most everybody did since I saw lots of smiles and tears combined in soft and gentle faces. I liked this nonhiearchical nature of the first century church, and Cynthia's effort to bring this back into practice.

  • Comment Link Ottolien Saturday, 14 May 2011 18:42 posted by Ottolien

    You beautifully put words to a profound experience. I attended a retreat where we took part in this anointing ritual and it’s truly transformational.

  • Comment Link Leslie Hershberger Wednesday, 18 May 2011 22:21 posted by Leslie Hershberger

    Chela, this rocks.. thanks for the post...I pilfered a big long quote from this piece for my blog and sent people to this link so they could enjoy the whole thing. Chris told me he was playing Jesus in the ritual and I was imagining it all in my mind. Thank you for bringing it a little closer. Beautiful.

    As a teacher of an Integral Christian lineage, I share something Cynthia said last weekend in Boulder. She said she wonders often if we are hospice workers helping people gently allow their old religion to die or a midwife to a whole new way of Be-ing Kind of Christian. I am finding that we are 78 year old mother told me she can finally let go of Catholicism's tenacious hold. Another told me she is letting go of her anger and feelings of betrayal. Ultimately, it is about your experience: transformational Love and deep communion. Thanks so much, Chela.

  • Comment Link Kimberley Rome Sunday, 22 May 2011 15:21 posted by Kimberley Rome

    Chela, Thank you! Authentic, surrendered, BEAUTIFUL, transformational. My heart to your heart, Sister!


  • Comment Link Katrina Rivers Sunday, 05 June 2011 13:10 posted by Katrina Rivers

    what a gift to read your piece - a visceral experience and reminder as I begin my day.... to open... open past habit into other ways of being
    thanks for writing

  • Comment Link Amy MacLeod Thursday, 29 December 2011 22:42 posted by Amy MacLeod

    Chela, your sweet authenticity moves me a great deal. I had the marvelous experience of having Cynthia on this island home for a few years and having her teachings on a regular basis.

    Gratitude still prevails as I read her books, read her blog, watch her videos.

    Things happen when we open to these teachings. I so glad you had the experience.

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