By Carol N. Ward
Originally printed in the NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2006 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Ward, Carol N. "Mary Magdalene and The Voice of the Silence." Quest 94.5 (NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2006):211- 215.
In both the Catholic and Protestant traditions, as well as the popular culture of the Western world, Mary Magdalene is portrayed by the Church as a prostitute who was redeemed by her love for Jesus Christ. However, neither the Eastern Orthodox traditions nor the Gnostic traditions portray her in this way. The labeling of Magdalene as a prostitute originated with Pope Gregory the Great when he issued Homily 33 in 591 AD (Leloup xiv). Gregory claimed that the seven devils that Jesus cast out of Magdalene were the seven deadly sins, and reinterpreted her act of washing Jesus' feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. He wrote,
She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord's feet, she now placed her mouth on the Redeemer's feet. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues. (Haskins 96)
Gregory asserted that Mary Magdalene, Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus of Bethany, and the unnamed sinner in Luke who anoints Christ's feet were all the same person (Haskins 16). And although the Catholic Church officially redacted this decree in 1969, his depiction of Mary Magdalene is still believed by many as the "Gospel Truth" (Haskins xiv). The power of one pope to change the world's perception of a Biblical character, hundreds of years after the fact, and for over a thousand years into the future, gives one pause for thought.
In reality, little is known for certain about Mary Magdalene. Indeed, even the origin of her name is unclear. Magdalene may indicate that she came from the town of Magdala (Migdal), located on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Gennesaret) just north of Tiberias. (Other sources agree with Pope Gregory that she was from Bethany.) Still others argue that Magdala means "tower, magnificent, or great," and that calling her Mary Magdalene is like calling her "Mary the Great"(Starbird 51). But, either way, she is presented as an independent woman—by place of birth or nobleness of being—rather than by husband or other male relationship as was usual at the time. This, in itself, is a clue to her strength, power, and uniqueness.
When perusing the Bible to learn more about Mary Magdalene, we find that the synoptic Gospels do not give a lot of detail on her life. But according to Leloup (8), they do agree on four points:
She was one of Christ's female followers.
She was present at the crucifixion.
She was the witness of his resurrection.
She was the first to be charged with the supreme ministry of proclaiming the Christian message.
Additionally, Mary's name is placed first six of the seven times the women who followed Jesus are listed. And, in the Gospel of John, the risen Jesus gives her special teachings and commissions her to announce the good news of the resurrection to the other disciples, for which she is often called the "Apostle to the Apostles." The Gospel of Luke identifies her as one "from whom seven demons had gone out." This reference to a cleansing has none of the moral judgment that Pope Gregory later attached to it, but can be open to other interpretations. For example, it could just as easily be postulated that her seven chakras were opened by being in the presence of Jesus. Similar transformations are documented of those who reached enlightenment in the presence of the Buddha.
In the Gnostic Gospels, we find that Mary Magdalene is shown as a prominent disciple of Jesus. Instances of this exalted status are found in the Gospel of Thomas, First Apocalypse of James, Dialogue of the Savior, Sophia of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of Philip, and the Pistis Sophia, as well as the Gospel of Mary from the Berlin Codex. These works portray Mary as one of the interlocutors in the dialogues between Jesus and his disciples. She is demonstrably a member of His inner group and well-able to articulate the teachings to those who have trouble understanding them. For example, in Dialogue of the Savior, the narrator confirms "she uttered this as a woman who had understood completely" (Robinson 252).
The Gospel of Mary presents her as a leader among the disciples. She does not fear for her life after Jesus' death, but goes forth and visits the tomb of Jesus, while the rest of the disciples hide in a locked chamber in fear of the authorities. The Savior praises Mary for her unwavering steadfastness. She experiences a vision of Jesus and receives advance teaching about the fate of the soul and salvation. It is this vision that she shares in her Gospel, which is unfortunately incomplete. Still, it is clear from this Gospel that she was a comforter and instructor to the other disciples, some of whom respected her in this role and some of whom challenged her authority.
During the sixth century, many legends of Mary Magdalene were created. It was around this time that the last temple of the goddess was closed, and the Catholic Church officially outlawed goddess worship. It was also during this time that Pope Gregory delivered the sermon that redefined her in terms more compatible with his vision of the role of the feminine in the Church. Some legends say that Mary Magdalene was a powerful preacher for a short period after Christ's death. As she was contemplative by nature, she soon retired to a cave where she fasted for thirty years, being borne up by angels everyday for spiritual sustenance. Little was heard of her for centuries. But in the twelfth century, with the rise of the grail legends, the worship of Mary Magdalene again became prevalent and churches claiming to have a relic of her flourished.
Other legends, especially in Provence, France, celebrated her as the mother of Jesus' daughter, Sarah. Sarah may be a title rather than a name as it means "queen" or "princess" in Hebrew. In Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, France, there is an annual festival from May 23 to 25 at a shrine dedicated to St. Sarah the Egyptian, also called Sarah Kali, the Black Queen. This festival originated in the Middle Ages, and is in honor of an Egyptian child said to have been brought over by Mary Magdalene, Martha, and Lazarus in 42 AD. Sarah is symbolically black because she is a secret and that only the initiated may know her true origin. There is speculation that the Black Madonnas, which were created over a span from the fifth to the twelfth centuries, and are still venerated in Poland, Spain, Germany, France, Czechoslovakia and other European countries, are really depictions of Mary Magdalene and Sarah, rather than the traditional Madonna and Child. Some proponents of this theory say there is evidence that the royal bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene flowed in the Merovingian monarchs of France. Merovingian breaks down into "Mer" or "Mary" or "the sea," and "vin" for "the vine." So it can mean "vine of Mary" or "vine of the mother" possibly representing the bloodline of Mary Magdalene and Jesus.
In twelfth-century Europe, there was a strong appreciation of the feminine, especially in Provence, where women held fief and manor by right of inheritance as early as the tenth century. The cult of Mary Magdalene heralded her as the patron saint of gardens and vineyards, the mediatrix of fertility, beauty and the joy of life. She filled the role of the love goddess of antiquity. During this time, Jerusalem was recaptured, and the Order of the Knights Templar, which has become well-known through The Da Vinci Code, flourished.
The legends of Mary, and other esoteric teachings were later forced underground by the Church through the ruthless torture of the Papal Inquisition which started in 1233. Mary Magdalene was again repressed and Mary, mother of Jesus, believed to be a virgin, was held up as the role model for women in the Church.
Mary Magdalene is making her return, but it has been slow. In 1772, a fourth-century parchment was found (Codex Askewianis). It contained the Pistis Sophia, which features a dialogue that Jesus conducted with Mary Magadelene and the other disciples. In 1896, a papyrus codex dating to the fifth century was found (Codex Berolinensis 8502). It contained two texts entitled "Gospel of Mary" and "The Sophia of Jesus." In 1945, the Nag Hammadi texts, which contained several works that made mention of Mary, including a second "Sophia of Jesus" were discovered. Some early third century Greek fragments have supplemented both the "Gospel of Mary" and the "Gospel of Thomas," one of the Nag Hammadi texts. In 2003, Karen L. King, a Biblical scholar, published Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, which places the two extant fragments side by side. It is believed ten pages of the "Gospel of Mary" are still missing.
The following is an excerpt from the Gospel of Mary Magdalene found in the book The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle by Karen L. King (16-17). It describes the ascent of the soul to heaven by the severing of various ties to the earth. Its message is very similar to that of The Voice of the Silence and describes one of the secret teachings that Christ gave to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection and picks up after a four-page gap in the original manuscript. In these four pages, the soul has conquered the first of the four powers. This power was probably named "Darkness." The excerpt begins when the soul is confronting the second power, "Desire."
And Desire said, 'I did not see you go down, yet now I see you go up. So why do you lie since you belong to me?'
The soul answered, 'I saw you. You did not see me nor did you know me. You mistook the garment I wore for my true self. And you did not recognize me.'
After it had said these things, it left rejoicing greatly
Again, it came to the third Power, which is called 'Ignorance.' It examined the soul closely, saying, 'Where are you going? You are bound by wickedness. Indeed you are bound! Do not judge!'
And the soul said, 'Why do you judge me, since I have not passed judgment? I have been bound, but I have not bound anything. They did not recognize me, but I have recognized that the universe is to be dissolved, both the things of earth and those of heaven.'
When the soul had brought the third Power to naught, it went upward and saw the fourth Power. It had seven forms. The first form is darkness, the second is desire; the third is ignorance; the fourth deadly envy; the fifth enslavement of the body; the sixth is the foolish wisdom of the flesh; the seventh is the wisdom of the wrathful person. These are the seven Powers of Wrath.
They interrogated the soul, 'Where are you coming from, human-killer, and where are you going, space-conqueror?'
The soul replied, saying, 'What binds me has been slain, and what surrounds me has been destroyed, and my desire has been brought to an end, and ignorance has died. In a world, I was set loose from a world and in a type from a type which is above and from the chain of forgetfulness which exists in time. From this hour on, for the time of the due season of the aeon, I will receive rest in silence.'
After Mary had said these things, she was silent, since it was up to this point that the Savior had spoken to her.
Desire tries to keep the soul from ascending by saying it belongs to the world below and the powers that rule it. In the soul's attempt to escape, it is claiming that it does not belong to the material world. Since Desire did not see the soul come down from the heavens, it assumes it must be from the material world. The soul says that Desire did not recognize it because Desire thinks that the garment of flesh is the true spiritual self. Desire has unwittingly admitted that it never knew the soul's true self by saying it didn't see it descend. The response of the soul unmasks the blindness of Desire and the soul passes on. This particular passage from the Gospel of Mary Magdalene resonates deeply with The Voice of the Silence, in both meaning and expression.
When to himself his form appears unreal as do on waking all the forms he sees in dreams. When he has ceased to hear the many, he may discern the ONE--the inner sound which kills the outer. (14)
And on page 15, it states,
If thy soul smiles while bathing in the Sunlight of thy Life; if thy soul sings within her chrysalis of flesh and matter; if thy soul struggles to break the silver thread that binds her to the MASTER: know O Disciple, thy Soul is of the earth.
The Voice of the Silence also tells us about ignorance: "The name of the first Hall is IGNORANCE--Avidya." (19)
In the Gospel of Mary, the power of ignorance is judging. This gives us an insight into the nature of ignorance. It is judging others without knowing who or what they are. The soul has knowledge of that which ignorance knows nothing. It states that because everything in the lower world is to be dissolved, the powers of the transitory world have no real power over the eternal soul. It is because there is a body that there appears to be sin. Since flesh is impermanent, there is actually no sin, judgment, or condemnation. Again, the power itself gives a clue as to how to escape it by saying the soul is bound. The soul is innocent because it acts according to the nature of the spirit: it does not judge others or attempt to dominate anything or anyone.
The Voice of the Silence says "Silence thy thoughts and fix thy whole attention on thy Master yet whom thou doest not see, but whom thou feelest" (32). When we do this, we are no longer ignorant. "The Dharma of the 'Heart' is the embodiment of Bodhi, the Permanent and Everlasting" (49).
The fourth power has seven formsâ€“darkness, desire, ignorance, death, flesh, foolishness and wrath. Collectively, they are called "Wrath." Wrath says that the soul is a murderer because it has cast off the material body and a conqueror because it has traversed the spheres of the powers and overcome them. Again, the soul reinterprets the charges against it. The soul contrasts the subjection to material bonds—desire and ignorance—from which it has escaped, with the freedom of the timeless realm—silence and rest—to which it ascends. It conquers Wrath and moves on. At this point, Mary herself becomes silent and models the perfect rest of the soul that has been set free.
During Mary Magdalene's lifetime, views about the judgment of the dead were combined with the idea that angelic (or demonic) gatekeepers attempted to stop the souls and send them back into bodies. These notions were based on astrological beliefs that the planets were powers that governed the fate of all beings in the world. The soul's ascent was seen as an attempt to escape these arbitrary and unforgiving rules by successfully passing through each of the planetary spheres. Sinful souls were unable to escape and were returned to the flesh. Moral purity as well as preparation for the questions was necessary to reach the higher heavens. Similarly, Fragment III, The Seven Portals, of The Voice of the Silence, also tells us how to escape reincarnation by ascending through the portals. In both texts, warnings and advice are given on how to successfully navigate the dangers and temptations to be faced.
The patriarchal model created by the Church defines women in terms of their sexual and relational roles to men: virgins, wives, mothers, widows, and prostitutes. The Church declared that Mary, Mother of Jesus symbolized the archetypal roles of "Virgin" and "Mother," and as Jesus, the Savior, could not possibly have a wife, the Church was unwilling to acknowledge Mary Magdalene as "Virgin" or "Mother." The role that was left was a prostitute, and it was assigned by Pope Gregory the Great.
But in reality, the Gospel of Mary, other legends, and apocryphal works reveal Mary Magdalene as spiritual teacher, interlocutor, and close confidant of Jesus during his ministry on earth. The excerpt from her Gospel, explored earlier in this article, shows that her message is similar to that of Blavatsky and other great esoteric teachers. This view of Mary Magdalene places her in a new role or archetype—that of the "Teacher" or "Savior." Mary Magdalene was more than just a student or disciple of Christ, she embodied his teaching and had a powerful message of her own to share. It is not her relationship to men that defines her. Mary Magdalene stands on her own as a woman, a teacher, and a spiritual leader, much like Madame Blavatsky.
Blavatsky, Helena P. The Voice of the Silence. Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Press, 1947
Haskins, Susan. Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993.
King, Karen, L. The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003.
Leloup, Jean-Yves. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 2002.
Robinson, James M. The Nag Hammadi Library. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978.
Starbird, Margaret. The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail. Rochester, VT: Bear & Company, 1993.
Carol Nicholson Ward is currently one of the directors of the Theosophical Society in America from the Eastern District. She serves as president of the Mid-South Federation of TSA and as treasurer of Pumpkin Hollow Farm. She currently resides near Charleston, SC and dedicates much of her free time to the work of the Society.