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The Meaning of Mary Magdalene

The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity
by Cynthia Bourgeault
Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2010
289 pages
Reviewed by Kathryn Madden, CND

“To call the impact wrenching would be an understatement. People were blown wide open, then put back together in a space that most had never encountered before, at least in a Christian context” (189). In The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, this is how diminutive, but dynamic contemplative Cynthia Bourgeault gives voice to a powerful reenactment of Mary Magdalene’s actual or figurative anointing of Jesus and refreshingly, Jesus anointing Mary. However, Bourgeault’s words also capture well the stunning, transformative spaciousness I experienced in allowing my spirit to be blown to bits and put back together by her magnificent portrayal of the relationship of Mary Magdalene and Jesus as “total immolation of the heart” (29) across the realms of death, anguish, and awakening new life: “And Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained standing there in front of the tomb (Matthew 27:61).”

Bourgeault offers us an extremely rare blend of brilliant, balanced scholarship on the Gnostic gospels and breathtaking perspective on bridal mysticism. She provocatively raises the issue of the true nature of the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Was it one of voluntary celibacy or Eucharistic sexuality? Talk about blowing things wide open!  Bourgeault was introduced to the startling term of Eucharistic sex by an Australian priest and filmmaker. She writes, “Once I got over my initial shock, I realized he had hit the nail on the head. ‘Eucharistic sex’ basically equates to: ‘This is my body, given for you.’ Along a Fifth Way path, sexual expression is characterized by two overarching qualities: total transparency and total self-outpouring” (143).  Not without hinting at where the pendulum swings for her, Bourgeault concludes that “either way they would have been fine” (147).

This certainly has the potential to free her readers from the unconscious conditioning of the master story central to their Christian upbringing. More intriguingly, it frees Bourgeault to be about exquisitely interweaving threads of kenosis, abundance, and singleness into a “wedding garment” (125) of the path of conscious, “substituted love” (148) as the most inclusive of all spiritual paths. The result is so overwhelmingly fragrant that we can scarcely take it in.

The cover captivates. The content compels. Bourgeault is sure to engage and stir spiritual directors to a genuine deepening of their own relationship with God, their greatest resource in sitting with another person when offering spiritual guidance. After all, spiritual direction ultimately is transparent and an out-pouring of care that anoints and heals.

Kathryn Madden, CND, completed spiritual direction training in the Christian Spirituality Program at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, USA, and at the Center for Religious Development in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. She is currently on the team of the Cenacle Retreat Center in Ronkonkoma, New York, USA.


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