Minutes of Retreat

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April 5, 1998

Location: Bergamo Conference Center

Retreat Topic: Mary Magdalene in the Jewish and Christian Traditions

Speaker: Annamaria Swank

PRESENT: Connie Breen and Ruth Precker, Co-chairs; Arthur Auster, Judy Auster, Maria Bakari, Bert Buby, CarolAnn Cannon, Ernesto Maria Caro, Phyllis Duckwall, Shirley Flacks, Erika Garfunkel, Felix Garfunkel, Agnes Hannahs, Bette Jasko, Bob Jasko, John (Jack) Kelley, John Magee, Eileen Moorman, Bill Rain, Donald Ramsey, Ken Rosenzweig, Harold Rubenstein, Sophie Rubenstein, Lou Ryterband, Robin Smith, Dieter Walk, Suzie Walk, Betty Youngkin, William Youngkin.

Connie convened the Retreat at about 1:15 PM. Harold Rubenstein delivered the invocation which was based on the Jewish song, Dayeinu, typically sung at the Seder on Passover. It is a "round" based on the theme, "Had God brought us out of Egypt only, it would have been enough." Bert then introduced the speaker, Annamaria Swank. She has a Masters in Library Science and a Doctorate in Art History. Her book on Mary Magdalene is scheduled for publication. Bert then discussed how the topic of Mary Magdalene is of interest for Christian Jewish Dialogue. He noted that the more we know about the others religion, the deeper will be our commitment to our own. This contributes to the atmosphere for dialogue. In focusing on Mary Magdalene, the retreat attendees will learn to appreciate the important role of heroines and saints in the Christian tradition. Bert noted that Annamaria speaks many languages fluently. At this point, those persons who were attending a Dialogue event for the first time were introduced.

Annamaria began her formal presentation at about 1:25 by showing a slide of a painting of Maria Magdalene by Donatello. She believes this represents her personal image of Mary Magdalene, a woman who was consumed by the love of God.

Annamaria noted that when she was in elementary school, her nanny braided her hair. When she asked to go to school with her hair loose, her nanny forbade it, saying that only the bad women like Magdalene leave there hair loose. Annamaria noted that in the 70's, she was a leftist and was religiously unaffiliated. However, in 1986, she was in Florence, where she was invited to a magnificent event, the first Exhibition on Maria Magdalene, Sacred and Profane. This exhibition stimulated Annamaria's curiosity about whether Mary Magdalene was a wayward woman. As a consequence, she went to Rome to talk to a Vatican official about Mary Magdalene, and later decided to write a book about her.

The name of Magdalene evokes in the Christian tradition a prostitute who later became a saint. The identity of Mary Magdalene is thus problematic. A study of the gospels, reveals that three women were actually conflated into one: these included an unnamed prostitute, Mary Magdalene, and Mary Bethany. Annamaria then asked Father Bert to read a portion from Luke, chapter 7, 36-50, in which Christ is invited to dinner with Simon the Pharisee. A woman bathed Jesus' feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and put ointment on them. Mary Magdalene's sins which were many have been forgiven. In John's Gospel, chapter 12, Judas asked why the ointment was not sold for money for the poor. Also in John, Mary Magdalene is presented as going to the tomb and being the first to observe that the stone was removed and the body was gone. Later the disciples came and also observed that the body was gone. Mary Magdalene remained weeping at the tomb. Jesus appeared to her as a spirit and asked her not to hold on to him. From the time of Gregory the Great onward, these three women were considered to be one. The sinner of Luke is interpreted in Christian tradition as being a prostitute. There is a question whether Mary Magdalene is a suitable model for women and the feminist movement. We will see that in fact she represents knowledge and faith.

We should look at Mary Magdalene in a different way. Annamaria noted that Mary was a Jewish woman living in a Jewish society. There is nothing wrong with the fact she was beautiful. The problem is to see how Mary related to the women of the Jewish society of her time. There is a tradition that after Jesus died, she preached and returned to Ephesus. There is another tradition from the seventh century that she went to the south of France to escape her pursuers and there she also preached. Afterward, she decided to go into a cave where she lived for 30 years, seeking repentance. Afterward, she rose to heaven. She became the most powerful saint in the Christian tradition. What is important for us to explore is the meaning of her for us.

Erica asked why Mary Magdalene would need to flee since the Jews had no power to kill anyone. Annamaria replied that this fear is in the tradition. Magdala, the town from which Mary Magdalene came, is on Lake Tiberias. An understanding of Mary Magdalene is important in dialoging between Christians and Jews. We should try to look at Mary Magdalene with as much objectivity as possible. Taking account of our different agendas, we can build a place where we can talk. She is an expression of faith and love. Anna believes she was the follower of some Canaanite religion. When she met Christ, she understood. The symbol of Mary Magdalene can help counterbalance the misogyny that has sometimes appeared in the Christian tradition.

At this point, Anna showed some slides of paintings of Mary Magdalene. Arthur asked from what tribe she was and when she was raised to sainthood. Anna replied that her tribe is unknown. She began to be considered a saint in about the seventh century in the western tradition, but she was considered a saint earlier in the 3rd or 4th century in the eastern tradition. In the eastern tradition, she is considered particularly important. In the western tradition, it is often denied that Mary Magdalene was the first to see the resurrected Christ. Instead, it is claimed that Peter was first. However, in eastern tradition, it is acknowledged that she was the first to see the resurrected Christ. She became the symbol of the spirituality of that tradition and was associated with asceticism. In the Renaissance, she became a representation of wisdom. A study of Mary Magdalene can tell us a lot about the duality of body and soul. This is what makes Annamaria love her. Mary Magdalene is someone who can teach us how to live in faith and love.

In 1500, there was a terrible scandal when a writer claimed Mary Magdalene was actually three women. Dieter said that he understood that in the Catholic tradition to be raised to sainthood, one must do miracles. He asked what miracles Mary Magdalene had performed. In reply, Annamaria said that soon after Mary arrived in Provence, she preached to a prince who nevertheless refused to convert to Christianity. Later, the prince's wife and son died. Then the prince dreamt of Mary Magdalene and decided to converted. This was considered a miracle.

Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of the perfume makers, glove makers, abandoned children, and coiffure. She saved bad women. She was popular in the Middle Ages as a miracle maker. One of the most common images of that age was Mary Magdalene in ecstasis. She is in love with the divine. Anna fears that feminists are killing this wonderful image of Mary Magdalene.

At this point, Anna showed slides of more paintings which included Mary Magdalene. Many of these were from the Counter Reformation (16th century reform movement in the Catholic Church in response to the Protestant Reformation). In the Counter Reformation, the Church issued a lot of directives to painters so that they would be faithful to the tradition. Anna Maria read an interesting article about covering the hair in the Jewish tradition. It is not clear whether this was required at the time that Mary Magdalene lived. In the Greco-Roman tradition, loose hair was associated with unmarried women. Since many of the paintings show Mary Magdalene with loose hair, she may have been breaking the tradition of the time. Also, coming to a dinner with Jewish men was unacceptable by the mores of the time. However, she does this because of her faith.

Another painting illustrates a story from Luke and John. Jesus is invited to the house of Martha. This image has bothered many feminists. However, the message is that women can be either scholars or housewives. As long as there is the love of God, women can pursue either role. Mary Magdalene is always portrayed in a very tender way. Anna believes that Jesus and Mary Magdalene truly loved each other. We do not know whether there was a carnal element, but whether or not a physical relationship existed is not very important.

Various other paintings that Annamaria projected from slides showed Mary Magdalene dressed in red or with red or blond hair. These are symbols of her sexuality. She is also often presented as prostrated at Jesus' feet. Shirley asked why there are so many different images of Mary Magdalene. Bert added that the name means a woman of sorrow and a woman of the sea. Someone asked whether Mary Magdalene's actual name was Miriam.

Breakout Groups

At about 2:45 PM, five breakout groups were formed to discuss the question: "With whom would you compare Mary of Magdala in the Hebrew Scriptures?" The retreat reconvened at 3:30 PM. Bert introduced Father Ernesto Maria Caro. Ernesto is from Monterey, Mexico. He has been studying in Italy, and is now working on his S.T.D. at the International Marian Research Institute under the guidance of Bert Buby on the topic of Mary's perpetual virginity.

The breakout group reports focused on the characteristics of Mary Magdalene of boldness, faith, strength, sexuality, and willingness to break with tradition. A group characterized the relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus as agape. This is defined as non-sexual love which does not expect any reward. The list of comparative heroines from the Hebrew Scriptures included Bathsheba, Ruth, Deborah, Judith, Esther, Tamar, and Naomi. One group mentioned that the "washing of feet" means a lot more than the physical act. It is pregnant with symbolism. Someone suggested a twentieth century parallel to Mary Magdalene in Princess Diana. Like Mary Magdalene, Princess Diana made many mistakes but she tried to make the world better.

Second Session Led by Annamaria Swank

Annamaria began speaking again at 3:50 PM. She emphasized that she wanted the Retreat attendees to find if there are analogs to Mary Magdalene in the Hebrew bible. She noted that Mary Magdalene is a very mystical person. The progression of the three women who she constitutes represent the evolution of a woman from darkness to light.

Annamaria then asked Bert to read from the Song of Songs. Bert read a passage illustrating the very sexual poetry, "Let me kiss you . . . ." Harold said he has always interpreted the Song of Songs as a love story between two people. However, the Rabbis interpreted it as love between God and the people of Israel. The retreat attendees discussed whether there a difference between these two forms of love. Annamaria noted that until she went to college and studied under an atheist professor, she was not allowed to read the Hebrew Bible. She feels that the love between man and woman is only possible in relation to what God wills. Eileen compared the love between Mary Magdalene and Jesus to the love between Jacob and Rachel.

Ken asked about the relationship between love and commitment. Anna replied that there is a strong relationship. Maria Bakari said that the message of Mary Magdalene is the resurrection (or healing) of the human spirit. It is not just a story of a woman, but rather of every human being. Annamaria said that Mary Magdalene was a Jewish woman living in the first century. But, afterward, she became a strong symbol for forms of Christian spirituality. She is a transformative symbol. Dieter compared Mary to Miriam. Annamaria then asked Bert to read from Luke's gospel, chapter 8 which tells the story of seven devils cast out by Jesus' preaching.

Ken asked about the comparison between Mary and Mary Magdalene. Anna said they are never together in the scriptures except at the Cross. She views the two Marys as complementary. Bert read a passage from John about the events at the Cross. Standing near the Cross were all people who were important in Jesus' life, which included Mary Magdalene and Mary (John 19:25-28).

During the first century of the common era, it was very popular to worship goddesses. One was Diana or Artemis. Cults were oriented to these goddesses. One very famous cultic temple was at Ephesus in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Prostitutes inhabited the temples of these cults. Women were attracted to these cults because they provided them greater independence than was generally available to them in the society of the time. Braided hair was associated with the women of these cults. Mary Magdalene was an unmarried woman without children; she is associated with the cultic tradition of Ephesus--having braided hair. Annamaria said that we are not at all wrong when we resist identifying Mary Magdalene with the sinner in Luke. Annamaria maintained that Jesus opened a colloquium with women as equals. Felix commented on his experience visiting Ephesus and seeing the great temple of Artemis there.

Annamaria said she believes people die because of their own sin, not original sin. That is why she appreciates the story of Maria Magdalene so much. Mary Magdalene represents a profound duality.

There was a break at 4:45 PM, and the Retreat reconvened at about 5:00 PM.

Closing Session

In this session, Annamaria showed more slides of paintings. In a mediaeval fresco from the south of Italy, Mary Magdalene is a symbol of charity and hope. She is also a symbol of transformation and wisdom. In another painting, which feminists hate very much, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a rich lady who rejects all her jewelry and possessions. It was painted by the Flemish artist, Mathias. A painting from the Victorian period shows a sensual Mary Magdalene with blonde flowing hair. In this period, women were often seen as objects of men's pleasure. Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a femme fatale, a woman who causes men to sin. She wears flowers around her head, but she is a witch. Another painting is of the harlot Mary Magdalene, with a vase for holding poison for poisoning men.

A painting from the Baroque Period focuses on female vanity. A woman is looking in a mirror. From the back she is a beautiful woman, but in the mirror, she is aging. The point is that nothing lasts forever except the love of God. The woman wears a white flower in her hair which is at the same time a symbol of sexuality and the possibility of purification.

Another painting is of Mary Magdalene and Christ on Easter morning. Mary is a beautiful woman, portrayed somewhat surprised. She is overwhelmed by a great emotion, and Jesus is expressing loving emotion toward her. There is an analogy to the Song of Songs. The picture is like a bride and bridegroom, but it represents not just the love between man and woman but the possibility of a new covenant between mankind and God.

Another painting is of Maria Magdalene attempting to touch Jesus, but she is very sad because she knows she is about to lose him forever. Annamaria loves this very strong woman. She does not have flowing hair in this painting. Perhaps she is Jesus' wife.

Another painting is of Mary Magdalene with the dead body of Jesus. She is crying, expressing the pain of a woman who has lost her man. A painting by Caravagio shows the ecstatic lover of Christ. Pleasure and pain are expressed in Mary Magdalene's body and face. Another painting was by a priest. A nude picture of Mary Magdalene which is sadomasochistic. Another painting of a nude Mary Magdalene by a woman shows a beautiful young girl who is asleep and dreaming of her love. She is tranquil because her lover sees not just her body but her whole person.

Another painting of Mary Magdalene shows her hand on her breast as a symbol of her violation. A painting by Donatelli is of a repentant Mary Magdalene. It is very sensual. A painting by Titian shows Mary Magdalene covering her nude body with her hands. Her facial expression is looking up. She is a whole woman including body and spirit.

Another painting is of Mary Magdalene with an expression of great sorrow. Annamaria would choose this painting to show the pain of the Holocaust. A Caravagio painting is of a young innocent girl.

The Retreat concluded with the playing of a videotape of Maria Magdalene's song, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Broadway show and firm, Jesus Christ Superstar.

Connie thanked Annamaria and Bert warmly for their presentations.

The Retreat adjourned for dinner at 5:55 PM.

Respectfully submitted,

Ken Rosenzweig, Secretary


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