a book review
The Meaning of Mary Magdalene
by Cynthia Bourgeault
The Meaning of Mary Magdalene
1/Premise + Purpose
In writing this review, it was hard for me to pin down one overall thesis of this book; it covers a lot of ground in its 290 pages, and while Mary Magdalene features prominently, there are large swathes of this book where she is absent.
In fact, the title of the book itself might be the best description of what this book is all about: it is a broad exploration of Mary Magdalene’s significance and meaning, not just within the ‘master story’ of Christianity, but as a model for spiritual transformation full stop.
Author Cynthia Bourgeault unfolds a vision of what she believes Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s teachings would have actually focused on during their lifetimes, and what is far beyond (and in some ways, contradictory to) what we would recognize as 'Christianity' today.
If you have an interest in themes such as the relationship between spirituality + romantic love, abundance mentality, non-duality, sexuality, or 'mysticism' ... this book addresses them all and more from a unique interpretation of Magdalenic (and Christic) wisdom.
I found this a quick, but by no means an easy, read. I finished it in about two weeks, reading at a casual pace while on vacation.
The book is organized into three parts: “Mary Magdalene as Apostle”; “Mary Magdalene as Beloved”; and “Mary Magdalene as Unitive Wisdom” — but, like I mentioned above, while Mary Magdalene does feature prominently in the book, there are also large sections of the text where she is almost completely absent.
Bourgeault does not shy away from leaving Mary behind altogether while she takes the time to analyze other referenced or otherwise related passages/philosophies. This is ultimately for your benefit so that you have the necessary context for her larger argument, but when it does happen it can feel a little bit ungrounded, a bit like you're floating away from an anchoring ‘main point’.
Overall, I’d estimate that I spent an equal amount of time journaling about my own responses (both intellectual and emotional) that I was having to the book as I did actually reading the book itself. But in hindsight, I realize that the majority of the journaling I did was prompted pretty much altogether by Part Two (“Mary Magdalene as Beloved”).
Now, I'd chock that up to the fact that this section of the book touches on the issues that have been the most sensitive during my own awakening. So reading through this part of the book saw my beliefs + attitudes toward marriage, intimacy, and sexuality being consistently confronted. I had a lot of thoughts + feelings to journal! But these issues have, again, been a large part of my personal experience of awakening. Depending on what your own high-priority issues are, your mileage will vary.
Regardless, the book flows well overall if you go with Bourgeault's flow. You really can't have any expectations about where she's going next, because you'll inevitably be wrong! To me, the book felt like a raft trip down a great meandering river: the flow is consistent, but you really are all over the map.
One other thing: you will undoubtedly at times notice a tone of reactiveness or defensiveness in this book. I would encourage you to give Bourgeault the benefit of the doubt; it stems from the author’s anticipation of all the questions + criticisms that are likely to be brought up by the reader with a relationship to the Christian canon (whether that relationship is a current or even a former one).
3/Who This Book Is For
I think, most obviously, readers who are specifically interested in learning about how their romantic relationships can contribute to their spiritual growth (and vice versa!) will find a lot to chew over in this book.
But, with that said, this book is not just about romantic love, people! If you really engage with the content of this book, it will have implications for the way you are currently living your life simply because you are a human being who relates to other human (and non-human!) beings. This book’s primary interest is conscious love: love as a spiritually transformative force.
I also don't think you need to self-identify as Christian (or even post-Christian) to find the ideas in this book relevant or at least thought-provoking. Because of the fact that a large assumption this book makes is that Jesus + Mary Magdalene's true teachings were far beyond what we would recognize as 'Christianity' today, the spiritual ideas presented here cross faith boundaries. It's Christianity meets Eastern tradition meets abundance mindset.
No matter what, this book will require you to read with a beginner's mind. It gets into some pretty mystical ideas in places, and it heavily references the 'gnostic gospels' of Philip, Thomas, and Mary Magdalene, so you'll need to be open to some intellectual and spiritual stretching!
"What if, instead of emphasizing that Jesus died alone and rejected, we reinforced that one [Mary Magdalene] stood by him and did not leave? — for surely this other story is as deeply and truly there in the scripture as is the first. How would this change the emotional timbre of the day? How would it affect our feelings about ourselves? About the place of women in the church? About the nature of redemptive love?"
"It gives one a bit of a start to realize that for the better part of two millennia, Christian theology has been written, shaped, formulated, and handed down almost exclusively by celibates talking to other celibates ... We are all children of a cultural stream whose vision of human love has been shaped by the shadow side of celibate spirituality."
"Jesus's core teaching is rooted in the ground of transformed eros and brings as its fruit not only forgiveness of sins but unswerving singleness of perception. Ultimately, it is not about "clean living" and purity, but the total immolation of one's heart."
"Letting go is not in order to get something better ... in and of itself it is the something better."
"One cannot love God as an object. God is always and only the subject of love. God is that which makes love possible, the source from which it emerges and the light by which it is recognized."
"The name given to the state of restored alignment — of 'singleness' or purity of being — is 'virginity' ... We are used to thinking of virginity as something we begin with and then lose through sexual expression. In this teaching it is the other way around. Our early emergence into consciousness finds most of us scattered and confused, lost in a maze of self-images with not a clue as to who we really are. Many of us, tragically, remain in that state our entire lives. The journey toward real self-knowledge (or gnosis), toward 'restoration to fullness of being,' is at the same time the painstaking reclaiming of our own virginity, which in this teaching bears the sense of 'free, simple, and inwardly whole.' "
"A conscious relationship is one that calls forth who you really are ... we could welcome its power to wake us up in areas of life where we are asleep and where we avoid naked, direct contact with life. This approach puts us on a path. It commits us to movement and change, providing forward direction by showing us where we most need to grow. Embracing relationship as a path also gives us practice: learning to use each difficulty along the way as an opportunity to go further, to connect more deeply, not just with a partner, but with our own aliveness as well."
"Mystical commingling, shadow work, and mutual servanthood ... are all part of the territory along the ... path of erotic transformation."
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If you're looking for something similar, try ...
The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (1996) by Sue Monk Kidd