I fully intended to write a reflection today on Mary Magdalene. In the past she’s gotten a bad rap, mostly from historical inaccuracies, misogyny, and bad faith takes, and in more recent years is re-emerging as an inspirational saint for girls and women alike.
As I searched for previous links to share at the end today, I discovered something I wrote in 2019 that really contained all that I wanted to say and I decided to share that link instead.
St. Kateri Tekakwitha was the first Native American woman to be canonized. This was in 2012, the same year I joined the church with my ongoing attendance. It would be another two years before I came into full communion and participation.
There were many reasons that I was attracted to St. Kateri as I considered her among others while I discerned a confirmation name (ultimately choosing St. Elen of Caernarfon as many of you know).
I have always felt a connection to the Native American people and interested in their culture and spiritual practices. As kids our parents took us to the pow-wow out on Long Island with the Shinnecock Indians. It’s hard to live anywhere in New York State and not find nearby towns with Native names.
A gift from my friend in South Dakota. It is a dream catcher and it has helped me at times when I’ve had trouble sleeping. It is Native made near the sacred Black Hills. (c)2021
Kateri was from nearby; just west of the Capital District. She was born in the village of Ossernenon, now known as Auriesville. The village is mapped out at the Martyrs Shrine. After a small pox epidemic killed her family and left her scarred, the remaining Mohawk burned the village and moved (as was done when a disease ran rampant through their homes).
They moved further west and to the other side of the river to what is now Fonda, above where the current Kateri Shrine is located in the village called Caughnawaga. The footprint of the village can be seen and can be reached either by car or by walking the trails to the village and the spring.
St. Elen is my personal saint and patron. I’ve written about her on a pretty regular basis, so I’ll toss in a few links below to learn more.
In 2017, I was able to pilgrimage to one of her holy wells in Wales, this one in the town of Dolwyddelan. The picture I’m sharing will be one side of a prayer card I’m creating. I haven’t gotten the prayer finished yet, but I didn’t want to let today pass without acknowledgement.
Ffynnon Elen, Dolwyddelan – This was the article from Wellhopper where I discovered the existence of this well. I’m indebted to the writer for the information that allowed me to pilgrimage there.
There are no such things as coincidences. I was reminded of that on Wednesday while on a Celtic Day of Reflection retreat. Carl Jung called these synchronicity. Some of us refer to fate and destiny. Whatever we call it, the world is interconnected in so many ways and those random occurrences float in and around us from who we sit next to in grade school to joining a book club, and including the world of the internet which has only brought us closer together, gathering with people who share the same hobbies, music, art, and so many other topics and then quietly moving beyond them.
In 1986, I was a college junior. I was dating a boy. Until I wasn’t.
Later that year, my friend who was student teaching in England invited me to join her there for winter break. Other than a lack of money there was no reason to say no. It wasn’t like I had a boyfriend. So I joined her. She made all the plans.
I arrived on the last day of 1986, ringing in the New Year in London’s Trafalgar Square, and we were off. Wednesday’s Celtic retreat talked quite a bit about thin spaces and in a place as old as the island of Britain they are everywhere the eye can see, and more likely beyond the eye’s sight. You will instinctively know them if you’ve ever experienced them. Stonehenge is one of those places. From the first sight of the giant monoliths, I felt something. The past swirls around it and blends with the present, and in the cold dusk of January with my breath visible amongst the stones, it was almost as if I was in another time long, long ago but also right now. It was visceral, and it defies description. Indeed that is another story for another time.
From there our itinerary had us traveling west to Wales. All of it was wonderful. Adventurous, thrilling, exciting with newness around every corner. I took it all in, and enjoyed every moment in every space.
And soon we arrived in Wales. Up until that moment I thought of Wales as an extension of England – don’t tell that to the Welsh – the thought is an unforgivable sin. The sun was setting, we were walking, trying to arrive at the youth hostel before it got really dark. However, something changed. The air? The sky? The way my foot fell on the pavement? All of the above?
From the minute I set foot in Wales, I felt something beyond anything I’d ever experienced before, including that recent excursion at Stonehenge. I’ve always believed in the supernatural, the spiritual, I’ve seen ghosts and Wales was…I don’t know what Wales was, but it changed my life completely in those few moments.
It was piercing, this strong feeling that permeated every fiber of my being. I felt an ache, a calling to me as if I’d returned to a home I never knew. There was something special and the word special wasn’t enough to describe the wonder. In that moment, I became Welsh in my own way. Something mystical changed in me. Magical.
It set me on a path of a mental immersion into Wales, the Welsh people, the land, the culture, even the language. It was through the language many years later that I met a native speaker who helped me translate some fiction I was writing and through that friendship that he was able to guide me where to go when the sudden opportunity to travel appeared, and this was a key in one of those not-coincidences. He recommended Caernarfon and visiting its castle. This suggestion shaped my whole trip. I stayed at a hostel within the remaining walls of the walled town. Emerging out from under the stone arch onto the Promenade, sniffing the sea air of the Menai Strait, turning just a tiny bit left, and there, right there in front of me was the huge stone wall of one of the towers of the Castle. It was spectacular.
While Caernarfon Castle is in Wales, it is not a Welsh castle; it was not built by the medieval Welsh. A few days later, upon leaving Caernarfon I went to a truly Welsh castle, Dolwyddelan. While the castle wasn’t there at the time, this was the land where Llywelyn the Great was born and grew up in the 11th century. This was one of his many strongholds where he commanded most of Gwynedd, in the North of Wales. He built the castle in the 13th century and over the years it has been added to and restored until finally falling into disrepair.
The mist and the rain of that day only added to the mystery and the mystical. Everything is green and there are gatherings of sheep in every corner of every field or so it seems. Some were so close to the road that I thought the car would hit one or two and I honestly don’t know how they were missed. They were close enough to touch their wool from the window.
In the interim, between this solo adventure in 2009 and our family visit in 2017, I went through some emotional upheaval and through that (a much longer story than what will fit here) I joined the Catholic Church, going through the RCIA program and receiving all the sacraments of to become fully joined with the church. Like the 2009 trip to Wales, my path as a Catholic was filled with an open mind and no regrets; no second thoughts about my conversion. It is the only thing I’ve done in my life that did not foster second thoughts and questions of my conviction. That in itself was an important sign in support of my choice.
But the coincidences were not through with me yet.
While going through the RCIA process, I had need to choose a saint for confirmation. It became my predisposition to find a Welsh saint. There are not that many but I felt strongly about my Welsh connection. I had narrowed my decision down to three saints (one of whom was Welsh) and in choosing St. Elen, her patronage of travelers and introducing the monastic church to Wales were both high on my list to affirming that she was who I wanted the connection through my confirmation. There were two things that really sealed it for me. The first was something that should have stood out to me from the start and that is that Ellen is my mother’s middle name. How I didn’t see it from the beginning is beyond me. The second is how the saint is known in Wales: as St. Elen of Caernarfon.
That place I’d never heard of before my friend suggested it seemingly out of the blue.
It only cemented my choice.
I tried to do research about St. Elen, but sadly there is very little. She is often conflated with St. Helena of Constantinople, mainly because of their similar names and their sons’ similar names, Cystennin and Constantine the Great. In this research I discovered a holy well named for St. Elen and was shocked and astounded to find out that its location was in Dolwyddelan, just down the road, walking distance from Dolwyddelan Castle where I’d actually been five years before.
When we made our family trip to Northern Ireland in 2017 I decided that we would add in a pilgrimage for me to visit St. Elen’s holy well in Dolwyddelan.
It had come full circle. Arriving for the first time in Wales in 1987 at Betws-y-Coed by train and taking the pilgrimage to St. Elen’s Holy Well in Dolwyddelan in 2017, thirty years in between and a mere six miles apart reveals that coincidences do not exist, but providence does.
When I was young, I loved to read about Joan of Arc. It was many years before I discovered she was a saint. It just wasn’t part of my growing up to associate her with religion; not really. I know she talked to G-d; I mean, so did I! I wasn’t Christian so I didn’t grow up attending church. But I knew Joan of Arc. She was a part of my girlhood, like Anne Frank, another young girl, someone I could relate to who also died too young. These were my heroes.
In my recent years of finding Catholicism and spirituality, I’ve added to my “collection” of saints and saintly people. I love hearing that saints are just like us. I’ve also learned that they are an outgrowth of their times. Sometimes their lives are huge and important and sometimes their deaths are, but in a lot of times, they are just ordinary people who do or preach extraordinary things. I know that today is All Saints Day, but I was still taken aback by the number of times I was called by the saints in the last two weeks.
Once I put this topic on my calendar a few weeks ago, I spent a lot of time thinking about it and the saints I look to in my life. They do change depending on the circumstances. I didn’t start reading on any of them in particular, but I looked at the saints for the day, seeing which feast days were coming up and thought a lot of who I felt the closest to.
Throughout October, I had been attending weekly zoom presentations on Diversity in Spirituality. Last week’s lecture was given by Dr. Kim Harris of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. Her focus was on Black Americans, their experience, their worship, and their saints (and lack thereof). In addition to music and talk of the ancestors, Dr. Harris also asked the following question:
In our troubled and tumultuous times, what kinds of saints do we need or what kinds of saints do we need to be?
I was stunned into silence. That is very nearly the exact question I put on my calendar, the one that I’ve been contemplating on for the past two weeks, and here it was as our breakout room assignment!
What kinds of saints do we need in our lives right now indeed?
In conjunction to that synchronism and along with all of these thought provoking happenings, yesterday, I also attended a scheduled Day of Reflection centered on walking and praying with the saints. I had been looking forward to this day for several weeks and it did not disappoint. It also led me in my continuation of thinking about the saints and who I feel the closest to.
This was a question that I had been giving a lot of thought to, although in my mind I hadn’t phrased it quite like that at all. I’ll share a few thoughts with you.
I’ve mentioned Joan of Arc earlier. I was always enthralled by her hearing voices and following as well as being able to command an army. Maybe it was because I grew up in the feminist wave of the 70s that it seemed impossible to ignore and easy to admire.
St. Kateri Tekakwitha is a newer, local saint. Her birthplace is in upstate New York at the village where the North American Jesuit Martyrs died although they weren’t there at the same time. The spring where St. Kateri was baptized is there, and I am hoping to be in good enough shape to go through the woods to the spring sometime in 2021.
St. Elen is my personal saint, the patron of travelers and roads. I chose her for my saint’s name for my confirmation in 2014. Upon finding her, I found so many things about her that I could relate to as well as having been in her homeland, literally where she walked the earth although I did not know it at the time. I was fortunate to be able to pilgrimage to one of her holy wells in Wales in 2017, and it still gives me pause when I remember my times there.
Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein draw me back to my Jewishness and my Jewish upbringing. I know that Maximilian Kolbe wasn’t Jewish but he was killed in the camps in Nazi Germany as was Edith Stein. It reminds me that others (in Edith Stein’s case) have walked a similar path to mine.
I was drawn to Mary, Untier of Knots through Pope Francis’ devotion, and it has only grown stronger over the years. There is something very familiar about untying knots as a mother from shoelaces to necklaces to yarn and in needlework, not to mention the untying and smoothing that goes along metaphorically.
St. Dafydd is, of course, the patron saint of Wales, a place that I feel connected to since I first set foot there in 1987.
And finally, in this moment at least, Mary Magdalene. I didn’t know much about her; her life was co-opted a bit and confused with others, but what I do know and believe is that she followed Jesus from very early on. She was the first of his disciples to see him after his Resurrection, and she brought the word of his Resurrection to the apostles, becoming the first to bring the Holy Word of Jesus to others after his death. I love that she is the Apostle to the Apostles and that she is in history as someone who can possibly convert hearts to allow women priest and preachers.
Which saints are you drawn to during these difficult times of chaos and uncertainity?
Today is the feast day of St. Francis de Sales. He was born in Chateau de Sales to a noble family in 1567. He enjoyed a privileged education, eventually becoming a Bishop and a Doctor of the Church before his death in 1622.
He was canonized in 1665.
His motto in Latin is Non-excidet which translates to He will not fail or He will not give up, either appropriate for his patronage of writers and journalists.
Some of his words of wisdom may be found here, but I include some of my favorites below:
Be who you are and be that well.
Have patience with all things, But, first of all with yourself.
Such simple advice, common sense thoughts, and yet…so much more, so much to contemplate.
Admittedly, I wasn’t familiar with him until meeting my friend, Brother Mickey McGrath who is a Salesian Oblate. He is also an artist. This is his most recent offering. Clicking it will direct you to his website where you can see his other works including his books on variety of spiritual/religious topics, saints, and Popes. It is well worth your time.
Lakota Mary & Jesus with Dr. Martin Luther KIng, Jr. quotation. All rights reserved Mickey O’Neill McGrath. (c)2020
I have always been intrigued by Mary Magdalene, maybe because with all the followers of Jesus she kind of stood out. She wasn’t his mother or other family member; she wasn’t the daughter or spouse of one of his followers, but she seemed to drift in and out of the Gospels much the way the other Apostles did. She was from the same area as most of the Apostles, near the Sea of Galilee, probably from the fishing town of Magdala, which appears to give her its name.
While Jesus didn’t particularly send her on mission work away from him as he did with the other Apostles, she was there to witness His ministry and evangelize about it, traveling after the Resurrection to the far reaches of Gaul, preaching His Word there, and then spending her final years in prayer and contemplation in a cave in France, near Arles, called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Prior to her thirty years of solitude, she preached and taught after arriving in a rudderless boat, showing us modern Catholics the inclusion of women preachers from the beginning. (One needs only look to St. Brigid and St. Hildegard of Bingen for two examples that Mary was not the only woman in this role). Her journey is not well documented, and as with much of her life is sometimes conflated with both Mary of Bethany and the sinful woman (from Luke’s Gospel). However, she is mentioned by name twelve times throughout all four Gospels suggesting that had she been anyone else, it would have been mentioned. It took until 1969 when the conflation was officially removed by Pope Paul VI and she was acknowledged on her own.
For a long time, and sometimes even today, she was thought to be a prostitute or the wife of Jesus, both of which are deemed historically inaccurate. On the other hand, she was beset by seven demons, all of which Jesus drove away. She may have chosen to follow him after he performed this miracle and returned her to herself. Either way, she appears to have been a part of his earthly ministry for most of his time and then after. Unfortunately, she left behind no writings of her own.
I also find the stories of her prominence in Jesus’ discipleship believable because of John and Paul’s depiction of her in such an important and dominant part of the resurrection narrative. I have observed both of them to be sexist and dismissive of women, and so I think their inclusion of Mary gives more weight to her role as well as a stronger plausibility in my mind. In fact, in the Gospel of John, he characterizes her as the first apostle.
In appearing in all four Gospels as she did, she is shown from different perspectives and parts of the whole story of what she witnessed. Being the earliest of the four, I’m more inclined to agree with Mark’s image of the empty tomb rather than some of the other representations.
She traveled alongside Jesus as he led his ministry both as witness and disciple. She isn’t seen in a woman’s role (as Martha and Mary were in their household). She also is not an elder wise woman or a mother like Elizabeth. She asks for little if anything unlike the mother of Apostles, James and John. In fact, Luke’s Gospel talks about her support of Jesus’ ministry financially.
She remained in Jerusalem and near to Jesus for the crucifixion, his burial, and resurrection. She is the one who discovered that his tomb was empty and was the first witness of that event, and upon further scrutiny discovered Jesus himself, although she did not recognize him at first. He directed her to return to the other apostles and announce his return. She was the first one to testify to his Resurrection, and in telling the Good News to the Apostles, she is rightly called the Apostle to the Apostles.
Her feast day is today, and a few of her patronages are close to my own heart. In addition to places she is patron of, she also watches over and intercedes for apothecaries, contemplative life, converts, and women.
O God, whose Only Begotten Son entrusted Mary Magdalene before all others with announcing the great joy of the Resurrection, grant, we pray, that through her intercession and example we may proclaim the living Christ and come to see him reigning in your glory. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. John 20:1-2, 11-18
On the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.”Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb and saw two angels in white sitting there, one at the head and one at the feet where the Body of Jesus had been. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”She said to them, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.”When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.”Jesus said to her, “Mary!”She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,”which means Teacher. Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,”and then reported what he told her.
As I set out my writing schedule for the rest of this month and next month, I was surprised at how much randomly drew my mind back to my childhood, my “girl”-hood and the heroes I had as a young person. They’ve returned to me over the years in one way or another. I wrote briefly yesterday about my recent encounters with Harriet Tubman. Next month is the birthday of Anne Frank who I loved and revered as a child, and who I will write about then. The CW network has a new series coming out in the fall of Nancy Drew! I loved the books, still do, and the series with the Hardy Boys from the 70s/80s. Laura Ingalls also comes to mind and of course her television counterpart, Melissa Gilbert.
Today, however, is the feast day of St. Joan of Arc. As a child learning about and reading about her, I don’t think I knew she was a saint. We weren’t Catholic, so my only exposure to Joan would have been through school books and history books as well as book reports and those types of school assignments that I was expected to do.
I have always believed in voices from beyond or experiences that don’t always fit neatly into our boxes to be tied with a ribbon. What’s funny and ironic in that belief is my usual cynicism that grabs onto any and every thought, but meeting ghosts, hearing voices, seeing visions, I almost accept universally, although myself more while less so from others along with a healthy grain of salt.
Like me, Joan of Arc was a girl. She sat under a tree and contemplated and when she heard the words from G-d, she was not immediately accepting, but she acquiesced to her duty. She changed her clothes, her ways, taking on the mantle of a soldier, cutting her hair short, donning a helm, armor and gauntlets and boots. She was determined to do G-d’s will, and she wouldn’t back down despite the lack of seriousness the men offered to her words. She boosted the French army’s morale.
They would eventually follow her to victory.
Was she fearless?
Probably not, but she had faith. Not faith in her survival, but in following G-d’s guidance and trusting in his will.
She was taken prisoner by an English faction and was put on trial for heresy by a pro-English bishop. The determination was already set; it was nothing more than a show trial. I was taken by some of the questions they asked her and the answers she gave.
In one exchange, they asked about when she saw the vision of the Archangel Michael and wanted to know if he was naked. I think that this was a real moment of misogyny (amidst all of the other examples of medieval misogyny) to try and embarrass her or suggest that this wasn’t G-d’s work, but some child’s fantasy.
Question at Trial: “Was he naked?”
“Do you think God has not wherewithal to clothe him?”
In the end, Joan of Arc was found guilty and was burned at the stake. She knew she was being punished by man; not G-d.
And it wasn’t long after, twenty-five years that the church reversed itself. Pope Callixtus III pronounced her innocent and declared her a martyr. She actually wasn’t officially canonized in 1920.
She is the patron of soldiers, prisoners, and people ridiculed for their piety among others.
As with Harriet Tubman, there was a alot more here than I ever learned, and I’ve only scratched the surface.
My favorite quote of hers with context:
Question at Trial: “Do you know if you are in the grace of God?”
“If I am not, may God place me there; if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest in all the world if I knew that I were not in the grace of God. But if I were in a state of sin, do you think the Voice would come to me? I would that every one could hear the Voice as I hear it. I think I was about thirteen when it came to me for the first time.” – Joan of Arc
Please take the time and read The Song of Joan of Arc by Christine de Pizan. This link that I’ve shared also includes the transcripts of the trials and other documents. I think you’ll find them fascinating.
Today is the feast day of my own saint, Saint Elen. There is little known about her, but I still find what is available about her fasinating. It’s taken me more than a few years to complete this project, and hopefully next week, I will have actual cards made for anyone who wishes one, but for now, I’d like to share with you the prayer card I made for my patron: St. Elen.
Sr. Thea Bowman was born in 1937 on December 29th. This was in Mississippi and her parents named her Bertha. She was the granddaughter of slaves; her parents were a doctor and a teacher. She was raised Methodist, but when she was nine years old, she converted to Roman Catholicism. At 15, she joined the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.
Over the years, she received a B.A., a M.A., and a PhD in English and then went on to teach. She also received an honorary doctorate in theology from Boston College. She was a poet, a preacher, and a teacher, and she used all of those embodiments to bring a light to her calling that couldn’t help but be infectious to her contemporaries and those of us who have come after and continue to read of her works.
“When we understand our history and culture, then we can develop the ritual, the music and the devotional expression that satisfy us in the Church.”
Her “ministry of joy” led the Diocese of Mississippi to bring her on as a consultant for intercultural awareness. In reading up on Sr. Thea, I really preferred this descriptor of intercultural rather than multi-cultural. It feels more natural to me. A person who knew her called her “the springtime in everyone’s life,” a visual that leaps out in color and light and blue sky.
Imagine what more she could have done and influenced in the past twenty-nine years had she not died at the young age of 52, on today’s date in 1990 of bone cancer.
There are at least twelve institutions named for her from Boston in the east to as far west as Illinois.
The Diocese (of Mississippi) has begun the research into Sr. Thea’s “heroic virtues” after which a cause for canonization can be opened in Rome if warranted.
Two of her written works you could look into for more from Sr. Thea are:
Families, Black and Catholic, Catholic and Black. Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference. Commission on Marriage and Family Life, 1985.
Thea Bowman: In My Own Words. Liguori, Mo.: Liguori Publications, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7648-1782-3. index of Bowman’s speeches, writings, and interviews, with a brief biographical sketch and epilogue (with Maurice J. Nutt)
I will leave you with her own words that spoke to me prayerfully earlier this week:
“Maybe I’m not making big changes in the world, but if I have somehow helped or encouraged somebody along the journey, then I’ve done what I’m called to do.