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Elizabeth Cunningham

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The Feast of Mary Magdalen: Celebrating Incarnation

Posted: 07/20/10 06:57 PM ET

On July 22, the height of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, when fruits and vegetables are ripening, the sun us baking or steaming, cool waters are beckoning, nights are warm and full of stars and fireflies, and our senses are so engaged, the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox churches all celebrate the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene (or Magdalen, as some prefer). I know her as Maeve, the Celtic Mary Magdalen. This summer marks the twentieth anniversary of my first encounter with what might be described as an archetypal force, or, as one reader called her, an imaginary friend.

She first showed up as a line drawing: an ample woman sitting naked in a kitchen drinking coffee. (Someone recently asked, "Is she always naked?" Yes, because I can't draw clothes.) The truth is I couldn't draw at all. I was doodling because I had just finished a novel and was clean out of words. Madge, as she introduced herself to me, did not have the same problem. Speech balloons burgeoned. Line drawings gave way to full color, including fiery neon orange for her hair. (Madge-ic markers were our medium.) The ample flesh required an ample supply of a shade called peach. Madge liked to do everything naked, from eating chocolates to painting (she founded the whole-body, no-holds-barred school of art) to making outrageous theological pronouncements about the unmentionable members of the body of Christ. She made no bones about working as a prostitute to support her career as a painter. During the first Gulf War, she became a peace activist and founded such organizations as POWER (Prostitutes Opposing War Everywhere Rise).

I was enchanted with her and begged her to be in my next novel. She rejected all my book proposals as far too conventional (i.e., boring!) until one full moon night I made an imaginative leap. Madge...Magdalen. Red hair...Celt. Celtic Mary Magdalen. Hey, I said, would you be willing to be in a book about the Celtic Mary Magdalen? Yes! she answered. That's the one! That "one" is now three published novels with a fourth and final one (yes, I said final!) almost complete.

Mary Magdalen, who makes brief, dramatic appearances in the Canonical gospels and has a Gnostic gospel ascribed to her, has always appealed to novelists, troubadours, and other legend-makers -- including popes. My Maeve, an impenitent, pagan Celt who is nobody's disciple, differs from many traditional old and new-age depictions of Mary Magdalen. Yet I suspect those of us who love her may have more in common than not. Isn't her appeal that she was incarnate, a flesh-and-blood woman, whatever we know or don't know about her, who loved a flesh-and-blood man, however we want to define that love?

I would like to declare July 22 a feast day to celebrate our incarnation on this earth, something all of us alive and who have ever lived share with all existing life and life to come. We are made of the same substance; we are subject to the same joys and sufferings of the flesh. From a laboring woman's body we were born; and the mystery of death awaits us. Madge/Maeve/Mary Magdalen(e), or whatever name you want to call your imaginary friend, is our companion and witness, the force that sparks us. On July 22 dare to eat a peach. Swim naked. Open your palms to the sun, rain and wind. Stand barefoot in the dirt. Give thanks for your incarnation.

 

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