Let’s just be honest, I picked you for your hair. That hair. I have hair like yours — long enough to wash someone’s feet with, without a doubt. Long enough that people recognize me by it. Even people who don’t recognize my face will recognize my hair. By their hair ye shall know them; that’s from the Bible, right?
I thought about choosing Joan of Arc or Michael the Archangel for their masculine, heroic strength and fortitude; riding into battle alongside them in the war for this world and for my soul. I have loved them both since I was a little girl — their armor, their weapons, their resolve. A girl-knight and an angelic warrior. It was close.
I almost chose Thomas Aquinas or Augustine, whose breathtaking wisdom and knowledge stunned me into intellectual submission. They amaze me, but they do leave a lot to be desired in the hair department.
I didn’t know that you were the patron saint of our diocese. I didn’t even know that was a thing. The Cathedral of the Madeleine, our mother church in Salt Lake City, is named after you. Madeleine. Magdalene. It never crossed my mind. My French isn’t very good. I didn’t realize I had sat in the pews of the only cathedral in the entire nation that bears your name. I wouldn’t have picked you if I had known. It would have been too obvious for a contrary, rebellious spirit like mine.
It occurred to me that perhaps I needed as my Confirmation saint not someone who was much braver than I am, even if he could inspire something courageous within me. Perhaps I was not called to bear the baptismal name of someone so much smarter than me, even someone with whom I could philosophize in my times of doubt and confusion. Instead, I should bear the name of someone who shared, in her life before Christ, all of my abundant weaknesses — someone who conquered them all, by the grace of God. Someone who had borne both the weight of countless sins and a really heavy ponytail.
Mary Magdalene, I chose you, as many men before me had chosen you, because you were a whore. More than just a woman of the night, in fact, your soul was completely saturated by sin. The visible demons, the invisible demons, all the evil spirits who were seeking the ruin of your soul. They consumed you. Seven demons, seven deadly sins; you had them all. Christ knows that if there were eight demons and eight deadly sins, He would have found all of them in me.
Today they would give you a CBD vape pen, a few shots of ketamine, and a box of condoms. They would tell you to buy that new Mercedes you have been wanting. That you need a little more “you time,” and better self-care. Go get that squat-booty, or not — whatever you feel like. A woman needs a God-man like a fish needs a bicycle. You have a chemical imbalance. None of this is your fault. Go have another glass of wine. Get a good night’s sleep.
Instead, you crawled through the dirt, disoriented and desperate, on your hands and knees to find Him. Christ judged you when our modern world would not have. He knew you were wicked, he knew all your sins, but He did not condemn you. He loved you. He, who knew all your sins, thought you were beautiful anyway. He told you to “go and sin no more.” Don’t. Do it. Again. You who were irredeemable, redeemed.
You loved Him for it, this man; the man you loved after all other men, the man you loved before all other men. You loved Him for telling you to stop surrendering to it all. You loved the man who would never be your lover more than you had ever loved any other man, and He saved you for it. You loved him all the more.
Christ gave you the gift of His divine grace and completely transformed you. He gave the generations to follow, sinners like me, the gift of your example. He gave us the story of you, the woman with all the demons, to teach us of His infinite mercy. To show us that no matter how wicked we are, we can be saved through Him, and with Him, and in Him.
To be totally honest with you, I get a little jealous of that. I wish that Christ would let my life be the lesson sometimes. That I could teach a little more and learn a little less.
I get jealous because I keep doing it again, Mary Magdalene, and you didn’t. I might bear your name, in spirit, as an alter Magdalene, but I am not worthy of this name, so beautiful and triumphant. I know that you went and sinned no more; you did penance and amended your life. But I keep doing it again, even though he commands me not to. I am contrite, and I am full of sorrow for offending our God. But our God didn’t give you this German soul of fire and this Irish spirit of gasoline. Talk about a hypostatic union.
Sometimes, I think that maybe if I didn’t have these kids, as you didn’t, and I didn’t have this mortgage and this Mormon husband, as you didn’t, and if I didn’t have these two coonhounds and these student loans, completely unlike you, that maybe when He judged me, maybe I could be a saint, too. Maybe even I could be a saint if all I had to do was to sit and listen to Jesus all day.
You listened to Him, and you learned from Him, and you followed Him. You wept for your Lord because you knew of His horrifying destiny. You washed His holy feet with your tears, with so many tears. You wiped those holy feet with your hair, with all that hair. You anointed those holy feet with that perfume, with all of that expensive perfume. You showed Him great love, and your sins were forgiven. For the love of God, the forgiveness of sins. By the love of God, the forgiveness of sins.
You followed Christ unto death, even to death on a cross. You held His feet that were nailed to the foot of the cross, held His feet as they bled in your hands. Beheld the hands that bled at your feet. Your tears probably fell once more upon His blessed feet. Surely, you wanted to wipe the blood off of those dying feet with your hair. But there is no wiping away the blood of the Lamb of God.
You were devastated and distraught, but we all know by now that He came back to you, and you didn’t believe your eyes. He came to you first, and you became the apostle to the apostles. The apostles didn’t believe you, but it was true. I know how that feels; I can’t even get anyone to read C.S. Lewis. They don’t believe me, either, but we know it’s true. He is risen. It is not an idle tale at all.
Then, Mary Magdalene, you kind of lost me for a minute. You moved to a cave, alone, to be a hermitess in France. Marseille. I’ve been there. It’s quite lovely. Sometimes it seems as if you just gave up and quit, and I have hated you for it. It can’t be that hard to avoid near occasions of sin in a cave. Any old cave-dweller can be a saint. I can’t go live in a cave.
You left, and I can’t leave. You got to be alone. No kids, no mortgage, no student loans. Just you and your devotion to Christ and the angels who lifted you up seven times a day to eat their heavenly bread. A penitent sinner, a repentant victim soul with nothing to do but penance for her sins and for the sins of the world.
How I have longed to follow in your footsteps, to withdraw from the world and spend the rest of my life as a hermitess, but I can’t do that, Mary Magdalene. Caves around here aren’t zoned for residential, and my books would probably get all soggy. The Bread of Angels probably isn’t on the keto diet. I don’t have the mental endurance to socialize with anyone, even with angels, seven times a day. Expensive perfume is still kinda my thing. Then, of course, there is the matter of the dogs and the kids and the house and the husband.
Maybe that’s the point. Nothing to do but penance for the world and for the sins of your past life is not nothing. Perhaps all you wanted in life was a family, a little old house in nowhere, Utah and a couple of dogs. Maybe you craved people and company and the thrill of life in the city. You were kind of a cosmopolitan lady, if I understand correctly. I don’t know that I would suffer a penitential life full of cocktail parties, small talk, and schmoozing, even for Jesus. Maybe you missed all of it, and life in a cave, in exile, was hard for you. I can’t imagine that the life of one of the Church’s most legendary penitents was easy, even if the thought of it makes me selfishly jealous. I know you suffered.
I see myself in your story, and I can only hope to live as you did. You fasted for thirty years; I can barely make it through Lent. You became the woman I have not yet been able to become. The world of today would make you into a feminist icon of ersatz masculinity, but you loved your Messiah in the unique and powerful way that only a woman loves her God.
You have taught me to be a woman, to suffer as woman suffers. To deny my selfish desires. To think of others before myself, to serve others through my own sacrifices. To mortify the many temptations of my body and even those of my soul. To exile yourself for Christ. Your sacrifices were feminine and beautiful and humble. May my own be half as noble. May my knees never cease to bend, never cease to ache from the hours spent upon them in prayer. May I destroy all of my worldly beauty in penance. May I die an ugly, old, deformed woman with a hunched back and a broken body. May I die as you died.
There have been times that I have wanted to cut all of this hair off, this hair by which everyone knows me, so that I am, ostensibly, nothing like you. Sometimes I still want to be Joan of Arc, and this hair won’t fit under a helmet very well. But I chose you, the Magdalene, and I like to think that you chose me, too. My path to sainthood will be different; I will stay when you had to leave, but God willing, I will see you in Heaven.
When the world asks me, “Woman, why weepest thou?,” may I never have to respond, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him.” Pray that I will always remember where He has gone. That He isn’t gone at all. That I may see Him. May I follow Him to the very end, as you did, because at the end of the day, all I have to do is sit and listen to Jesus.
Pray that I will remember that you are mine because you are His. I look forward to the life of the world to come, with you, my Mary Magdalene. Saint Mary Magdalene. Pray for me.
Image: Hugues Merle (1822–1881), “Mary Magdalene in the Cave” (1868).