St. Domenic once wrote about the "Hound of Heaven"- a sense of being pursued by something that you could never outrun. And so it has been with me and Mary Magdalene. All throughout graduate school, people assumed I would write on her- after all, every year I went to France on pilgrimage to follow in her legendary footsteps . Every year, I created rituals , workshops and concerts to mark her feast day . Every year I taught seminars on her.
But somehow, I thought I was going to write a dissertation on another topic, one less popular, one no one had thought of. I had a brilliant concept paper ( a professor's words) and I was looking forward to being the one person in the world who knew all about Salome in her many faces : artistic, Orthodox, Gnostic and musical., rather than one among so very many who have done an enormous amount of wonderful research on Mary Magdalene- including Karen King, Susan Haskins, Susan Lehr, Jean Yves LeLoup, Cynthia Bourgeault . I didn't want to be one of many, and I certainly didn't want to try to compete with any of those illustrious and famous scholars. I wanted to be unique.
But a funny thing happened this fall. I began to correspond with Mark Adamo, the brilliant composer/librettist whose Gospel of Mary Magdalene will be receiving its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera this June. I had the pleasure of meeting him at an Interfaith Council meeting with the marketing department . I read his libretto, and while there are parts of his story that I disagree with intensely, it moved me profoundly- so much so that I had goosebumps and a lump in my throat.
Then I began teaching Mary Magdalene seminars again, and in them I kept encountering people who told me each week, " I wish I had known this earlier- it would have changed my life! This is a spiritual story I can relate to. This is a story I need" . As I shared the arc of the centuries of myths, I saw jaws drop. and on the last class as we engaged in Lectio Divina on the Gospel penned in her name, I saw more than a few tears.of both revelation and healing, and I received more than a few passionately heartfelt hugs at the end of class.
One way to figure out what path to take in your life to follow what is called the Path of Consolation. You pay attention to what makes you light up, for as Iraneus said, "The glory of God is a human being fully alive"; Hildegard of Bingen had another name for the Holy Spirit- Veriditas, meaning the "greening power of God", that which makes us green and juicy. She taught that what makes us filled with vitality is Divine, and what leads to a sense of dryness and aridity is the greatest sin- and we should follow the path that makes us feel ripe with life. And so as I reflected on the past month, I realized that my greatest sense of joy and aliveness came not from half- heartedly working on the project I thought I was committed to, but returning like a boomerang to the subject that has obsessed me for the better part of a decade. As I spoke to my marvelous dissertation chair, Christine Downing, telling her of my excitement about working with the opera, she said the obvious: why don't you write about THAT instead?
So, I changed my topic. My dissertation is now an archetypal exploration on the explosion of classical music that is emerging around the character of Mary Magdalene. Not just Mark's fascinating opera, but also John Adams' oratorio The Gospel of the Other Mary, Arvo Part's Woman with the Alabaster Box, and Peeter Vahi's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene.. It turns out that the topic of Mary Magdalene- especially the Gnostic Mary Magdalene- has kindled within some of the world's greatest composers the same fire that burns inside of me. Maybe you know some more musicians who are working on the Gnostic Magdalene, and if you do, I would love to hear about them, listen to their music, interview them and include them in my book
And as for the lesson in all of this, I find it pretty fascinating to note that I wrote more in three days on this topic than I did in three months on the subject I "thought" I wanted to do. It makes me remember the advice I heard once from a great artist: what matters most is not originality, but authenticity.
Ok, so half the world is in love with Mary Magdalene. It doesn't change the fact that she is the one who makes me come fully alive. And if my work can help people connect more deeply to the story through the extraordinary music being penned at this very moment, then it will be a year well spent.