I won’t deny it: I am friends with many saints, not just a few. But there are some saints with whom I have a very particular relationship and who have mentored me throughout my life. One of these is St. Mary Magdalene.
I discovered her when I was a teenager, reading the Gospel attentively for the very first time. I had read the Gospel stories before and heard them at Mass, however with little understanding and probably little attention. But when I entered the convent as a young teenager, the Gospels suddenly became alive for me, drawing me into the life of Jesus and his followers.
There was just one problem: As I read through Matthew and Mark, it seemed like the “chosen ones” were men – with the exception, of course, of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Then I began reading Luke’s Gospel account and there she was, a woman among women followers: Mary Magdalene. Yes, I had encountered her in Matthew and Mark, but not like this! Here it was clear: she followed Jesus and ministered to Him – in many ways just like the apostles. “Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, …and many others, who provided for them out of their means” (Lk 8:1-3).
Finally! Women who traveled with Jesus and the twelve as He went through cities and villages, and the first among them was Mary Magdalene. I began to look for her in the Gospel accounts. I started praying to her, carrying on conversations with her, asking that she teach me to be a faithful follower of Jesus.
I wondered about the seven demons (I knew I had a few of my own!), but those had been driven out by Jesus and that was the only part of the story that I needed to know, which is why the Gospel doesn’t elaborate. Jesus drives out demons and heals: all demons, all illnesses.
As I collected and pieced together the bits and pieces of data that the Gospels provide on Mary Magdalene, I stood amazed before this strong woman disciple of Jesus. After Luke’s introduction, the next mention of her is again with Jesus’ Mother and the other women at the foot of the cross (Jn 19:25), when most of the men – John excepted – had abandoned their Master. I can only imagine the strength it took to remain there, listening to the taunts and the blasphemies, taking in the barbaric torture and the agony of Jesus, hearing His heartrending last words. Still she did not flee. Her presence and the presence of the women, Mary Most Holy, and the youngest disciple were one of the few consolations Jesus had in His darkest hour.
Mary Magdalene is still there as the Lord’s body is removed from the cross and laid in the tomb (Lk 23:50-56). And even when most of the others go home, Mary Magdalene takes up her station opposite the tomb and keeps vigil (Mt 27:61).
When my own father’s life ended suddenly and tragically through suicide (because of depression caused by a cancer medication), this dear Saint was with me throughout the suffering and the grief. With Mary Most Holy she stayed with me, silently comforting and showing me how to grieve. She had always been a “best friend” saint, but now she became a “soul-sister” saint.
Mary Magdalene was the first to discover the empty tomb (Jn 20:1-2). More loss. Now she had nothing physical to hang on to, not even a tomb where she could go and pray. Her tears (Jn 20:11-13) showed me that I could honor my own bereavement and the deep loss I felt, with the tears I tried so desperately to keep back.
Mary Magdalene’s tears showed me that I could honor my own bereavement and the deep loss I felt, with the tears I tried so desperately to keep back.
Through her own story, my sister-saint showed me something else: namely, that Jesus is with us amid our suffering, even when we don’t recognize Him (see Jn 20:14-16). He is gentle and tender, listening, caring, moving according to our rhythm and readiness, reaching out and calling us by name. He says our name like no other can say it. The very sound of His voice brings comfort and healing.
It wasn’t the first time Jesus had healed Mary Magdalene and it probably wasn’t the last. Each healing brought with it a call (see Jn 20:17-18). This time the call was astounding! Jesus commissioned Mary to be the Apostle to the apostles, bringing them the stupendous news of His resurrection and His forthcoming ascension! It was totally unimaginable – a woman as the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection and the Apostle sent to the Twelve!
This is the woman who has inspired and mentored me throughout the whole of my long religious life. I encountered her 58 years ago in 1963, my first year in the convent. She has been a faithful friend and confidant ever since – in sorrow and in joy, in mission and in my relationship with Jesus. Mary Magdalene is like a prism reflecting for me the life and presence of Jesus, her Lord and mine.
I believe that it’s not we who choose the saints, but the saints who choose us. Which saints have chosen you? May they accompany you throughout this graced Lenten season.
United in Jesus our Master and Lord
and in His saints,
Sr. Mary Leonora, fsp