This past Wednesday, July 22, of course was the feast of Saint Mary Magdalene. In honor of the day, The Anchoress wrote this insightful meditation on tradition’s identifying her with the woman caught in adultery, to which many commenters, including me, responded spiritedly. I have been interested in the vigor with which many people — women especially, and women tending towards feminism even more especially — seek to rehabilitate the Magdalene’s “image.”
Yes, of course one wants to know the truth, but in this case that seems impossible. Real details are lost, by and large, to the currents of time. And I wonder why we care that much, when surely the past doesn’t matter to her, as she stands at the Throne of God.
I’d meant to let the subject drop, but as I was waking up this morning, swimming into consciousness and daylight, something came to me, and it seemed illustrative: something I did when I was eleven, which I’d forgotten about until now.
I’d gone with some people I knew slightly to a horse show. A girl I was with was riding in one of the classes, and when we got there, she gave me a five-dollar bill and told me to register her for the class. She was older than I was, and I was in awe of her, so I took the money and went to do what she’d asked, even though I had no idea how, exactly, one registered a person for a horse-show class.
Also, I was so paralytically shy that there was no way I would ever ask a stranger what to do. This was a source of constant frustration to my mother; she’d send me into the grocery store to buy bananas, and I’d come out without them, claiming to have forgotten what she’d told me, because the produce section had scales for weighing stuff, and I assumed that that was a necessary part of the process, and I didn’t know how to do it. I thought maybe someone would yell at me if I picked up the fruit the wrong way. Now, I realize that this is beyond ridiculous, and you can rest assured that I have taught all my children how to grocery shop from a young age, because I realize that some people need serious and detailed guidance in these matters.
Anyway, as you can maybe see, giving me five dollars and sending me off to register somebody for a class in a horse show was a certain recipe for screwing up. I did manage to find my way to the registration booth, where a bunch of hard-bitten ladies were barking out questions at people. They seemed busy; they also seemed scary. Meanwhile, I could see spread out on the counter what was clearly the registration book, each page a form with names and numbers. Nobody seeming to notice me, I slipped up to the counter and began paging through the book until I found what looked like the right class. I wrote the girls’ name in the blank for riders, her horse’s name in the blank for horses, picked up a number from a stack on the counter, and pulled the five-dollar bill from my pocket.
Here was a crisis. How much was I supposed to pay for this registration? Five dollars seemed like a lot of money for such a simple process. On the other hand, this was a horse show, and everything to do with horses was expensive. No way was I going to ask one of the ladies, who in any event were busy smoking and snapping at other people, and who might snap at me for doing the whole thing wrong, as perhaps I had. In the end, I just laid the five dollars on the counter and melted away into the crowd, hoping that that would be that.
Of course it wasn’t. First, as it soon transpired, I’d signed the girl up for the wrong class. She’d meant to exhibit in English Equitation, and I’d registered her for barrel racing, as became evident when the show announcer invited her to “come a-runnin!” And then there was the matter of the five dollars. Apparently I’d been supposed to bring back change. When asked to produce it, I panicked. Just how stupidly I had bungled the registration thing was already clear to me; I couldn’t admit that to this girl. She’d think I was an idiot. So I did the logical thing: I rifled my pockets in a frenzy of pretended searching, then said I must have lost it.
I was so busy feeling stupid that what everyone with me must actually have thought didn’t occur to me until much later. Of course my pretense at searching had been transparent; of course they thought I’d stolen the money, all two dollars and fifty cents, or whatever it was, and gotten myself a Coke or something. When they questioned me pointedly that night, I stuck lamely to my lame story; the time or two that I saw the same girl afterwards, she made remarks which indicated that I was a person not to be trusted, which I accepted because it was true, though not in the way that she thought. The incident ate at me for a while, but eventually I had other things to think about, and after a meeting or two I never saw her again.
At any rate, if I were to meet these people again — and who knows? — and if they remembered me at all, they would doubtless remember me as a thieving, dishonest little girl. The dishonest part, of course, is true. The thieving part would be something which I could interpret as slanderous conjecture, based on a little constellation of known details which seem to point in that direction, even though they don’t. Maybe after all this time I could make them believe the truth; maybe I couldn’t.
In any case, thirty-four years after the fact, I find I don’t care at all what these people think about me, or ever thought. It just doesn’t matter any more. What ate at me once has no power over me now. Part of that is the simple fact of time, and that although I am in many ways the same person I was at eleven, in many other ways I’m not.
Also, I’ve been to Confession. Once, when I’d been moved to confess some things from the past which I had forgotten until just then, my confessor at the time said to me, “But you are not that person now.” This is, as we all know, only partly true. I have within me the same capacity for sin and wrongdoing. I could lie today as easily as I lied to those people at the horse show, and for the same reasons. That I don’t, anymore, have the habit of lying, and that I do have some courage to own my faults, is the work of God’s grace alone. That I can go forward in the world as an honest person is the work of grace. In that sense, I am not the person I was, because I don’t have to be haunted, and doomed, by that person’s sins. In that light, what other people might think erroneously about me doesn’t matter in the slightest — if what was true has no lasting power, then neither does what was false to begin with.
All the same, it’s given me a story to tell, which perhaps may be a good thing in a small way. God has done good things, too, with the tradition of Mary Magdalene as a woman fallen in a particular way. A friend of mine in Nashville, for instance, has written to me about a recovery program there called “Magdalene,” for women living in prostitution. There is no wrong which cannot be turned to healing in God’s hands, and surely Mary Magdalene, whatever she was in historical fact, must rejoice at this use of her name and image, and intercede for the salvation of these souls.
Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about the Blessed Virgin Mary and how the Church thinks about her. The VGS recommends a book which he is currently reading: Fr. Faber’s The Foot of the Cross, on the Seven Sorrows of Mary.
My cousin has just called from the road; she and her two children will be here in half an hour, so I suppose I ought to help my own children find some clothes to put on. After ten days visiting family in Memphis, we just got home last night, and “disarray” is a mild word for the state we’re in.
Coming soon: a thrilling account of our drive across Tennessee, with billboards.