March 2023 Newsletter

Holy Week Silent Wisdom Retreat and Events with Heather Ruce

Presence: Forest of Fear and Joy

by Paula Pryce


The following is part 2 of a Holy Week reflection provided by Paula Pryce from Vancouver, Canada. You can read the first part Absence: Forest of Longing here.



Forest of Fear and Joy


I throw open the gate to rushing wind and creaking branches.  Not knowing what lies ahead, I step into the forest with my companions, fear, awe, and more hesitantly, joy. 


Like many, perhaps even like Mary Magdalene, I have found myself increasingly worn by heavy times.  A veil of uneasiness and loss had shrouded me.  I dared to hope that I could free myself of chafing isolation, stand again in the forest’s open arms, and remember the hidden flow of bright, expectant trust. 


So I headed to the mountains of southeastern British Columbia, near where I grew up, for a month alone in a woodland cabin.  A privilege to sit on a mountain’s shoulder when people everywhere have clamoured for mobility and space.  Around me towered the Selkirk and Purcell ranges and before me lay the deep, dark waters of Kootenay Lake.  This enormous land and its formidable inhabitants – eagles, cougars, grizzlies – reminded me of my childhood perspective on humanity.  Rising cliffs and glaciers, still black water, impenetrable forest all show up our smallness. 


Kootenay Lake forest


I learned as a child in the mountains how the smallness of everything creates the great whole, woven together by the Divine’s glistening web.  Now I sought to remember that panoramic vision and wait with patience for the Beloved who connects us. 


Beneath the forest’s cloak, I crafted my days as do the monks with whom I have studied:  my own version of a Benedictine rhythm of ora et labora, or prayer and work.  My prayer stool sat before a makeshift windowsill altar, adorned with incense, candles, and an icon of Christ Pantokrator, and also an increasing collection of treasures:  scaly bark, jewel-toned lake pebbles, lichen, feathers, and marbled fragments from a wasp nest.  Like steadfast friends who together watch and wait, they accompanied me in pondering ribbons of pearly light on branches, water, and peaks. 


There I prayed and meditated four times a day.  In between I cooked, washed dishes, read, and wrote.  Mostly I walked. 


Using ears and eyes and heart in that extended silence and stillness, I sought to attune my senses to the Divine as I stepped along the path.  I listened intently and something began to take shape.  Over my hours and hours walking through that ocean of trees, something magical emerged.  Magical and completely ordinary. 


I began to sense the flowing undercurrent of the Divine, and I began to find my courage.  Courage to keep my vigil in the face of absence and death and uncertainty.  Courage to trust the age-old wisdom that all shall be well.  


FlickerI had not noticed before that ‘courage’ is very like the word ‘cougar.’  Each day I headed out into the temperate rainforest with cougars and bears hidden around me.  Their tracks told the tale, leaving no doubt about my vulnerability.  I cannot say that they did not inspire fear.  As I hiked, I found myself stopping and listening, scanning the forest for movement and sound:  the flute-like warble of a Varied Thrush, a chipmunk’s chittering, the rare thrum of distant noontime avalanches, a waterfall’s roar, the ratatat of Western Flickers foraging in the larch.  


Still, I ventured deeper.


Before I left the city, I knew that spending time in solitude in such a powerful landscape might cause old darknesses to rise in me.  As a young girl, when I felt threatened by the creeping mist of uncertain others, I learned to ask for God’s protection by invoking a circle of light around myself.  I hadn’t called on that Divine circle of light in a great long time.  I had forgotten.  Now seemed like a good time to try again. 


But as an adult with greater experience and knowledge, a defensive desire for self-preservation seems too much like a refusal to love.  Can we be sent forth to love and serve if we recoil and fence ourselves in?  Maybe that circle of light could transform from a tool of resistance and exclusion to a field of receptivity and welcome.  Could I imagine receiving a bear or cougar with love?  Could I see them as my neighbours? 


This is when I sensed a shift.  Choosing to stand vulnerable and open despite fear, I was surprised to find the stone cast aside and the tomb empty.


Before me, on the ragged juniper-edged trail, lay the remains of a freshly killed deer.  My adrenaline rose and my heart raced, alert for the territorial hunter.  But there was only silence.  There she lay with gentle unseeing eyes and fur the colour of linen.  Her twisted flesh and sinew lay scattered and torn like a shroud shaken off and flung into a corner.  Red cedar sentries stood nearby, with angel hair lichen and glowing robes of chartreuse moss. 


“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” they whispered.


Shafts of light pierced the forest canopy.  I sensed the Beloved rise.



With a mixture of fear and joy, I turned quickly to retrace the overgrown path.  Certainly, an aggressor could be at hand; there was a chance that I could be hurt.  But I had chosen, with God’s help, not to let that control me.  Like Mary Magdalene unsure and frightened at the mouth of an empty tomb.  The Gardener calls her by name, and only then she understands and sees.  Mary Magdalene takes her awesome fear and runs with it, full of vibrancy and joy, to tell the world that He is come. 


‘Yes!’ is the only possible answer.


How dense the forest is, how alive with trundling beetles, emerald ferns, and cliffside hemlocks risking themselves to eye the sparkling lake.  The mountain lion spreads herself languorously, keeping watch atop a verdant, mossy boulder. 


How splendid and how terrifying is the transformation of death to life. 


The Beloved radiates his field of love, generosity, and peace.  We dare to trust, and find that absence transforms to presence and fear transforms to joy.  Should we be surprised by the dissolution of fear? 



Easter 2021

Vancouver, BC


Paula Pryce is a cultural anthropologist and writer at The University of British Columbia who studies contemplative religions and ritual aesthetics. Her latest book, The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2018), includes ethnographic research with Cynthia Bourgeault and the Wisdom Christianity community. She is a board member of The Contemplative Society.





Absence: Forest of Longing – by Paula Pryce

The following is part 1 of a 2-part Holy Week reflection provided by Paula Pryce from Vancouver, Canada.


Forest of Longing


Absence mills around the body like a guard dog pacing the fence line.  Rigidly keeping off the night creatures, jealously defending its property.  I am within a picketed sphere of isolation.  Longing, despair, confusion at the memory of the banquet torn to pieces, guests fleeing, music stopped.  Not long ago the home was filled with shining lamps and food for all – now desolate in an endless stand of trees, mist creeping inward from the wetlands, penetrating the outer walls however much the dog may growl and bark.  


We have little choice but to brave absence this Holy Week. 


How the year has taken its toll.  Perhaps at first we were secretly exhilarated to be holed up and quiet.  A contemplative’s dream:  the world finally sees the necessity of stillness and seclusion.  We know that not everyone perceives our circumstances as vibrant potential, but nevertheless, solitude now has cachet, even nobility and valour.  How curious and refreshing to be in a world that is not entirely at odds with us.


Yet the novelty has passed, as months melt one into another.  Family, friends, and all of society suffer. The weight of days bears down. Anxiety rises over our vulnerabilities, collective and personal.  This has become a year of letting go and hanging on in equal measure.  Like an expanded Holy Week with no Easter yet in sight. We are like Mary Magdalene and the disciples, who don’t know where this is headed.  Are we sensing into a mammoth shift that requires our stillness and attention – and also our loss – or are we in freefall?  Is this the swamp that putrefies or purifies the water of life? 


An unexpected space has shambled open at my centre, not so clearly the contemplative openness of invitation and peace, but something more like a ravening maw.  However much I keep my practice of meditation and prayer, absence has begun to take me. 


I am surprised.  Have I not prepared for this necessary, desired dismantling?  Illness and death among family and friends, research at a standstill, writing projects crumbling like ancient papyrus exposed to sun and air, unspoken tensions surreptitiously rising in households, income lost, bills unpaid, loneliness, hunger.  If we who adore solitude have thus diminished, how can those who are in real need of lively, face-to-face interaction prosper in the enforced enclosure?


I hear the forest beyond the cabin walls, beyond the dog-stalked boundary.  At dusk the curling mist inches along the forest floor from wetland bogs, breaching my perimeter.  As I meditate, my hands sense the approach and gesture inquiry, fingers barely open like in-folded flames of delicate salmonberry buds, or in darker moments, like the spotted turquoise pincers of crayfish grasping in gravelled eddies, so eager for food to come their way. 


The mist lingers and moves imperceptibly over the rippling stream.  Shoots of cloudberry, sundew, and Labrador tea peek through sphagnum moss, a hint of possibility.  The mist edges through the understorey at the base of greater life: salal, Douglas fir, and yellow cedar.  It creeps towards me as I sit immobile, not knowing the way forward or back.  The bog mist creeps over the lotus of my meditating body, toward forlorn emptiness.  A gaping gash that cannot be sealed, memorialized, or lightly forgotten, but instead yawns to be filled, like Good Friday’s empty tabernacle.


Mary Magdalene didn’t know. Nor do we.  This story has no dramatic irony, where the liturgical actors are comforted in their knowledge of how the rite will end.  We don’t know if we will once again thrive, if our livelihoods will stabilize, if social and political institutions will ossify into harder battalions or transform for the good of all. We don’t know whether we are adequately equipped to respond and adapt to what may be a greater reckoning.


But that forbidding mist condenses into droplets that slake the thirst, leaching down into earth.  The water that seems stagnant and putrid in the muck of duckweed and slime filters still and quiet, ever more deeply, through peat and mud, silt and gravel.  In its own time, marsh water seeps into the torn body and unseeable depths to become a flow of pure groundwater seeking the right place to emerge.  What appears putrid may be the channel of purification.


The forest sounds begin to draw us out beyond the fence: rushing wind, chortling raven, creaking branches.  The aching cave of absence turns into the cave of the heart where we await the Beloved.  We cannot alone heal the absence but, like Mary Magdalene, we can choose loyalty and love, and thus keep our vigil, however unsure we may be. 


There is a tangle of underbrush in me:  parsing the harsh reality of mourning with the responsibility of consenting to the Divine on behalf of all.  I cannot pretend to understand the depth and breadth of the underground streams of the pain body that can be collectively nudged towards transformation.  I cannot pretend to fully grasp the enigmatic facets of intentional suffering – an intercession of purity, spaciousness, and generosity that seeks and welcomes the Divine regardless of our pain.  Humility is the best correction for my temptation to fake that knowledge (that I am beyond suffering or that I understand its purpose).  Despite me, despite my lack of clarity and fortitude, the forest mist condenses, seeps, and flows while I attempt spacious, generous, and pure attentiveness in the face of world-rending absence.


A steadier time may be at hand.  Steadier breath, when hands can again be put to work and eyes can again be opened and mouths can again form words.  Underneath, the waiting continues.  The vigil at the tomb.  The longing. 


I see now that the tomb is myself.  My cracked centre is the fissured rock face awaiting Christ’s body.  I hold the death; I throw open the gate to the forest wind and whirling mist. 


Who would agree to cradle death except for the sake of love?  Our only choice now is to wait at the tomb.


Maundy Thursday 2021

Vancouver, BC


Part 2 forthcoming on Easter: Presence: Forest of Joy

Paula Pryce is a cultural anthropologist and writer at The University of British Columbia who studies contemplative religions and ritual aesthetics.  Her latest book, The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2018), includes ethnographic research with Cynthia Bourgeault and the Wisdom Christianity community. She is a board member of The Contemplative Society. 





The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (Dialogues One and Two)

This post was originally published at on January 29, 2015.

Manuscript - Mary MagdaleneIt is amazing that something so tiny could pack such a punch. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is tantalizingly brief—and, frustratingly, two major sections are missing, reducing the original seventeen manuscript pages by more than half. Yet what remains is more than enough to radically overturn our traditional assumptions about the origins of Christianity. In four tightly written dialogues, the gospel delivers powerful new revelations on the nature of Jesus’ teachings, the qualifications for apostleship, Mary Magdalene’s clear preeminence among the disciples, and the processes already at work in the early church that would eventually lead to her marginalization. Since it also contains a unique glimpse into the actual metaphysics on which Jesus based his teachings, this is a foundational text not only for devotees of Mary Magdalene but for all students of sacred wisdom.

The manuscript was not recovered among the Nag Hammadi trove. It first came to light in 1896, nearly half a century before the Nag Hammadi find, when it was discovered by a German collector in an antiquities market in Cairo. But, due to a series of lengthy publication delays, the first German scholarly edition did not appear until 1955. It would be twenty years longer before an English version appeared and still another twenty years before popular editions became available.

For all practical purposes, therefore, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene entered public awareness at the same time as the Nag Hammadi material, and since they clearly belong to the same spiritual stream, it makes sense to consider them together. Particularly with the Gospel of Thomas, there are striking overlaps in both content and theology.

The manuscript itself is a fifth-century Coptic (i.e., Egyptian) version of what had almost certainly been an earlier Greek or even Syrian text.1 In 1917, and then in 1938, two Greek fragments dating from the third century were indeed discovered, confirming the antiquity of the original text and the esteem in which it was held by the earliest Christian communities (only important manuscripts are recopied)…Karen King assigns the original text to the first half of the second century. If her argument is correct, this would place the Gospel of Mary Magdalene within the earliest strata of Christian writings, roughly contemporaneous with the Gospel of John.

Unfortunately, the Greek fragments did not yield any new material to fill the holes in the Coptic version; barring some unforeseen miracle, what was written on those ten missing manuscript pages (pages 1–6 and 11–14) is lost to us forever. But, because of the thematic and structural tightness of the remaining material, the second of these two holes lends itself easily to imaginative recon­struction and, depending on how closely one assumes that this text echoes the Gospel of Thomas, the first six pages of Jesus’ introductory metaphysical dis­course can also be fairly well construed.

Mary Magdalene and JesusEntering the Text

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is in many ways much closer to drama than to narrative. It is constructed entirely in dialogue, and the exchanges are so lively that they lend themselves easily to a staged reading or even a full-fledged reenactment…2

The manuscript’s four dialogues (or “scenes,” if you prefer to think of them that way) lay out as follows:

(Pages 1-6 missing.)
1. Jesus’ final teachings and instruc­tions to his disciples (Manuscript pages 7-9).
2. Mary Magdalene’s words of encouragement to the disciples (page 9).
(Pages 11-14 missing.)
3. Peter’s invitation to Mary Magdalene to share with them some of the “secret” teachings of Jesus, and her visionary recital of “the soul’s progress” (pages 10, 15-17).3
4. The dispute among the disciples and its resolution; Levi’s charge and words of dismissal (pages 17-19).

There are several translations now available to choose from…I will be working from The Luminous Gospels, a new translation of the gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdalene, and Philip prepared by Lynn Bauman, Ward Bauman, and myself, published in 2008.4

Dialogue One

…”[T]ell us about matter. Will it survive or not?”

The Savior answered:

“All of nature with its forms and creatures exist together and are interwoven with each other. They will be resolved back, however, to their own proper origin, for the compositions of matter return to the original roots of their nature. Those who have ears, let them hear this.”

Then Peter said to him:

“Since you have explained everything to us, tell us one more thing. What is the sin of this world?”

The Savior replied:

“Sin as such does not exist. You only bring it into manifestation when you act in ways that are adulterous in nature. It is for this very reason that the Good has come among you pursuing its own essence within nature in order to reunite everything to its origin.”

Then he continued:

“This is also the reason for sickness and death, because you embrace what deceives you. Consider these matters, then, with your spiritual intellect.

“Attachment to matter gives birth to passion without an Image of itself because it is drawn from that which is contrary to its higher nature. The result is that confusion and disturbance resonates throughout one’s whole being. It is for this reason that I told you to find contentment at the level of the heart, and if you are discouraged, take heart in the presence of the Image of your true nature. Those with ears, let them hear this.”

Having said these things, the Blessed One addressed them:

“Peace be with you. May my peace reside within you. Guard carefully that no one misleads you saying, ‘Look, he is here,’ or ‘He’s over there,’ for the Son of Humanity already exists within you. Follow him, for those who seek him there will find him. Go forth, now, and proclaim the Good News concerning the Kingdom. Beyond what I have already given you, do not lay down any further rules nor issue laws as the Lawgiver, lest you too be dominated by them.”

Having said this, he departed.

As we enter this dialogue, we are literally joining a conversation in midstream. From textual clues in this dialogue and the one following, it appears that the conversation takes place in temporal history sometime between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension—the Gospel of Mary Magdalene’s version of the “upper room” appearances in John and Luke.5 In this energy-charged encounter, Jesus gathers his students around him once again to reflect on the meaning of his passage through death and to leave them final instructions and encouragement before his departure from physical form.

The teaching style is clearly sohbet: “spiritual conversation” between a master and his students. This is a classic Near Eastern teaching style that even today is a mainstay in many schools of Sufism. In contrast to the “Socratic” method more familiar to those of us in the West, sohbet is not merely intellectual discourse, but rather it is a deep meeting of hearts and minds that also includes a direct energy transmission. For those familiar with the art form, the context of this first dialogue is unmistakable and speaks once again to this gospel’s probable Semitic origins.

As manuscript page 7 opens, a student is clearly asking Jesus a question about the permanence of matter, and Jesus responds with a brief but remarkable metaphysical statement—something that occurs nowhere in the canonical gospels and offers a fascinating glimpse into the theoria (theoretical knowledge) on which his practical wisdom rests. The student’s question is probably not theoretical; it follows directly from the resurrection appearance itself with all its inherent paradoxes and consternation. Is Jesus really here? Is this material body in which he stands before them a solid reality or merely a veil that will soon dissolve? Jesus responds by affirming very strongly that the origin of nature (i.e., the material world) does not lie within this earthly plane. What we take for solid reality is a mixtus orbis, a “mixed” (or “mixed up”) realm in which everything is “interwoven” (a statement that contemporary physicists and metaphysicians would heartily applaud). At the end of their physical term, the forms of matter return to the original “roots of their nature.” But by this, we will learn shortly, he does not mean they dissolve into their component atoms, quarks and/or humors. Instead, they return to an original template—or “image”—whose place of arising is in another realm.6

Peter immediately jumps in with the next question. What is sin? This is, of course, the classic Jewish philosophical preoccupation; you will find it vividly imprinted on nearly every page of Old Testament prophetic and wisdom teaching and as the driveshaft of the Pauline metaphysics upon which orthodox Christian theology rests. Whose fault is it that suffering and evil came into the world? Who is to blame? How is it atoned for? Jesus rejects that question out of hand: “Sin as such does not exist.”

His answer would initially seem to place him solidly within what we would nowadays identify as an “Eastern” rather than a “Western” mindset: not sin, but ignorance of one’s true nature, is to blame for the sufferings of this world. But we must listen carefully to where he is headed in his comment. He does not go on to state that sin is therefore an illusion, the typical Eastern thought progression. To the contrary, he affirms that sin does indeed come into existence—that is, it becomes objectively real—when one acts in ways that are “adulterous in nature.” And within his particular frame of reference, acting in ways that are “adulterous in nature” will prove to have a very specific meaning. It signifies a failure to stay in alignment with origin: with that mysterious “root” (or template) of one’s nature he has already alluded to, which, while arising beyond this realm, seeks its full expression here.7

He quickly assures his students that this world is valuable and precious; indeed, this is the very reason the Good has come among them in the first place—“pursuing its own essence within nature [i.e., within this transitory realm] in order to reunite everything to its origin.” There is important integrative work to be done here. But it all depends upon keeping a right alignment along what wisdom tradition typically refers to as the “vertical axis”: the invisible spiritual continuum that joins the realms together. Nearly sixteen centuries later, the German mystic Jacob Boehme would express this cosmological insight with poetic precision and beauty:

“For you must realize that earth unfolds its properties and powers in union with Heaven aloft above us, and there is one Heart, one Being, one Will, one God, all in all.”8

When the realms are in spontaneous resonance—“one Heart, one Being, one Will, one God, all in all”—the music of the spheres bursts forth. When they are not, disease and disharmony inevitably ensue. As he quickly points out (again, with a contemporary feeling to the teaching), “Confusion and disturbance resonate throughout one’s whole being,” and sickness and death are the inevitable result…

Seeing with the Heart

The remedy Jesus sets forth for this cosmic malaise is to “find contentment at the level of the heart…in the presence of the Image of your true nature.” The key to deciphering this all-important instruc­tion lies in recognizing that the word “heart” is being used here in a highly specific way. In the wisdom traditions of the Near East, the heart is not the seat of one’s personal emotional life, but an organ of spiritual perception. I have spoken about this extensively…so I will be brief here, but the essential point is that the heart is primarily an instrument of sight—or insight, as the case may be (“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”). Its purpose is to navigate along the vertical axis and stay in alignment with “the Image of one’s true nature.” Itself a vibrant resonant field, it functions like a homing beacon between the realms; and when it is strong and clear, it creates a synchronous resonance between them.

May Magdalen - foot of the Cross“Those with ears, let them hear this,” Jesus continues—his characteristic “heads-up.” But as we remember our primary topic of interest,…Mary Magdalene, his warning is particularly well-timed: because how well you are able to grasp his teaching is exactly how well you will be able to grasp the basis of their relationship. To say that their hearts are intertwined is not at all to speak sentimentally. Rather, it is to affirm that Mary Magdalene has fully understood this principle of spiritual alignment through the heart and has been able to personally corroborate it within herself. This will directly explain her ability to stay present when he appears to her in visions and her ability to go about her earthly business with the serene confidence of one whose life is always flowing within that greater life.

The Unitive Ground

How would I characterize this teaching of Jesus? It definitely belongs to the wider stream of sophia perennis in its acknow­ledg­ment of many and more subtle realms of being whose energies impact our own—a concept traditionally known as “the great chain of being.”9 But it parts company from classic Gnosticism (and even classic sophia perennis) by refusing to claim that this world is illusion, or fall, or error; or that its density places it at the tail end of the chain. We are not in Plato’s cave. Rather, this world is good, worthy, and fully inhabited by the divine energies—“the Good comes among you”—so long as it stays united with its root. The blending of incarnational and Platonic elements is a distinctive mix, which I believe is Jesus’ original contribution to the metaphysics of the West. It presents itself as a profoundly incarnational, warm-hearted, and hopeful path, where the realms support and interpenetrate each other and divine fullness is accessed simply by keeping the heart in natural alignment with its invisible prototype. Unfortu­nately, his teaching went right over the heads of nearly all his followers, both then and now.

The subtlety of Jesus’ metaphysics remains largely unknown to Christians—and sadly so, for it is the missing ingredient that makes his path comprehensible and doable. It is no secret that Jesus’ teachings resonate with an extraordinary trust in the divine abundance and generosity, and Christians are asked to emulate that trust. But to try to do so without seeing what it is founded on is a bit like asking an elephant to fly, and Christians find themselves frequently caught in the gap between the incredibly high spiritual ideals of this path and their own ability to carry them out. In reality, the secret is simple. When the heart is aligned with its eternal image, abundance cascades forth from that place of origin, infinitely more powerful than the scarcity and constriction of this world. It is not a matter of believing in flying elephants so much as of purifying the heart.

“Lay Down No Further Rules….”

In the final lines of his discourse Jesus reinforces this teaching yet again. His parting instruction to his disciples opens with the plea that they remain present within themselves rather than chasing after mirages in the outer world, for “the Son of Humanity already exists within you…and those who seek him there will find him.”10 To remain in continuous union—the kind that Mary Magdalene will shortly demonstrate—is a matter of releasing the outer clamor and tuning in again and again through the homing beacon of the heart.

Then, as if knowing already that this is somehow beyond them, he adds a final practical caution: “Do not lay down any rules beyond what I have given you, lest you be dominated by them.” From a textual criticism point of view, as Karen King rightly observes, this instruction situates the Gospel of Mary Magdalene at an early stage in the history of Christianity, when the contours of externally imposed hierarchy are just beginning to become visible in the dawning light of a brave new Christian world. From an artistic standpoint, it moves us directly into the second dialogue while at the same time setting the stage for the gospel’s surprising and decisive conclusion.

Dialogue Two

His students grieved and mourned greatly saying:

“How are we to go into the rest of the world proclaiming the Good News about the Son of Humanity’s Realm? If they did not spare him, how will they ever leave us alone?”

Mary arose, then, embracing them all and began to address them as her brothers and sisters saying:

“Do not weep and grieve nor let your hearts remain in doubt, for his grace will be with all of you, sustaining and protecting you. Rather, let us give praise to his greatness which has prepared us so that we might become fully human.”

As Mary said these things their hearts opened toward the Good and they began to discuss the meaning of the Savior’s words.

Mary Magdalene - book coverIn this second and crucial dialogue, the predictable happens. The subtlety of Jesus’ teaching is lost on his disciples, who return quickly to their conviction that Jesus is gone and that they are in extreme danger. They have completely missed the point of what he has just said.

As Mary Magdalene steps forward to encourage them, she demonstrates that she has fully understood what Jesus is saying and can apply it to her own life. “Do not let your hearts remain in doubt,” she says, cutting immediately to the spiritual chase. For a heart in doubt—in two-ness and self-sabotage—becomes useless as that organ of alignment. To reconnect to the grace he has promised them is as simple a matter of opening to his presence right then and there in their inmost depths—“for those who seek him there will find him.” And as she pointedly reminds them, “He has prepared us for this.”

Becoming Fully Human

In fact, her actual words are, “He has prepared us so that we might become fully human.” “To become fully human” is a modern translation of the words “to become an anthropos,” a completed human being. Both here and in the Gospel of Thomas this notion is at the very heart of Jesus’ vision of transformation.

In modern psychological parlance building on a Jungian foundation, the concept of anthropos is generally interpreted in terms of an integration of the opposites within oneself—specifically, a bringing together of the male and female principles within the individual human psyche…

Obviously, there is far more at stake here than simply integrating masculine and feminine principles within one’s finite humanity. The integration takes place on a cosmic scale and is accomplished through learning how to anchor one’s being in that underlying unitive ground: that place of oneness before the opposites arise. Some traditions would call this the “causal level.”11 However one defines it, its origin is on the vertical axis, in a realm and mode of perception far more subtle than our own. It has less to do with what one sees than with how one sees; it amounts to a fundamental shift in perception.

When this level is attained, either by sudden spiritual insight or by a long, tough slog through the mine fields of ego, a person becomes “a single one” (in Aramaic, ihidaya: one of the earliest titles applied to Jesus): an enlightened or “fully human” being. The union of opposites Jesus is speaking of really pertains to the union of the finite and infinite within oneself, or the bringing together of the vertical axis with the horizontal so that there is “one Heart, one Being, one Will, one God, all in all.” When this happens, the world does not pass away, but one is able to live in it as master, re-creating its external forms (“making one image supersede another”) out of the infinite generativity of the One.

It is important to keep this wider definition of the anthropos firmly in mind because it is the key to everything in this gospel. Mary Magdalene moves among the other disciples as one who has “become fully human.” She does not merely parrot the Master’s teaching back to them, flaunting her specialness. Rather, she serves the situation. Flowing through the spiritual energy of her own alignment is a baraka—a grace that is able to actually shift the other disciples’ emotional state. She is able to “turn their hearts to the good.”

This short dialogue is the thematic epicenter of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene: the apostolic moment par excellence. “Apostle is as apostle does,” one might say, and it is clear that in both her words and her deeds—her ability to compre­hend, to calm, to convey blessing—Mary Magdalene has just proven herself an apostle: not just “first among the apostles,” but in fact, the only one of them to authentically merit the title.

As we move into the challenging (and decimated) dialogue 3, it is important to keep firmly centered on this point. If Mary Magdalene does, in fact, enjoy a privileged access to the Master, she has certainly earned it: not because she is his special favorite (as Peter will shortly imply), but because she has been able so deeply to absorb and integrate his spiritual methodology. She has learned the secret of unbroken union with him across the realms, and she teaches from the same fount of living water that flowed in him—in fact, still flows in him, only now in a different energetic form. And thus, doing as real apostles do, she is able to lift her brethren out of their psychological paralysis and focus them once again on “the meaning of the Savior’s words.” Dialogue 2 ends on a note of strength and unanimity; for the moment, all is once again well…

Mary Magdalene praying


1 For more on this point, see Karen King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003), 184.

2 We in fact did exactly this as a project of the Aspen Wisdom School during the winter of 2008 and in Collegeville, Minnesota, the following summer. The results were rewarding and in some cases enlightening, clarifying interpretive difficulties that could not be resolved by textual analysis alone…

3 It is more typical of modern editors (including Lynn Bauman) to extend dialogue 2 to include all the text up to the second set of missing pages. But Mary Magdalene’s opening words about meeting Jesus in a vision seem so clearly to belong to the third dialogue—in fact, they furnish its underlying theme—that I have divided the sections accordingly…

4 Lynn Bauman, Ward Bauman, and Cynthia Bourgeault, The Luminous Gospels (Telephone, TX: Praxis Institute Publishing, 2008).

5 These appearances take place immediately after the resurrection and are recorded in John 20:19–29 and Luke 24:36–43.

6 In this idea of the “interwoven” material world unraveling at the end of its term into its elemental components, there are fascinating resonances with the teachings of Empedocles and Parmenides as laid out by Peter Kingsley in his remarkable book Reality (Inverness, Calif.: Golden Sufi Center, 2005). Kingsley proposes a radical revisioning of the origins of Western philosophy as lying not in intellectual speculation, but rather in the sacred practices of a long wisdom lineage of shamanic healing. There are distinctive overlaps between this tradition and the teachings and spiritual practices of Jesus….

7 Jean-Yves Leloup perceptively paraphrases: “when you act according to the habits of your corrupted nature” in his The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002), 25.

8 Jacob Boehme, Confessions (Kila, MT: Kessinger, n.d.), 41.

9 For more on the great chain of being, see Ken Wilber’s voluminous writings, particularly The Eye of the Spirit (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 1997), 39–40.

10 This instruction is repeated almost verbatim in the Gospel of Thomas, logion 3. See Bauman, The Gospel of Thomas, 10.

11 That is why one is able to make “one image supersede another”: because one has accessed the level from which the images originally arise….

Unless otherwise noted, all major gospel citations are from The Christian Community Bible (Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications/Claretian Publications, 1995). Short gospel citations and all epistle and Old Testament citations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

Adapted from The Meaning of Mary Magdalene by Cynthia Bourgeault, ©2010 by Cynthia Bourgeault. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, MA.

The Kenotic Journey of Holy Week

The following is drawn from The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, by Cynthia Bourgeault, p. 185-186

“Jesus’s real purpose in this sacrifice was to wager his own life against his core conviction that love is stronger than death, and that the laying down of self which is the essence of this love leads not to death, but to life.”

~ Cynthia Bourgeault


Mary Magdalene anoints the feet of Jesus

Mary Magdalene anoints the feet of Jesus

What is this Pascal journey from the wisdom standpoint? In the common understanding, Christianity has tended to view the resurrection as Jesus’s triumph over physical death. But for Christians in the wisdom tradition (who include among the ranks the very earliest witnesses to the resurrection) it’s meaning lies in something much deeper than merely the resuscitation of a corpse. Jesus’s real purpose in this sacrifice was to wager his own life against his core conviction that love is stronger than death, and that the laying down of self which is the essence of this love leads not to death, but to life. He was not about proving that a body lives forever, but rather that the spiritual identity forged through kenotic self-surrender survives the grave and can never be taken away. Thus, the real domain of the Paschal Mystery is not dying but dying-to-self.

It serves as the archetype for all our personal experiences of dying and rising to new life along the pathway of kenotic transformation, reminding us that it is not only possible but imperative to fall through fear into love because that is the only way we will ever truly know what it means to be alive.

The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, by Cynthia Bourgeault, p. 185-186

Pope Francis washes and kisses feet of a young offender  Photograph: AFP/Getty

Pope Francis washes and kisses feet of a young offender
Photograph: AFP/Getty








The Fall Triduum – another turn of the spiral

This post originally appeared on October 31st, 2011.  It bears a resurrection!

Helen Daly, one of our Wisdom students in Brattleboro, Vermont, emailed me last week to ask if I could write a couple of paragraphs by what I mean by the “Fall Triduum.”  Aha! A question! Happy to oblige.

Triduum, of course, is the name applied in Catholic liturgical circles to those great three days that form the heart of the Holy Week celebration: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the great Vigil of Easter (Triduum means “three days.”) The solemn passage through this sacred space is experienced not only as a set of external observances, but as a journey deep within the interiority of our own hearts. Read more

PUT WOMEN BACK IN HOLY WEEK – Washington Post blog by Cynthia Bourgeault

Cynthia recently provided this posting for the Washington Post On Faith blog site:

“…With the anointing ceremony repositioned as the opening act in the Holy Week drama, the entire shape of Holy Week shifts subtly but decisively. In this reconfiguration the meaning of anointing is itself transformed. It emerges as the sacramental seal upon all our human passages through those things which would appear to destroy or separate us, but in fact draws us more deeply toward the heart of divine love.”

Fall Triduum

Helen Daly, one of our Wisdom students in Brattleboro, Vermont, emailed me last week to ask if I could write a couple of paragraphs by what I mean by the “Fall Triduum.”  Aha! A question! Happy to oblige.

Triduum, of course, is the name applied in Catholic liturgical circles to those great three days that form the heart of the Holy Week celebration: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the great Vigil of Easter (Triduum means “three days.”) The solemn passage through this sacred space is experienced not only as a set of external observances, but as a journey deep within the interiority of our own hearts.

Many years ago, it occurred to me that the fall also offers us a Triduum in those great three days encompassing Halloween (October 31), All Saints Day (November 1), and All Souls Day (November 2). Though Halloween is by and large celebrated only as a secular holiday and All Saints and All Souls are relatively unknown beyond monastic circles, they do in fact comprise their own sacred passage, which is not only authentic in and of itself, but also a powerful mirror-image of the energy flowing through the spring Triduum.  For several years now I have led silent retreats at the time of this fall Triduum, most recently for the monks and lay community of  Our lady of the Holy Spirit Abbey in Conyers, Georgia. The original “Fall Triduum” retreat was pioneered—as with so much else in my life—with The Contemplative Society, at a retreat house on Vancouver Island.

Read more