~ The Teaching of Mary Magdalene ~
The experience termed “The Dark Night of The Soul” does not refer to circumstantial tragedies or sorrows. Someone may be suffering great loss or affliction while his soul remains bathed in the light of Christ, a wondrously sustaining and nurturing grace. Another may be enjoying an uninterrupted life of all going well, but experience the profound depression and anxiety of separation from God, his soul covered with darkness.
The Psalms articulate the dark night with exclamations like, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” and “Arise, O Lord, are you sleeping?” Psalm 88 is among the most powerful expressions of the soul’s dark night. Being an experience of a soul’s separation from God, it is not a reality. “Even if I go into the depths of hell, you are there also” declare the Psalms.
Much has been written about navigating the dark night, but a woman from whom Jesus exorcised seven demonic entities and became a faithful disciple taught me the most, partly because she used behavior rather than words and mostly because she loved the Christ so fervently.
Mary Magdalene was the first to look for her beloved Master whom she thought was still dead in His tomb. Upon finding no body, Mary ran back to the city in great distress to inform others about the assumed theft. Not believing her, most sat in their own darkness while Peter and John checked out her report personally. Satisfied but confused, they left but Mary stayed back to keep looking among the dead. Though the sun had rose, her soul remained shrouded in the dark night, unable to stop crying hot tears of fiery love and pain.
Mary’s eyes had not abandoned her beloved Jesus, watching His execution, holding vigil at His feet on the cross, then following the caretakers of His body to see where they would place Him. I would not doubt Mary did not sleep, so anxious for the Sabbath to end so she could again be with Jesus. Not even waiting for the sun to illuminate the first day of the week, Mary was at the Master’s tomb.
Although the culture was male dominated like those of many Middle Eastern nations today, the male writers of the Gospel and life of Jesus never spun the truth to make men look more heroic or spiritually superior to the women. St. John records the visits of several to the empty tomb, all of whom left having witnessed only remnants of the burial linen and carrying back to their homes only the emptiness of the tomb in their souls.
Except Mary. The angelic messengers waited for her to be alone to appear as she peered into the body chamber. They asked her why she was crying (John 20:12-13). This was a teaching question. The angels knew the answer, but Mary needed to consciously connect with her soul’s dark night and her ardent love for Jesus.
The Psalter speaks of God giving us the desires of our hearts before providing what the desires entail. Such a burning desire for the presence of Christ would only be deepened more by the angelic question.
Then Mary turned in another direction and saw a man whom she thought must be the gardener. Who else could it be? Jesus was dead and missing and her soul was shrouded in the dark night, unable to recognize the presence of the living Christ even when she was looking right at Him.
Jesus asked Mary the same question the angels did, plus another: “Who is it you are looking for?” (John 20:15). Again, the questions were for Mary’s benefit, the answers being well known by Jesus.
During our own dark nights of the soul, God-infused desires possess us. Our ardent thirst and longing for our Beloved grows powerfully and transformative. The tearful response to our holy desires only turns into a deluge of pain as we ponder a question like, “Why are you crying?”
Jesus’ second question deepens and focuses our longing: “Who is the subject of your desire?” That question takes us out of ourselves. We prepare to stop bumping around in our darkness and reach for the subject of our desire with even more intent and perseverance. We hear these questions in our dark nights without even realizing God is asking them.
God then beckons our souls into the light with just one word. Jesus, gazing lovingly at His seeker, said “Mary.” Her recognition was instant. Her soul was illumined, not gradually like the earth at sunrise, but in a flash like lightning. The Shepherd knows His sheep by name. By calling our names, the Christ pierces our night shrouded souls.
The dark night of the soul is a good thing. Job, the prophets, the psalmists, the apostles and even Jesus Himself experienced it, along with so many of His more renown followers. In it we cry out in holy fear to God, ego stroking lusts are quenched, our desire for Him intensifies making us feel we will die if we don’t soon see His face, our focus becomes concentrated as our love grows so as to burst open our hearts. When we hear our name from His lips, we cling to Him never wanting to let go. We no longer want to hear our hearts beating in us, but rather His.
Above all the other disciples, Mary Magdalene was ardently pursuing her way through her dark night without rest. So this humble woman was the first person to see the resurrected Christ. She teaches me so much about finding my way through the dark shadows that sometimes eclipse my soul.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Weekly Reflections © September 28, 2002
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