Women in Church Leadership
Mary of Magdala
Mary of Magdala: the Great Apostle

Special Interview with Sr. Chris Schenk

Published in Portuguese on December 19, 2011 by the Jesuit run Instituto Humanitas Unisinos in Brazil

1."Prostitute," "beloved disciple", "apostle to the apostles," " wife of Jesus ", "wife of John, the beloved disciple": in your opinion, who was Mary Magdalene after all? What do we know about her and what are the historical sources about her life?

Even though Mary of Magdala is the second most frequently named woman in the New Testament after Mary the mother of Jesus, what we know about her is quite limited, being confined to the texts from the canonical Gospels, and what can be deduced from how she is portrayed in a number of extra canonical texts. Yet it is striking how much biblical scholars can tell us about her even from this sparse data.  For example, all four Gospels depict her as leading the group of women who first witnessed events surrounding the Resurrection.  All four describe her with exactly the  same phrase:  “Mary, the one from Magdala.”  Scholars call this multiple attestation which means there is credible historical evidence that she existed and that one just didn’t tell the story of the Resurrection without also telling about “Mary the one from Magdala.” 

In Luke 8:1-3 we learn that with Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza, and Suzanna, Mary of Magdala “and many other women” accompanied Jesus and the male disciples around Galilee and “provided for them out of their resources.”  This short text tells us far more than might at first be apparent to our 21st century ears that don’t understand the social customs surrounding women in first century Palestinian Judaism. 

To begin with, women were rarely named at all in ancient texts.  If they are named it is because they had some social prominence and even then, in most situations, they are named in relationship to the men in their lives, such as their husbands, fathers or brothers.  Women were considered to be part of the patriarchal household and it was rare for them to have an identity apart from a male relative.  So we see Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza.  Herod is the king. Joanna is part of a wealthy household belonging to Chuza. 

But when Mary of Magdala is identified, she is named for the town she came from, not according to a male relative.  Bibilical scholars believe this means that Mary of Magdala is a wealthy woman of independent means. And with Joanna and Suzanna (about whom, alas, we know very little) these women were prominent financial supporters of Jesus’ Galilean mission.  

Thus began a long history of women’s patronage that helped Christianity spread relatively rapidly thoughout the Mediterranean world.  For example, we know that Paul had many wealthy female patrons such as Lydia and Phoebe who financially supported his ministry and introduced him to a broad swath of social relationships in the Gentile world he would not otherwise have had access to.

Jesus’ inclusion of women in his itinerant Galilean discipleship is nothing short of remarkable.  In Palestininan Judaism observant Jewish men did not speak to women outside their kinship circle in public, let alone permit them to travel with them in public in a mixed gender entourage.  While observance of Jewish customs was probably less strict in Galillee than in Jerusalem, I believe Jesus’ passion for proclaiming God’s reign of justice and right relationship was such that it transcended custom, and he knew his God-given mission was meant for women as well as men.

Jesus’ women disciples often surpassed their brother disciples in fidelity to the person of Jesus, particularly in events surrounding Jesus’ passion and death.  While the Gospels tell us the male disciples fled to Galilee, the women stayed by Jesus’ side through crucifixion, death burial and Resurrection.  This is why all four Gospels show women as the first witnesses.  They knew where Jesus had been buried. And the women were then commissioned to “Go and tell your brothers” the good news of Jesus’ victory over death.

That the message of the Resurrection was first entrusted to women is regarded by scripture scholars as strong proof for the historicity of the Resurrection accounts. Had accounts of Jesus' Resurrection been fabricated, women would never have been chosen as witnesses, since Jewish law did not acknowledge the testimony of women.

Early extra-canonical Christian writings show entire faith communities growing up around Mary of Magdala’s ministry, where she is portrayed as understanding Jesus' message better than did Peter and the male disciples. Scholars tell us that these writings are not about the historical persons of Mary and Peter, but instead reflect tensions over women's leadership roles in the early Church. Prominent leaders such as Mary and Peter were evoked to justify opposing points of view.

What is not disputed is the portrayal of Mary of Magdala as an important woman leader and witness in the earliest Christian Churches.

2. In your article "Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles," you say, among other things, that Mary Magdalene was "Not a Prostitute." In your opinion, what led to this confusion and misunderstanding around the figure of Mary Magdalene?

One explanation is a common misreading of Luke's Gospel that tells us "seven demons had gone out of her." (Luke 8,1-3) To first century ears, this meant only that Mary had been cured of serious illness, not that she was sinful. According to biblical scholars such as Sr. Mary Thompson, illness was commonly attributed to the work of evil spirits, and not associated with personal sinfulness. The number seven symbolized that her illness was either chronic or very severe.

Also, as knowledge of Jesus' many women disciples faded from historical memory, their stories merged and blurred. The tender anointing of Mary of Bethany prior to Jesus' passion was linked to the woman "known to be a sinner" whose tears washed and anointed Jesus' feet at Simon's house. The anointing texts combined all of these women into one generic public sinner: "Magdalen." Misidentification of Mary as reformed public sinner achieved official standing with a powerful homily on forgiveness by Pope Gregory the Great (540-604).
Henceforth, Mary of Magdala became known in the west, not as the strong woman leader who accompanied Jesus through a tortuous death, first witnessed his Resurrection, and proclaimed the Risen Savior to the early Church, but as a wanton woman in need of repentance and a life of hidden (and hopefully silent) penitence. Interestingly, the Eastern Church never identified her as a prostitute, but honored her throughout history as "the Apostle to the Apostles".

3. Why can we speak of Mary Magdalene as a "mystic", with so few biblical elements (at least in the canonical Gospels) about this woman from Magdala? What would be the "mystic" of Mary Magdalene?

While we don’t know exactly what the Resurrection experience of Mary of Magdala was like, we do know that she had such a powerful experience of the risen Christ that it drove her to run tell her brother disciples “I have seen the Lord.” Perhaps understandably enough, they did not believe her at first.  But whatever Mary’s experience was, I like to think she was a profoundly changed woman, and that observable change likely prepared the way for other disciples to be open to receiving their own experiences of the Risen Christ.

It seems clear to me that while the disiciples experienced a certain “corporality” of Christ in these Resurrection expriences,  it wasn’t the same as a resuscitation of a dead person.  Jesus was indeed alive and made himself known to them, but he was also changed enough that they didn’t recognize him at first.  John’s Gospel tells us Mary first mistook him for the gardener, and it was only after hearing Jesus call her name and literally “turning herself around” that she recognized him.  The Emmaus disciples (Luke 24:13-35) didn’t recognize Jesus through all that long journey, only at the breaking of the bread.  So whatever the Resurrection experience was, it was not a straightforward recognition, but involved some liminal, mystical sense beyond our usual perceptive capabilities.  It is in this way that I believe Mary of Magdala can be said to be a mystic.

4. One of the most memorable moments of Mary Magdalene’s mystical experience was being the first person - and a woman - witness to the Resurrection. What is the significance of this account, according to you?

Like many women before me, I have experienced a “dark night of patriarchy” after realizing how deeply and profoundly all of western history (the only history with which I am conversant) rendered the contributions of women all but invisible.

That God first entrusted the proclamation of the Resurrection to a woman tells me that while human beings discriminate, God does not.  I find Jesus’ inclusion of women in his Galilean discipleship and God’s gentle gender balance in the  cosmos-changing event of the Resurrection, profoundly consoling, especially now when we see an apparent resurgence of fear of the feminine among too many male leaders in the institutional Church.

5. In the history of the Church, another Mary, the mother of Jesus, occupies a central place almost for centuries - especially in Latin America. What parallels and differences do you see between Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene? How do you analyze these two great figures of Christianity?

Yikes…this is a subject worthy of much more lengthy and studied discussion  than the brief response I am able to give here.  Suffice it to say, that as the witness of early independent biblical women leaders such as Mary of Magdala, Phoebe, Lydia, Nympha, Prisca and even the historical Mary of Nazareth were either suppressed or faded from historical memory, they were replaced by male church leaders who raised up a theological reflection about Mary as Virgin Mother for honor and recognition.   

In Mary, the Feminine Face of the Church,  Rosemary Ruether compares the biblical Mary with Mary of Magdala and the other women disciples who as we have seen, play a central and sometimes unconventional role in the Gospels. Though there is much New Testament evidence about the role of Mary of Magdala and the other women disciples, Church tradition has glorified Mary, Jesus’ mother, as the faithful woman who stayed loyally at his side.  Very many scholars believe the role of Mary of Magdala was suppressed because she presented a model of independent female leadership that later male Church leaders wanted to avoid. They wanted to avoid this model because of tension in the early church over Christian women exercising public leadership in a Greco-Roman culture that believed women’s leadership was only appropriate in private settings.

The cult of the Virgin Mary came into prominence in the 4th century when Christianity was becoming the required religion of the Roman empire whose people had long worshipped God in both male and female metaphor.

Many scholars have found similarities between the cult of Mary and the cult of the Great Mother Goddess ( Isis, Artemis ) prominent in the Mediterranean world into which Christianity rapidly spread. Glorification and veneration of Mary met deep spiritual and psychological needs for a people whose hearts were accustomed to worshiping God under a feminine face.   Scholars identify many concrete ways in which this adaptation happened.  Lakes and springs where female deities were honored became associated with Mary, the Virgin Mother. Shrines and temples to the Goddess were rededicated to Mary the Mother of God.  Finally, as theologian Elizabeth Johnson notes it was “no accident that the fifth century  doctrine of the Theotokos [Mother of God] was proclaimed in Ephesus, the city famed for its enthusiastic worship of the Greek Goddess Diana.” [“Mary and the Female Face of God,” Theological Studirs. September 1989]

This phenomenon is seen more recently when we consider how rapidly the veneration of Our Lady of Guadelupe spread throughout Mexico whose native peoples had so recently been devastated by conquest and disease at the hands of 17th century Spanish invadors.  The indiginous understanding of the sacred had no category for any divine being that did not also include the feminine. Tepeyec, the site of the Guadalupan revelation was the ancient site of the great earth goddess Tonanzin.  Tonanzin signifies “mother” in the native Nahuatl story.  At long last the native peoples had found a divine being to whom they could relate.  Fr. Virgil Elizondo has this translation of Our Lady of Guadelupe’s message through Juan Diego to the recently vanquished  people, “Know and understand, you the smallest of my children, that I am the holy virgin Mary, mother of the true God, por quien se vive, for whom one lives.  I have a great desire that there be built here a casita so that I may present him forth with my love, my compassion, my help and defense to you, to all of you, to all the inhabitants of this land, to all who call upon me, trust me and love me.  I will heal your pains, your sorrows, and your lamentations, and I will respond.” [Elizondo, Virgilio, "La Morenita: Evangelizer of the Americas."  (San Antonio, TX, Mexican American Cultural Center, 1980, pg. 75-76)].

Elizabeth Johnson CSJ  says it beautifully when she notes that one reason Mary has been so important in Church history is that:

“Mary has been an icon of God. For innumerable believers she has functioned to reveal a divine love as merciful, close, interested, always ready to hear and respond to human needs, trustworthy and profoundly attractive, and has done so to a degree not possible when one thinks of God simply as a ruling male person or persons.  Consequently, in devotion to her as a compassionate Mother who will not let one of her children be lost, what is actually being mediated is a most appealing experience of God.” [“Mary and the Female Face of God,” Theological Studirs. September 1989]

So while it is a tragedy of history that. at least until recently,  Jesus’ and St. Paul’s female disciples either faded from historical memory or were degraded to prostitiutes in favor of the all-pure, and ultimately inaccessible role model of Mary the virgin-mother, the flip side is that somehow God found a way to preserve human access to the divine feminine in Christian experience.  Of course official Church teaching has never taught that Mary is divine, but the reflections of very many theologians, and the prayer experiences of believers often suggest something else is at work.

In fact Johnson finds in the Marian tradition a “golden mother lode which can be ‘mined’ in order to retrieve female imagery and language about the holy mystery of God.” In the Marian tradition she suggests “wherever the ultimacy of divine in Scripture, doctrine, or liturgy is evoked or where the ultimacy of the believer’s trust is elicited, we may suppose the the reality of God is being named in female metaphors.”[ [“Mary and the Female Face of God,” Theological Studirs. September 1989]]

6.How does Mary Magdalene help us to reflect about the leadership of women in today's Church and society? Is it possible to achieve women's equality in Catholic Church?

Perhaps the most important aspect of retriieving the historical memory of St. Mary of Magdala’s leadership is that contemporary believers who are women, can for  the first time, see themselves in the Gospel stories and in early Church history. 

When I was growing up I had the impression, as did nearly everyone I knew, that it was Jesus and twelve men who travelled around Galilee doing good.  I never saw anyone who looked like me in the Gospels. The women seemed to be all prostitutes, sinners, inhabited by demons or a virgin Mother.   None of these were all that appealing as role models. I was scandalized when I discovered through my biblical studies that Mary of Magdala was the first witness to the Resurrection and that there is nothing in scripture to support the idea that she was a prostitute. It seemed a great injustice that this is how a great woman of faith was remembered in Church history, at least in the Latin Church.  And I resolved to do something about it.

So if we as a Church can begin to see that Jesus (and later St. Paul ) included women who were leaders in his closest discipleship, then it leads to the question well, why can’t the Church include women as leaders today?  At present the Church teaches women are equal.  However no Church structures permit them to exercise that equality in any way. 

Only men can elect the Pope, lead dioceses, pastor parishes and preach at Mass.  This is a great loss to the believing community since we necessarily always hear the Gospel through the lens of male experience. We are missing out on hearing about the great truths of our faith through the lens of female experience.

All decision making in Church governance requires ordination and the Church teaches women can’t be ordained. So we have conflicting teachings here. They can’t both be right.   This is why I believe that eventually, we will have women’s equality in the Church. But it will be a long struggle and will come to about only through the grace of God at work converting male decision-makers (remember, even St. Paul was converted) and sustaining the tens of thousands of women and men working for such equality in many and varioius ways in our day.

7. It is impossible to understand Mary Magdalene without taking into account her relationship with Jesus. What do we know about Jesus' relationship with women? What seeds of "feminine mystic" are already present in the life of Jesus or in the life of the women who followed him?

This is an interesting thing to reflect upon. From the Gospels we see that Jesus had many friendships with women, and not only with Mary of Magdala. Certainly Mary and Martha of Bethany were dear friends, akin to family for him.  Mary of Bethany assumed the role of a rabbinical student (traditionally reserved to men), sitting at Jesus’ feet to listen and learn. He refused to send her away even though Martha protested. “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her,” says Jesus (Luke 10:38-42).  John’s Gospel shows Martha giving a profession of faith similar to Peter’s when Jesus enjoins her to believe that her brother will rise again:  “Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God:he who is to come into the world” (John 11: 27).

The Johannine author also shows that Jesus was nourished by the theological conversation and subsequent conversion of the Samaritan woman:  “I have food to eat that you don’t know about” (John 4:32).

The anointing woman, whether it was Mary of Bethany in John’s Gospel or the anonymous female disciple seen in Matthew and Mark, surely understood Jesus’ Messianic mission better than the male disciples who criticized her. The woman’s faith that Jesus was indeed coming into his kingdom was shown as she anointed Jesus’ head, an act similar to the anointing performed by the prophet Samual signifying  David’s kingship.  This woman’s loving prophetic gesture must have been very comforting to Jesus as he faced his passion and death. 

I am not comfortable with the phrase “feminine mystic” in this context since mysticism is mysticism and of itself has no gender.  That said,  the human encounter with the divine will likely be influenced by the gender of the human being who can only express such an encounter through the vehicle of their male or female humanity. For example, St. John of the Cross’s mysticism is differently expressed than that of St. Theresa of Avila.  Both have mystical encounters with the divine that they express in unique language influenced by the totality of their humanity which includes their gender.

In the Gospels we see many examples of Jesus’ encounters with the Divine. Luke’s Gospel (Lk 4:18-19) reveals that Jesus modelled his mission from the writings of the prophets. He first announces his mission from God in his hometown synagogue at Nazareth by quoting Isaiah 61:1,2:  The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives….to let the oppressed go free.   This tells us that Jesus was deeply influenced by the religious teachings of his own tradition and found his true identity through what could be called a mystical encounter with Divine Justice as mediated through the writings of Isaiah. Jesus spent the remainder of his public life being true to his  call to be about proclaiming the reign of God where justice and right relationship will at last prevail between poor and rich, male and female, ruler and subject, strong and weak.

8. Another leading figure in the history of Christianity as we know it today is Paul of Tarsus. In your opinion, what similarities or differences exist between these two great figures of Church history, Mary and Paul?

Both Mary of Magdala and Paul had experiences of the Risen Christ that changed their lives.  That is the great similarity.

The difference is that Paul’s missionary journeys and letters to the early communities throughout the Mediterranean world have been preserved and provide an excellent snapshot of real challenges facing early Christians.  They are the earliest Christian writings we have.

Unfortunately we have no similar direct record of what happened in St. Mary of Magdala’s subsequent life and witness.  We can only deduce from extra-canonical sources that she was remembered in some early communities, as a prominent woman leader and disciple who understood Jesus’ mission better than her brothers.

Paul’s letters also provide valuable information about coequal leadership in early Christian communities. Romans 16 tells us about Paul’s “coworkers in Christ” the married couple, Prisca and Aquila. That Prisca is named first in four of the six times the couple is cited in the New Testament,  tells us that she was probably the more prominent of the duo.  Prisca and Aquila founded house Churches in Corinth, Ephesus and Rome that served as a base of evangelization in each of these major cities.  With Paul , they can legitimately be called “Apostles to the Gentiles” because as Paul himself says: “Not only I  but all the Churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.”  (Rom 16:4)  Paul praises another missionary couple Junia and her husband Andronicas as “outstanding among the apostles.”  (Rom 16:7) Junia is the only woman in the New Testament who is given the title “apostle.”

9. Mary Magdalene and Jesus coexist in the collective imagination as an example of a "forbidden love" especially for the "kiss on the mouth" of the apocryphal Gospels or the doubt about who is the woman who pours "a perfume of pure nard" on the feet of Jesus (according to John, it is Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus; according to Mark and Matthew, it is an unknown woman; according to Luke, it is "a sinner"). How do you analyze, inspired by Magdalene, the conection between eroticism and mystic, or mystic and sensuality?

As seen in question 7 my interpretation of the anointing texts is not based on a mystical eroticism but on the prophetic meaning of the anointing on the head such as Samual performed when he anointed David King.

All four Gospels tell about a woman who anoints Jesus with costly fragrant ointment.  In Matthew and Mark the woman anoints Jesus’ head, evoking the prophet Samuel.  When she is criticized, Jesus defends her:  “Wherever this Gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Sadly, this woman is never remembered, since in the Palm Sunday readings where this text is found, it is either omitted or made optional.

Luke portrays the women as a public sinner whose anointing of Jesus’ feet signifies her great faith and forgiveness. John shows Mary anointing Jesus’ feet in the intimate setting of Bethany. Since footwashing was a central devotional ritual in the Johannine community, it is not surprising that John combined the Lukan story of anointing Jesus’ feet with earlier traditions of anointing his head. In Matthew, Mark and John the anointing happens just prior to Jesus’ arrest and passion.

But what does the anointing mean?  The earliest tradition evoking Samuel’s prophetic anointing is the clue.  This faithful woman disciple understood Jesus coming passion and death as his royal entry to the messianic kin-dom where servant leadership will reign forever. Her act must have been deeply consoling to Jesus as he faced the ultimate outpouring for the life of the world.

In Isaiah’s words:  “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, Upon whom I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations,”

For followers of Jesus, washing and anointing feet is a royal highway leading to the victory of Justice.

The 2002 publication of The Da Vinci Code ignited widespread controversy about the true role of Mary of Magdala. Unfortunately, Dan Brown's book, while an engaging fictional narrative, has done a disservice to the historical Mary of Magdala and other early women Church leaders. Though The Da Vinci Code conveys a beautiful ideal of the essential unity of male and female, it is ultimately subversive to women's full and equal leadership in the Church because it focuses on the fiction of Mary's marital status rather than the fact of her leadership in proclaiming Jesus' Resurrection.

There is no historical or biblical data to support speculation that Mary of Magdala was married to Jesus. The contention that ancient writers didn't mention their marriage and offspring for fear of Jewish persecution doesn't really hold up because John's Gospel and most of the apocryphal literature were written after the fall of Jerusalem, when there would have been nothing to fear from Jewish authorities. If Mary of Magdala were Jesus' wife and the mother of his child, it is highly unlikely that these texts would have omitted these important facts, especially since she is prominently portrayed in both as the primary witness to the Resurrection and a female leader who, in many ways, understood Jesus' mission better than did the male disciples.

If Jesus were married, it wasn't to Mary of Magdala, because then she would have been known as "Mary the wife of Jesus," not Mary of Magdala. As we have seen literary and social conventions in antiquity dictated that if women were mentioned (a very rare occurrence) they were nearly always named by their relationship to the patriarchal household, for example: "Joanna the wife of Herod's steward Chusa" (Luke 8,1-3). Atypically, Mary of Magdala was named according to the town she was from (not by her relationship to a man).

Now that I have hopefully clarified my views on the mistaken notion that Mary of Magdala might have been married to Jesus, I will turn to the core of your question:

10. How do you analyze, inspired by Magdalene, the connection between eroticism and mystic, or mystic and sensuality?

My take on the connection between eroticism and mysticism is not inspired by what can be known about Mary of Magdala’s relationshop with Jesus since the historical data about a romantic relationship is tenuous at best.

That said, I believe there is indeed a connection between eroticism and mysticism and this connection can easily be seen in many of the writings and experiences of great mystics such as John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. 

The experience of the mystery of God’s love is a profoundly  human one.  We are embodied Spirits.  Another way of saying this, as a physical therapist friend of mine once said, is to realize that “our bodies are the densest part of our Spirit.”  So it follows that in any encounter with the divine, our bodies will reflect it in some way.

For those blessed with consoling experiences of God’s love, it may not be unusual to find one’s bodily senses as filled and fulfilled as that found following a loving expression of  intimate sexual love.  This is not to say the mystical experience is the same as sexual orgasm, but it is to say there is a fulfillment in the totality of one’s self that is akin to the great mystery and pleasure of human sexual fulfillment.  Some find such divine fulfillment even more deeply satisfying.

The scriptures often use spousal metaphors to describe the love of God for God’s people. Certainly this most powerful of human loves is an approprate metaphor to describe God’s unsurpassable love for each person and for the world.

11. You are executive director of the Cleveland-based FutureChurch, which began in 1997 a special celebration of the July 22nd feast of Mary of Magdala. Why this date? How do this celebration occur and what is its most profound meaning and purpose?

We chose July 22nd because it is the feast day of St. Mary of Magdala celebrated by the universal Church.  The celebrations came into being because of my passion to set the record straight that Mary of Magdala was not a prostitute but the first witness to the Resurrection. 

The celebrations are designed to bring expose ordinary Catholics to contemporarary biblical scholarship about St. Mary of Magdala and other women in the scriptures.  The prayer service settings also provide a place where competent women can preach and preside in visible liturgical roles. 

The most profound meaning and purpose of these celebrations is that both women and men learn about women’s leadership in the Gospels and experience women serving in sacred leadership roles, some for the first time. When we first began these celebrations in Cleveland, Ohio, a friend brought her women’s group from Alcoholics Anonymous.  A number of these women were in tears throughout the service because it was the first time they ever experienced themselves as equally holy and beloved of God compared to their brothers. 

This is when I knew we were touching something very deep in the female psyche, and, by extension, in the male psyche.

Since we women rarely see ourselves in scripture and almost never see women serving in sacred roles at the altar, we often unconsciously internalize that we are of less worth and less beloved of God than our brothers.

I don’t think the Catholic Church will ever be healed of sexism and misogyny until both women and men experience ministry from both women and men. We all need ministry from both genders.

12. What other mythic women [ I presume you mean mystic women rather than mythic women]  would you highlight from Scripture or the history of Christianity? How do these women help us to think about feminine mystic in contemporaneity?

This is too big of a subject ot take on in great depth here.  But suffice it to say that throughout history, women have often exercised the spiritual leadership denied them in the institutional Church by writing about their mystical encounters with a loving God who comforts, consoles and brings justice.

We see this in the writings of the 12th century Hildegard of Bingen who was a visionary, seer and healer. She was dismayed by the corruption of her own time: "This time is a womanish time, because the dispensation of God's justice is weak. But the strength of God's justice is exerting itself, a female warrior battling against injustice, so that it might fall defeated" (Letter 23). Hildegard understood herself as this female warrior, the personification of God's justice.

Teresa of Avila was a prominent 16th century Spanish mystic who was threatened by the Inquisition three times.  When people quoted the Pauline injunction that women should be silent and never presume to teach in the Church (1 Tim 2:11-14) she countered with words she had received from Jesus in prayer: “Tell them they shouldn’t follow just one part of Scripture.... and ask them if they can by any chance tie my hands.” (Spiritual Testimonies, 15)

In the late 14th century, at a time when war and plague raged through Europe, Julian of Norwich brought a reassuring message to people terrified of sudden death: God does not hate sinners, but has only love and compassion for them. Julian was a mystic who experienced a miraculous healing and had visions that gave her insight into Jesus’ love.  She wrote about these in a book called Showings. It was a risk to write about God’s love rather than people’s sins because in those days the Church considered downplaying sinfulness a heresy punishable by death. A great scholar and theologian, Julian was also a courageous and creative woman who trusted completely in a loving God.

Women today have access to the same theological and biblical training as men.  This allows believers in our day to apprehend the God-mystery through the lens of female experience in language that can be understood by both women and men.  This is a great gift to the Church and is in fact, opening up new ways of understanding and appreciating the divine Mystery that will, after all always be a MYSTERY.  This is one of my favorite things about God…there will always be more to learn, explore, and LOVE.

13. In your opinion, considering the present socio-economic-political situation, what is the role of mystic and spirituality, especially feminine mistyc and spirituality?

I believe because women often have personal experience of what it means to be suppressed, oppressed and depressed (to quote a friend of mine) they often understand very well the importance of witnessing to the God of justice and to Jesus who came to raise up the lowly and set the downtrodden free.

If women are ever given the opportunity to preach regularly,  I suspect we may hear a lot more about Jesus’ passion for the just reign of God than we currently hear from most pulpits where homiliest too often preach pious platitudes rather than proclaim good news to the poor.

The feminine mystic, like any mystic, (and mysticism is the experience of most committed Christians though they may never name it in that way) is called to help bring about the God’s just reign here on earth as well as in heaven.  If you don’t believe me, just review Jesus’ own prayer, the Our Father,  which says it more eloquently than I ever could. 

The mystic then, is also called to be a prophet.  And the prophet can never survive without regular mystical communication with the One who loves us beyond all our understanding and who strengthens us beyond all our weakness.

14. Would you like to add something?

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to reflect on all of this.  I love thinking about New Testament women leaders because then I can see myself in the Gospel stories too…right there with Jesus alongside Joanna, Susanna, Mary of Magdala, Mary the wife of Clopas, Prisca, Phoebe and of course, Peter, James and John!!

Mini curriculum to introduce you to our readers:

Sr. Chris Schenk CSJ is the Executive Director Emerita of FutureChurch; a U.S. based Church renewal organization working for full participation of all Catholics in every aspect of Church life and ministry.  She has Master’s degrees in midwifery and theology and, with the able assistance of FutureChurch staffers, developed and administers national grassroots programs including - Women in Church Leadership, The Future of Priestly Ministry, Celebrating Women Witnesses, Women and The Word and Save Our Parish Community. For the past fifteen years, FutureChurch has worked to restore awareness of St. Mary of Magdala as the first witness to the Resurrection and a respected leader of the early Church. This past summer over 340 St. Mary of Magdala celebrations were held, including 36 international celebrations in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, England, Finland, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines and Zambia. In 2007 and 2008 Schenk coordinated an international effort to “put women back in the biblical picture” at the Synod on the Word. This resulted in the most women ever to attend a Vatican synod, with six serving as theological consultants to synod fathers.