Monday, July 22, 2013

Mary Magdalene and the Empty Room

Giacomo Galli, The Penitent Mary Magdalene
On this feastday of St. Mary Magdalene, we might reflect on a curious detail recorded about her. In St. Luke’s Gospel, we read: “Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preaching 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 Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means” (Lk 8:1-3).

In St. Mark's Gospel, the same fact is mentioned, but this time in the narrative of the resurrection: “Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons” (Mk 16:9).

As I reflected on these passages, another saying of the Lord Jesus came to mind: “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. So shall it be also with this evil generation” (Mt 12:43-45; cf. Lk 11:24-26).

Mary Magdalene was a woman with problems, seven demons to be exact, but when she met the Lord and received His mercy, she was transformed—by being rid of her demons and filled instead with the love of Christ, filled as with a banquet. She went from being surfeited with evils to being nourished by the good. The problem with the unnamed man in the other passage is that the moment he was free to take charge of his own affairs, he did not fill himself with God, but rationalistically cleaned out (one might even say sanitized) his inner chamber, which was characterized not by the order of charity but by mere orderliness. His condition was an irresistible invitation for seven more demons to come in and take advantage of precisely that swept and orderly emptiness. The one who let her soul be overtaken, seized, and filled with Jesus threw off the demonic powers and received a first glimpse of the glory of His resurrection; the one who opted for function over beauty, freedom of possibility over the bond of commitment, reason’s order over God’s ecstasy, this one suffered corruption, won hellish company, saw no resurrection to life.

There is only one choice facing man: to be filled with God or to be full of demons (not by possession, which is rather rare, but by their influence and by one's surrender to any of the seven deadly sins). Contrary to the lie espoused by modernity, neutrality is not possible: either we are tending towards God by faith, animated by love, or we are moving away from God by unbelief or a lifeless faith. We are Magdalene, the sinner called and converted, or the evil generation, called and callous. The seven demons most characteristic of modernity—nominalism, rationalism, naturalism, liberalism, relativism, atheism, nihilism—are gathered and led by the unclean spirit par excellence, exaltation of self, Lucifer’s sin. Self-exaltation is the spirit most inimical to the spirit of Christ, the spirit of Christian discipleship, and the spirit of the liturgy, where the saying of St. John the Baptist rings true: “He must increase and I must decrease.”

Divine worship is the believer’s self-giving Amen to God’s primacy, ultimacy, desirability as the One who fills all in all. The believer who adores says, with body and soul, what the Psalmist says (and as St. Mary Magdalene could well have prayed):

          O God, you are my God, for you I long;
          for you my soul is thirsting.
          My body pines for you
          like a dry, weary land without water.
          So I gaze on you in the sanctuary
          to see your strength and your glory.
          For your love is better than life,
          my lips will speak your praise.
          So I will bless you all my life,
          in your name I will lift up my hands.
          My soul shall be filled as with a banquet,
          my mouth shall praise you with joy.
                                       (Psalm 62)