Friday, July 22, 2016

All Our Modern Demons

Today is the feast day of Mary Magdalene.  You might be saying, “Mary Magdalene? Wasn’t she possessed by demons? Wasn’t she a prostitute? Why would Christ appear to her anyway? Why does she get a feast day?”

There have been many moves throughout church history to strip Mary Magdalene of her importance. Many church teachings portray her as a prostitute, as mentally ill, or both. But I don't usually trust the ancient writers when it comes to their descriptions of emotional or sexual states, especially not when it comes to females. I can see that the ancient church had a vested interest in diminishing Mary Magdalene of her story and her power.

Modern folks in industrialized nations have a tendency to dismiss any story that's older than 15 minutes, but I find my brain returning to Mary Magdalene's story again and again.  What happens once her time with Jesus is over?  I suspect that the earliest followers weren't quite as committed to including women and other outcasts as Jesus was.

My younger self would have seen Mary Magdalene as healed--that story, over and done.  My older self knows that it's never that easy. I wonder if she missed the demons, once Jesus cleaned them out of her. As anyone who has wrestled with modern demons knows, our demons are comfortable, which is why it’s often hard to let them go. I imagine Mary Magdalene, in the quiet of the night, having trouble sleeping, missing the hiss of the demon who told her she wasn’t good enough.

It’s strange company, the demons that we keep inside us, but it’s often better than the loneliness of no company.

I think of Mary Magdalene, as I imagine her: always ready to let go of the annoying demon of feminine expectations, but who wishes she could summon back the demon of compulsiveness. I imagine her finding it hard to get anything done without that devil driving her ever onward.

Or maybe that demon never really went far away.  She's the first one to see the risen Jesus because something drives her to that garden--she has obligations to the dead body, and she must get to them.  I understand the ancient customs surrounding the care of dead bodies, and I understand the laws regarding dead bodies and the Sabbath. But in one Gospel, it’s only Mary who is so deeply concerned about the body of Jesus. What drives her to the tomb?

In Mary’s reaction to the man she assumes is the gardener, I recognize my own demon of anxiety. I watch her ask a perfect stranger about the body of Jesus. I watch her throw all caution and decorum away, so desperate is she to complete this task, as if completing the task will restore the world to right order.

Many of us suffer in the grip of these demons of anxiety, these beliefs that somehow, through our manic quest for control, we can keep the world from spinning into chaos. We might argue for the benefits of medication, and indeed, if it’s a matter of brain chemicals that are out of balance, we would be right.

But all too often, something else is at the root of our modern possession. Maybe we haven’t stopped to grieve our losses, as Mary needs to do in the garden. Maybe it’s the fear of loss that is coming to all our lives. Maybe it’s that insistent hiss from both inside and out that says that we will never be enough: good enough, clean enough, accomplished enough, nice enough, attractive enough, loved enough.
I know that some will be repelled by the religious nature of this story, of this post.  And yet, if we strip the story of its religious elements, it continues to be relevant.

Who among us has not had moments (or days or weeks or months) of feeling driven by forces we don't understand?  Who has a fully quiet mind?

I will always wonder how much the demons of anxiety and fear drive us to get more done than we would have without them.  Or if we could drive them out, if we could have a fully quiet mind, would we do more?

And if the answer to that last question is yes, we would do more, what is the best way to quiet those demons?

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