Joan Norton: The Mary Magdalene Within. New York: iUniverse, 2005. (73 pages)
Reviewed by Miriam Raven
Sacred whore, priestess, lover of Jesus, key to the divine feminine – the controversial figure of Mary Magdalene has been rediscovered as a central figure for an understanding of Christian wisdom. Both in academic research and in fictional retellings of her story, Mary Magdalene has touched scholars and believers, Goddess people and Christians alike. Among the numerous texts attempting to shed new light on Mary Magdalene there are, for instance, the successful Woman with the Alabaster Jar and Mary Magdalene, Bride in Exile by the Catholic scholar Margaret Starbird, or The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle by Karen L. King, Professor of Ecclesiastical History. Apart from theoretical texts, numerous novels about Mary Magdalene have been published during the last decades, such as my personal favourite The Moon Under Her Feet by Clysta Kinstler. The bestseller The Da Vinci Code of course relies on all those publications, first and foremost Starbird's. What, then, does Joan Norton's The Mary Magdalene Within offer to those still fascinated by the enigmatic Mary Magdalene?
The Mary Magdalene Within is first of all a very personal book, both concerning its genesis and its contents. Joan Norton, a psychotherapist in the Jungian tradition, movingly writes in her introduction how the death of her daughter has triggered her own spiritual journey in which she opened to the wisdom of Mary Magdalene. Personally, however, I have to admit that I have my problems with the claim of books being channelled. What slightly bothers me is the truth claim that inevitably accompanies it, the idea that the text is not influenced by factors such as the author's world view, emotions, knowledge and previous reading, but that it tells universal truth. Having experienced deep moments of divine wisdom myself while writing, I find it important to recognize that the author does shape every story and that it is therefore always subjective. I would be much more comfortable to call this intense and blissful state of divine inspiration what it is – inspiration.
In Mary Magdalene's own voice, the reader is taken back into Biblical times where women are regarded as chattel and are denied the recognition of their individuality. Mary is a strong woman who departs from the norm, presenting herself as courageously renouncing patriarchal Christianity and men who are not familiar with women's mysteries. Jesus, however, is from the first presented as a man who makes a difference – one who is there to learn from women and particularly from Mary Magdalene who becomes his teacher. The most important thing she teaches him is love – sexual and at the same time deep spiritual love between man and woman. Thus, Jesus comes to teach equality between human beings ("He brought forward the idea and the living practice of the idea that men and women are equal") and between the feminine and masculine aspects of deity ("He knew that God the Father was incomplete without God the Mother").
As one who loves and serves the Goddess, several issues were problematic for me. The first is the essentialist notion of women and men. Although Mary also teaches and talks, she is very much reduced to patriarchal characteristics of femininity, representing the body and sexuality, and, later, motherhood, while all men stand for rationality. But I know the Goddess in many different forms: apart from having the traditionally pleasing characteristics as lover and mother, the Goddess is also an independent self-sufficient maiden and a wise crone who transforms and who brings death. This leaves a much greater range of what a woman can be and I was wondering why Mary Magdalene appeared in such a reduced form. Connected to this, the text also propagates clearly defined attributes for God and Goddess - Father Sky and Mother Earth. Although in a Biblical context this may make sense, it left me with the uncomfortable feeling that gender roles are again cemented instead of being regarded in a different light, which is certainly an aim of the book. The sketchy theory that the rise of Christianity and its misogyny was due to a matriarchal society "which itself had deteriorated into authority though power" left me puzzled, although of course the crucial role of Mary Magdalene, according to this book, is precisely to bring back balance and love to the world together with Jesus. In order to explain her role in connection with Jesus, she summarizes in the end: "I was his teacher, I was his love, I was his wife with child."
Her central role for Christianity is narrated in a language reminiscent of the Bible which is at times annoyingly antiquated but also creates moments of hypnotic quality, since many sentences and words are repeated like a mantra. The word most often used is "yes" as most chapters begin with Mary Magdalene affirming her life and her story, which awakens associations with Molly Bloom's famous interior monologue in James Joyce's Ulysses. This book is certainly not for everyone, but if you are in search of a new, very personal voice of Mary Magdalene, you may well say "yes" to this book.
The Mary Magdalene Within can be obtained from amazon.co.uk