I was in Vienna, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. We had been tasked with finding a single work of art to become the subject of an art paper. There were hundreds of breathtaking works of art, and I had no idea how I could choose just one. Then, I came around a corner and stopped, mouth open, because of what I saw.
In front of me was a large painting, composed mostly of deep shades of electric blue except for the bright white skin of a single figure, a woman, who sat completely naked as she gazed transfixed over her shoulder and up into Heaven. Head tilted back, mouth slightly open, and long hair falling loosely around her body, she was the image of a woman completely overcome by some ineffable ecstasy.
Recovering my senses, I moved closer to read the plaque beneath the painting and discovered to my surprise that, rather than being some scene from pagan mythology, this was actually an image of a great saint, Mary Magdalene. While the plaque told me the painting was entitled The Penitent Mary Magdalena, the context of the scene depicted was as unknown to me as the obscure artist Francesco Furini. In no passage of Scripture does Mary Magdalene appear in the nude or alone in the wilderness, so I was curious why the artist had chosen to portray her this way. I snapped a picture of the painting and decided I would write my short paper on this image that had left me as enraptured as its subject.
Throughout my next few months in Europe studying abroad, Mary Magdalene followed me. I had never had much devotion to her before, but now I seemed to notice her image, specifically as she appeared nude or with hair falling undone around her shoulders, everywhere. These are just a few photos I took.
However, I didn’t get my answer about the context of the first painting of her until I found myself on a “surprise” pilgrimage to her grotto in the south of France. It was a surprise because we hadn’t really intended to visit her shrine, but just sort of found ourselves there.
The tradition holds that in the earliest days of the Church’s persecution, Mary Magdalene and a few other early disciples were cast out on a boat to die at sea. However, it is said that this boat, rather than capsizing, carried them all the way to the southern coast of France not far from Marseille. Here they began to evangelize the pagans but Mary Magdalene, aware of the strong grip that paganism had over the land, committed herself to living as a hermit on a mountain so that her life of prayer and penance could drive the demons from the area. It is this tradition of Mary Magdalene in a mountain wilderness that is captured in that original image I saw in Vienna.
I found myself on top of that same mountain (admittedly a bit skeptical of the medieval tradition that placed a Biblical saint in the south of France) but still convinced of the fact that the grotto was a holy place, regardless of whether or not Mary Magdalene had actually prayed there. I remember asking for her intercession in my own spiritual life, but despite being on top of a mountain on a gorgeous spring day in southern France, there was no “mountaintop moment” of faith (though there was an impressive view with not a single cloud in the sky).
Fast forward a few months and I was on top of another hill, but this one was in Steubenville, Ohio. I was working for the Power and Purpose Conference and one of the speakers was reflecting on the faith of the woman in Scripture (believed by some to be Mary Magdalene) who anointed Jesus’ feet, washing them with her tears and drying them with her loose hair.
But as I sat there listening to the speaker’s reflection I was overwhelmed not by the immense mercy of Christ in the story, but by an intense sense of despair. While the speaker had encouraged those listening to see themselves in this woman’s place receiving the love of Christ, I could only relate to the reaction of the Pharisee at whose house Jesus was eating. I knew that if something similar had happened while I was entertaining Jesus in my house, I would likely have done as he had, pursing my lips and looking down on such a public emotional outburst. I wasn’t identifying with this woman; I was judging her, much like the bald man in the middle of this painting.
But while I recognized my own disapproval, I also knew that there was another emotion buried deeper. The truth of the matter was that I was jealous of this woman and her faith. I was jealous of her lack of fear to appear in such a state before others, and I wished more than anything that I too could be a woman capable of being so undone before the eyes of the man who loved me.
That was the word that came to my mind describing this woman: undone.
It haunted me because I could not square it with the woman I thought I was supposed to be. Living a Christian life means living a life of discipline. There’s a reason, after all, that Jesus’ followers were called disciples. Christians are called to live a virtuous life, and virtue is not easy. It is a habit (habitus) that is cultivated, with effort, over a lifetime. Jesus does not just accept mediocrity from his followers but demands greatness of them by commanding them to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
And that is the phrase Satan uses to draw the perfectionists of the world, like me, away from Jesus with twisted truths. The lie of perfectionism is deadly, precisely because it contains the grain of truth found in Jesus’ command to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Because it is true that the Christian should strive to live a rightly ordered life. After all, sin is the choice to live in a dis-ordered manner, in a way that is not in accordance with the nature or reality that God has given us. But the perfectionist doesn’t so much strive to bring order to the disordered parts of his life as he tries to hide those disordered parts altogether and completely ignore their existence.
I’ve worked hard in my life to do the right thing, and with that has often come a reputation for perfection. Whether it’s been my peers, teachers, or adults in my life there has always been a certain expectation (from myself and from others) that I will live and act in a certain “perfect” way, with my life completely “together.” One of my greatest fears has always been that I will disappoint others if I somehow failed to live up to these expectations.
Fear is a terribly effective weapon of the Evil One, because he used it to cloud my relationship with God. This is because I was not just afraid of disappointing others, I was afraid of disappointing God if He “found out” about my flaws and imperfections. I was living under this crazy delusion that I somehow had to “fix” myself before I could ever hope to be in relationship with Him. The vicious part of it was, the more I tried to hide my flaws from God and fix my brokenness on my own, the more flawed and broken I became. And the more flawed and broken I became, the more I lost hope that I could ever be in an intimate relationship with God.
That was a dark time in my life but there were many distinct moments of grace and insight that drew me out of that darkness. However, this post is about the specific grace and insight I received through the life and intercession of Mary Magdalene, so let me get back to that, because what Mary Magdalene really showed me was how to be broken and imperfect before Jesus. The belief that I somehow have to have everything totally together in my life before I could “present” myself to Jesus was a toxic one, straight out of Hell. What that image of Mary Magdalene, exposed and undone in the wilderness, showed me was that if ever there is a person I ought to reveal my brokenness to, it’s Jesus. Because just as one does not reveal their nakedness to everyone, one does not reveal one’s brokenness to everyone either.
It’s been written that those who are nearly naked in front of strangers have little left to reveal to their lover. The same is true with our own brokenness and emotional vulnerability. It is not right to reveal the most intimate parts of our hearts with everyone, even if some of those people are good friends, simply because such vulnerability diminishes the preciousness and value of those parts of our inner life. But there are some people who, due to the intimate nature of their relationship with us, not only should have the ability to see those parts of us but, in a sense, have a right to. This is because it is not just acceptable for a lover to see one’s nakedness, it is also incredibly fitting.
The same can be said of our relationship with Jesus. As the supreme Lover of our souls, it is not just acceptable to be as vulnerable before His gaze as Mary Magdalene is in that painting I fell in love with, it is also incredibly fitting and even necessary for our salvation. If you do not stand before Jesus in a state of spiritual nakedness that reveals all your flaws and areas of personal vulnerability, how could you ever hope to reach the level of intimacy described in the Song of Songs or portrayed in Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa?
Yes, Jesus commands his disciples to be perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect, but do you know what he says before that verse? Do you know the context? Right before this verse, Jesus says:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? And if you salute your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5:43-48)
Why do I emphasis these proceeding verses? I do so precisely because of who they can refer to. Yes, we’ve all heard that we should “love our enemies” but have we ever really considered just who that can refer to? Of course we apply it to our little brothers when they steal our dessert or people on social media who call us dirty names because we believe in Jesus, but in our everyday life, are these the people who are our worst enemies? Are these the people that pose the greatest threat to our spiritual lives? I ask this because I would contend that most of the time, our worst enemy is none other than ourselves.
I’ve said things to myself I wouldn’t say to my worst enemies. I’ve persecuted myself by telling myself that I’m too imperfect to be loved by God. But Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Perhaps, besides little brothers and atheists, Jesus is commanding us to love ourselves when He says this. Perhaps He wants us to pray for ourselves because when we do this and recognize our own inability to save ourselves due to our self-destructive nature, we actually become “sons of [our] Father who is in heaven.” Perhaps He wants us to know that claiming our divine sonship means that we have to remember that we need our Father’s help precisely because we are just children who can’t take care of ourselves.
Recognizing that we are God’s children, we can therefore trust Him, because God is a good Father, and he makes the sun rise and the rain fall on the good and the bad, the just and the unjust. And even if we are the bad and the unjust, He will rain his mercy on us if we are humble enough to remember that as God’s children we need his mercy. He’s not going to deal out punishment to us if we do this because “what [father], if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish give him a serpent?” (Mt 7:9-10).
The important thing is to ask for the mercy we need, which is hard and scary because it means revealing our own deficiency by stripping away every external façade that veils (often rightfully so) those deepest and most inward parts of our heart. But we are called to reveal these intimate parts of ourselves to others, we are just called to do so as a lover and not as a public exhibitionist.
On this note, I’ll leave you with one final thought: Isn’t it fitting, given this last point, that the Catholic Church has recognized the sacredness of this act of being vulnerable with Christ and has sacramentalized it in the sacrament of Reconciliation? Isn’t it fitting that in this sacrament we do not proclaim our faults in a public square but whisper them quietly into the ear of one sitting in persona of Christ, our Divine Lover, only to hear Him whisper back “you’re forgiven”? Could you ask for a better external sign of the inward reality taking place? This side of Heaven, I’m not sure that you can.
Peace and blessings,