In this written interview, Depth Insights host Bonnie Bright interviews Kayleen Asbo, cultural historian, musician, writer, and teacher on the topic of “The Myths of Mary Magdalene,” also the title of her upcoming webinar series. The first of that series, “The Many Faces of Mary Magdalene” is free to the public (must register to join) and takes place May 1, 2013, at 7pm PT.
BB: How did you get interested in Mary Magadelene, and where did you begin your research?
KA: My first memory of Mary Magdalene is as a five year old little girl, crying at the song “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” in a movie theatre when I saw Jesus Christ Superstar, The song haunted me and a few years later, when my first piano was delivered, I spent the first few days trying to pick it out by ear. About ten years ago, I had a very powerful dream in which Mary Magdalene appeared and said if I wanted to find the real Christianity, I should follow the trail from France to Wales. I took the dream seriously, and have been researching early Christianity and its manifestations in France and the British Isles every since. I don’t know if it is “real” Christianity, but I have discovered an amazing set of stories and myths and had incredible adventures along the way.
BB: That speaks so strongly to the power and influence of the unconscious on our lives—both through music and through dreams. When the dream said “follow the trail from France to Wales,” did you know what that meant? Were you already familiar with manifestations of Mary Magdalene in those places? Are there real-life instances of Mary Magdalene there, and if so, what are some of the specific images or stories you found? Tell us about your discoveries, how you felt, and what they meant to you at the time and even now.
KA:I had no idea what the dream meant at all. Mary Magdalene and France?…That made no sense to me at the time. It was the year before The DaVinci Code came out, and I had no knowledge about the Medieval legends of her there. I drew a picture the following week filled with other symbols which also made no sense to me then—an Egyptian ankh and some symbols that I later discovered were alchemical images. It has been a slow process of putting together the pieces- and it has taken me on a wild adventure, returning almost every year to Europe to follow new clues. I identified primarily (and still do) with a form of spirituality that is based in Benedictine monastic practices. One of the things I discovered in tracing her pathway in Provence is that the site where she ostensibly spent the last 30 years of her life praying and meditating in a cave is the very site that John Cassian also founded a double monastery after he left Egypt—and he was the foundation upon which St Benedict built his Rule, with its emphasis on imaginal connection to scripture and the idea of the prayer of the heart.
I feel like Wales was a bit of a goose chase. I was expecting to find some sort of wonderful spiritual community there that spoke to my deepest longings—and that didn’t happen. What did happen, however, is that I went pony trekking on my birthday (the feast day of Mary Magdalene, July 22) in the wilds of the Black Mountains. We were talking to the proprietor of the tiny B & B and she was telling us stories about her artist father. I got cold goose bumps on my arms and asked his name. It was Eric Gill, the lithographer. My spiritual director, a Dominican nun, had given me a copy of his picture “The Nuptials of God,” which had carried around in my wallet. It is as you see an image of Mary Magdalene and Jesus in an intensely erotic embrace. He had created the image on the very ground I was standing. I’ll be going back to Wales this Fall to facilitate a women’s dreamquest- I hope I can find a few more clues while I am there this time!
BB: It’s very exciting to hear stories of synchronicity like the connection you made in Wales to Eric Gill. I believe the best research happens out of paying attention to such synchronicities. What if you hadn’t paid attention to those goosebumps—or even engaged in conversation with the proprietor? Its great you’re going to follow up. On that note, can you say more about the images that exist of Mary Magdalene and Jesus in erotic relationship and how you perceive that aspect of Mary’s life? While its true that the Dan Brown novel brought this idea to the forefront of pop culture, I can’t imagine there are many of those images, or artists who have had the courage to realize them.
KA: There are implications of an intensely erotic relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene from the earliest days of Christianity, even in traditional orthodox literature. For example, the very erotic love poem The Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) was assigned as one of the Catholic liturgical readings for her feast day. It is filled with images of powerful yearning and union with lines like “Let him cover me with kisses, for your love is sweeter than wine”, and “I am sick with longing.” The imagery is of nuptial union and it is very explicit. That theme of yearning is also present in the psalm that was chanted on her feast day as well: Psalm 42, “As the deer longs for the waterbrook, so yearns my soul for you, O God.”
There are a surprising number of artists who have created images long before Dan Brown that bespeak of intimacy—the Rodin sculpture “Jesus and Mary Magdalene” [at left] in the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco is one, made all the more potent because Rodin modeled Mary Magdalene after his own doomed mistress, Camille Claudel. The question is—and has always been—do we take these images and poems literally or symbolically? The Song of Solomon was the favorite of Christian mystics and monastics, vowed to lives of celibacy, but individuals who saw in these texts (and sometimes images as well) a beautiful representation of the soul’s yearning for union with the Divine in a spiritual sense.
I meet many people who have a very strong and intense reaction one way or another to the idea of Jesus and Mary in an erotic union or marriage. Some are horrified, others fascinated and compelled. For me personally, it is not one of the central questions. Theirs was an Erotic relationship, in the largest, Platonic sense of the word: full of vitality, life force, intimacy and transformational power. And it could have been physical, but it didn’t have to be. I think at a collective level what we see behind the current fascination around this question of “Did they or didn’t they?” is the hunger in our world to bring together the sexual and the spiritual in a sacramental way of integration. How do we do that ourselves in our own lives? For me that is a much more important and urgent question. Our culture has (for the most part) a radically secular understanding of sexuality and then there is often a radically disembodied spiritual life. For many people, there is church on Sunday and then there is Las Vegas on Friday and Saturday. I think this causes all kinds of shadow issues and psychic disintegration, with suffering at both an individual and collective level. Mary Magdalene invites us to consider how to hold the tension of those seeming opposites together.
One of the things that most intrigues me about Mary Magdalene is how she has been perceived as virtually every possible female archetype. While so many people identify her with the sexual element, with the penitent sinner, adulteress or prostitute, this was really an invention that developed only in the west during the 4th through 6th centuries. Catholic dogma from the time of Pope Gregory taught that once she repented of her sexual sins, she lived the life of a celibate ascetic. It is an interesting case of enantiodromia [an abrupt shift of direction]. This was never part of the doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox Church where she is perceived as the Apostle to the Apostles—always both pious and virginal. Martin Luther and Brigham Young are just two of the figures in history who believed she was married to Jesus, and once again many people are wanting to fit her into that role.
What I love is that she can’t fit into a box because she is so multifaceted. You see this particularly in the history of art. The Virgin Mary always looks about 22, lithe and lovely, and almost always blonde with a face of placid serenity. With Mary Magdalene, there is a radical diversity. She is young and old, voluptuous and emaciated, prim and pornographic, glamorous and haggar; of every race, with every hair color, and with expressions of every emotion from hysteria to meditative contemplation, and desolate grief to ecstatic joy. [See *note at the bottom of this post and image just above by Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo]. The word that the gnostics used to describe her is “anthropos,” a word meaning “fully human.” I think she is a profound mirror (and teacher) of what it might mean to be just that—fully human.
BB: It is interesting that we have projected so much onto Mary Magdalene—as you say, she has been perceived as virtually every possible female archetype. In many ways, she seems to be a unifier. In fact, Carl Jung spoke poignantly about the the long-repressed call for a return of the feminine as a Deity and in 1950 when the Catholic church made the announcement of the Assumption of Mary, he called it “the most important religious event since the Reformation.” (in The Essential Jung by Anthony Storr 1983 p. 324), adding that as the Virgin had bodily entered Heaven, it meant that “the heavenly bride was united with the bridegroom,” their union signifying the hieros gamos, or sacred marriage referred to in alchemy. In other words, Jung believed the event fulfilled our archetypal need for a feminine deity on some level, in that the bringing together of these two archetypal forces allowed a release of the tension of opposites. I would argue that while it was indeed helpful for our culture on some level, we still have a long way to go before that archetypal balance will be restored on a broad cultural plane. What role do you think Mary Magdalene has played in helping to establish balance in the collective, and how might each of us engage with her in our own individuation processes?
KA: I think Mary Magdalene really could be the figure for our times who holds the key to alchemical transformation. For us modern seekers, it much easier to relate to the idea of a sacred partnership or hieros gamos between Jesus and the Magdalene than bridal mysticism through Jesus and his mother. She holds fascination for people regardless of their religious background. I’ve met Pagans, Christians, Jews, and Atheists who are all equally drawn to her. Many of the Gnostic texts indicate that she was seen as the embodiment of Sophia or Divine Wisdom—but a kind of embodied wisdom is what we really need now. She holds that better than any other figure I know. She was called “The Woman Who Knew All,” and the arc of her legends encompasses both grace and disgrace, the body and the spirit, grief and joy in equal measure.
Her symbols as well, encompass a profound duality. Magdala means “tower,” but she is also associated with the symbols of the wild forest, returning to nature. While she lived the first part of her life a wealthy city woman in Palestine, according to French legend, her last thirty years were spent in silent meditation in a cave in the remote mountains of Provence. Her color, red, is both a symbol of sin (scarlet woman, woman in red) and spiritual authority (cardinal red, the pope’s red shoes). For a decade now, I have witnessed in my workshop participants a profound transformative spark once they see the range of images that have been created inspired by her or begin to create their own stories, poems, and paintings through active imagination. One of my favorite paintings is by Georges de la Tour [see at right]. In it, there is both deep shadow and a gentle candlelit illumination as Mary Magdalene is deep in reflection, symbolized by the mirror. Mary Magdalene seems very pregnant and on her lap she holds a skull. How much we need that as a symbol in our times! To be able to hold death and suffering in our laps, and still be filled with hope and new life as we reflect upon the light of illumination! That is such a powerful symbol for all us, both as individuals and as a collective—one that has the power to truly transform us if we let it enter us.
To register for the free webinar on May 1, “The Many Faces of Mary Magdalene” which explores Mary Magdalene through myths over the centuries, from faithful disciple to penitent prostitute, embodiment of Wisdom and possible bride of Christ to contemporary guide to fulfillment and wholeness—or the entire upcoming series, “The Myths of Mary Magdalene,” with Kayleen Asbo, M.A., click here or visit Kayleen’s web sites at www.kayleenasbo.com and www.mythsofmarymagdalene.com
*Note for second image above: The wise, knowing half smile on this Magdalene’s face and the silvery sheen of her cloak have made many viewers assume that this is the work of a very modern painter. Surprise! This image of Magdalene—one which embodies such an air of mystery-was painted in the year 1540. While it depicts Mary coming to the tomb (you can see the annointing jar to the far left), the focus here is not on outward action, but inner insight in the moment before she sees the world in a transfigured way. This is the perfect image to accompany the timeless sense of Mary Magdalene which has been reclaimed in our era: a woman of profound wisdom whose spiritual teachings focus on inner contemplation and awareness.
**All images provided by Kayleen Asbo and retain their original copyrights by the original owners.
Kayleen Asbo is a cultural historian, musician, writer and teacher who weaves together myth, history, and the arts with experiential learning. Kayleen is on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Sonoma State University in the Psychology department and the Osher Life Long Learning Institutes at UC Berkeley and Dominican University. Her classes on a wide array of topics ranging from Dante to Contemporary Music have been hailed as “inspirational”, “fascinating and compelling” , “transformational” and “truly life changing”.
Kayleen holds three master’s degrees in music, mythology and psychology. She is currently a doctoral candidate in Mythological Studies with an emphasis in Depth Psychology at the Pacifica Graduate Institute. Kayleen has been a guest presenter and lecturer on the intersection of history, psychology and the arts at Oxford University in England, the Assisi Institute of Depth Psychology Conference in Italy, Chartres Cathedral in France, Grace Cathedral, the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology, and other colleges throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Kayleen is one of four Master Teachers worldwide for the Veriditas Labyrinth Organization, and facilitates workshops at Chartres Cathedral in France every year.
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