On Magdalene

I lost a bet with Mark yesterday and now owe him dishes. I casually mentioned the visit of Pope Benedict to Britain for the canonization of Cardinal John Henry Newman. I noted that I had read that it was contrary to the changes that this Pope had made in how canonizations were done. Mark said that this was just a beatification. I objected. And so the bet was made….  

 Thinking about Cardinal Newman and saints reminded me of a discussion earlier in the day and of the feast that occurred this week, Our Lady of Sorrows, one that is special to Canossians. We have been focusing on St. Magadalene, the foundress of the Canossians, and on the spirituality of the order in our morning talks. Magdalene is a fascinating woman, sometimes called the Mother Theresa of Italy. Born into a wealthy, aristocratic Italian family in the late 1700s, her life was characterized both by working with the poor and marginalized “to make Jesus known and loved” and by efforts to prevent sin, a sort of pre-emptive approach to the social problems of the day. We saw a contemporary example of this latter aspect at the Canossian parish we visited Wednesday for the feast. The church, with a basketball court and playground prominently situated beside it, was hard against the very active neighborhood with its project apartment buildings and ubiquitous graffiti. I doubt that the whole property comprised much more than an acre. During the service, we could hear the play of the teenage boys that we had passed on the way in. Where might they otherwise be?  

St. Magdalene of Canossa. Her dress is that of the lower classes and became the habit of the order.

Part of Magdalene’s attraction for me is her striking combination of courage, creativity and practicality. She lived in a time when the options for devout young women were limited to marriage or cloistered religious life. Magdalene attempted life as a Carmelite twice, but backed out because it didn’t allow her a means of active service. Her vocation emerged slowly over many years because of family responsibilities. Her innovative efforts to address the needs around her were dizzyingly wide-ranging. How does one mind encompass visiting the sick in hospital, catechizing chimney-sweeps, training rural teachers, offering the Spiritual Exercises to rich young ladies, and setting up a home for indigent girls? Clearly, she was attuned to the Spirit’s leading. As it was put to us, her rich friends saw the same problems, but Magdalene saw them with different eyes, with the intention of doing something about them.  

The crucifix at St. Magdalene parish church

 And yet there is this devotion to our Lady of Sorrows. To highlight the sufferings that Mary endured is not an emphasis calculated to gain wide appeal. We don’t like the hard truth that there are limits to what can be done. Sometimes loving is restricted to simply being present. Like Mary, Magdalene’s heart must have been broken by the suffering she witnessed.  And we may have to undergo our own dark hours. In our discussion Diggy shared her traumatic experience of watching a child die from AIDS in the first days of her time in Togo. Magdalene understood that Mary, particularly at the foot of the cross, is our model for those times of sorrow and grief.  

Celebrating with Naomi and Mark, the VOICA volunteers, and the Canossian sisters

But these shadows do not predominate.  There is a palpable sense of joy among her spiritual daughters, the Sisters that we have met. We were invited by Sr. Angela to celebrate with pizza at a local restaurant after the Mass. It was an occasion marked by laughter, prayer, singing (Mark and Meghan do a great duet of Non Nobis Domine, popularized in Henry V), toasting, and … joy. I imagine that the other patrons thought it was altogether a good thing that they were at the outside tables.  (posted by David) 

Related links:
From the Word on Fire blog, this post reflecting on Our Lady of Sorrows includes lines from Wendell Berry, one of my favorite thinkers.

Homily prepared by the Vatican for St. Magdalene’s canonization.

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One Response to On Magdalene

  1. Janet says:

    Love your posts! Here is a reflection on Mary the Mother of Sorrows that a friends just sent to me; http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/cw/post.php?id=356

    Teresa Tomeo’s dad just died and my friend Ann Muggeridge has gone to her final reward. Please pray for them. Thanks.

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