Mary and John: Two Examples of Contemplation

This is the last in a three part series on Mary Magdalene with my friend Kayleen Asbo. The first part was What do We Know About Mary Magdalene? and the second part was Was Mary Magdalene a Sex Worker? In this section we are looking at the relationship between Mary and that other famously contemplative apostle, John. All throughout the ancient and medieval churches Mary Magdalene was associated with Mary the sister of Martha. Modern scholars tend to disagree, but there is a beautiful tradition of symbolism which has come out of this association of the two Mary’s. Mary is said to represent the life of contemplation and Martha is said to represent the life of action. You can read more about that here if you like. This is the way action and contemplation are presented in one of my favourite books, The Cloud of Unknowing.

In another one of my favourite pieces of writing, The Voice of the Eagle, Eriugena uses the imagery of Peter and John instead. He uses the empty tomb of Christ to represent the scriptures and seeks to understand the way that faith and action, as embodied by Peter, and understanding and contemplation, as embodied by John, arrive at the truth hidden in the depth of that tomb. The answer Eriugena gives is that Peter gets there first because faith and virtue precede understanding and contemplation in the Christian life, but that John penetrates it more deeply.

I was reading this over again the other day and all of a sudden something clicked. Eriugena left Mary out of the story altogether. It was actually Mary who arrived first and who understood the best. She showed both faith and understanding. She was there the whole time, or at the very least was the first to arrive and the first person who Jesus appeared to. The kind of contemplation Eriugena speaks about is a very philosophical one and John was a very philosophical character. We have lots of intellectually delicious teachings from him like “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” That kind of stuff can keep your mind going for ever.

But the kind of contemplation which the Cloud teaches, and which Mary represents, goes even beyond that. It is the kind of contemplation which never leaves the side of Christ, to whom Christ appears first, and whom Christ trusts to convey his message to the world. In Peter we have faith and in John we have understanding but in Mary we have both, and that makes her the apostle to the apostles.

I asked Kayleen to tell me more about the relationship between John and Mary and this is what she had to say about it:

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