(Interview with Sr. Mary Leonora Wilson, FSP, author of a new novena to St. Mary Magdalene)
Hello, Sister! Thanks for taking this time. So let's start... I understand that you are the author of St. Mary Magdalene: Novena and Prayers, released just in time for Lent. How did you first come to know and connect with Mary Magdalene?
I first connected with Mary Magdalene when I was stationed in Germany, and I was going through a very difficult time. Traumas from my childhood were surfacing. One day, I finally decided I needed help. That same day I read the Passion narratives. As I read, I found myself watching Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross, then later in the garden weeping, and I felt an inexplicable pull toward her. I decided to look up all the Gospel references to Mary Magdalene and was struck with the one where Jesus cast out seven demons.
At that time, I had enough knowledge of Scripture to know that the number seven there meant fullness of suffering. We don’t know what the demons were that Jesus cast out, but the number seven signifies that the situation was severe. At that time I felt I could relate to that! So, right then and there, Mary Magdalene became a mentor for me. And I found myself turning to her again and again, asking her how I could get through my difficulties. I just kept talking to her, asking her advice, and watching her relationship to the Lord.
That’s where it began, and it’s only grown since then. As I progressed in my religious life, seeking more and more to follow Jesus in the way he was leading me, Mary Magdalene became a model for me. Just think of what it was like at the crucifixion: people were jeering at Jesus and anyone standing with him, and there Mary Magdalene was, letting herself be mocked with him. She was such a woman of courage! Jesus singled her out to send to the apostles. So I really wanted her to be known.
Would you call Mary Magdalene a woman for our times?
Absolutely. I believe she’s a woman for anyone who’s wounded in any way. She’s a role model of courage, of a woman who speaks her mind for a world that’s losing a sense of what fidelity and commitment are all about. She’s a mentor for anyone who wants to be a disciple of Jesus, an intercessor for anyone who needs healing in any way, for all those who feel called to proclaim the gospel.
Tell us about how you came to write this novena booklet.
Before writing this novena booklet, I had written a chaplet because I wanted to pray with the different aspects of Mary Magdalene’s life that we know from Scripture. There’s so much legend surrounding her, and I really wanted to focus on Scripture. I've been praying with this chaplet to enter deeply into Mary Magdalene's life.
Then one day I thought, there’s enough here for a novena, and she deserves a novena! I believe that praying a novena to a saint is not something almost magical where we can get what we want through their intercession, but rather a novena allows us to reflect on their lives and learn from them. I wanted to write a novena through which we could almost be mentored by Mary Magdalene.
The elements of the novena that can be found in Scripture are these:
- She was a disciple of Jesus who served him out of her means and traveled with him. And that’s the definition of a disciple—to follow and serve.
- She was freed from seven demons, which appeared impressive even to witnesses and the evangelists.
- She was a cherished friend of Jesus, which we know from the way he called her by name.
- She was a sister to someone—to the apostles, at least—and like a daughter to the Mother of Jesus, who was probably close by wherever Jesus was. Mary Magdalene was like a spiritual daughter to Mary.
- She stood under the cross and kept vigil at the tomb. After everyone else went home, Mary Magdalene stayed.
- She was a witness to the resurrection in the sense that she discovered the empty tomb; she was the first to witness Jesus alive.
- She was sent as an apostle to the apostles. The Book of Acts begins by saying the disciples and the women were in the upper room. There is no reason why she wouldn’t have been there to receive the Holy Spirit with the others.
There’s a lot of folklore attached to her in later centuries. What do you think of that?
Was she the woman who cried at the feet of Jesus? Was she the prostitute? We have no way of knowing. The real questions should be: Was she a sinner? Did she love Jesus much? Yes, on both counts.
A lot of what’s been written about her, the polemical studies, comes out of a patriarchal society’s view of life. But there’s one thing I can’t get rid of in my mind: correct or not, this folklore has inspired so many to turn to her and, through her, to abandon a life of sin. That’s something to think about.
In one of her visions, St. Mechtilde saw Mary Magdalene, who told her anyone who honors the tears she shed at the feet of Jesus when he forgave her sins would receive graces—she even explained what graces they would receive. Certainly, this isn’t the gospel, but it stands in a long line of the lives of visionaries and saints that seems to give credence to certain legends. The legends have been there longer than the studies! To me, it doesn’t matter. What matters to me is how her life, from the moment she started following Jesus, was totally dedicated to following him. The demons referred to can be many different things—sin, trauma, compulsions; it's enough to look at the world today to see there are so many ways to define our demons.
So while it’s true there is folklore around Mary Magdalene, I wouldn’t disqualify it entirely; at the same time, I don’t want to base my own relationship with Mary Magdalene on that—truly, there’s enough in the gospels! It nothing else, God permitted it so that many people have been affected for the good.
What are the graces that you desire for those who pray this Novena and the prayers to Mary Magdalene?
I would encourage people to pray with the Scripture references in the back and let Mary Magdalene herself speak to them through those passages. And see what happens! That’s how it started with me. I just prayed with the Scriptures. They opened up so many possibilities for me, and Mary Magdalene ended up becoming a friend. When I’m in need of courage or solace, I turn to her. Imagine her friendship—a woman who can love as she did, cry as she did and let herself be sent by Jesus as she did!
When I want to find the right words to get the message out there, I pray to Mary Magdalene. Remember, the apostles didn’t believe her, but that didn’t stop her. There are even legends of how she continued to proclaim the gospel after the resurrection, and I have little doubt they’re true. With the type of woman Mary Magdalen was, that woman wasn’t going to stop!
For me it’s especially important that she’s a woman. There are so many male role models in the New Testament—John, Peter, Paul. But there aren’t too many women; there isn’t a lot of information about the women. Really, it’s just the Blessed Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, and maybe Lydia in the Acts of the Apostles. Mary Magdalene provides a special model for discipleship. A lot of women saints are either domestic—wives, mothers, and so on—or else they’re nuns. This is a woman of the world who had the courage at the same time to be a follower and disciple of Jesus. She appeals across the whole spectrum. She shows how the qualities of womanhood make women the right kind of person to be a disciple.
It’s my hope that this little booklet will speak to many people in such a way that they, too, will become friends with this great saint and that it will inspire them to live their Christian discipleship with all the personal and individual qualities God has blessed them with – just as Mary Magdalene did – proclaiming Jesus with their lives.