St. Mary Magdalen, Penitent
Mary Magdalen, so highly praised in the Gospel on account of her heroic conversion and fervent love of our Saviour, was born at Bethany, not far from Jerusalem. Her parents, as many authors say, were nobles. She had one brother named Lazarus, and a sister called Martha. When the fortune which her parents had left was divided, the Castle, or as others say, the borough of Magdalum, came into her possession from which she also derived her name. St. Luke writes that before her conversion, she had been a sinner in the city, by which some authors understand that she had been addicted to the horrible vice of impurity; while others say that she had given scandal to the whole city by her splendid garments, frivolous manners, and her unrestrained associations with those of the opposite sex. The same evangelist also says that our Lord Jesus Christ delivered her from seven devils, which words many understand literally, believing that on account of her iniquities, she was possessed by several evil spirits, and like many others, was delivered from them by our Saviour.
The generality of the holy Fathers, however, believe that Martha had persuaded her sister to be present at the instructions of Christ, and although Magdalen at first followed this advice, only out of curiosity or to please her sister, it nevertheless proved to be the first step to her conversion. It is beyond all doubt that, moved by divine grace, she saw her guilt and resolved to do penance without delay; for, on hearing that Christ was eating with Simon, a Pharisee, she immediately repaired thither. She was unwilling to wait for an opportunity to speak with the Saviour alone, and to ask pardon for her sins without others being near. She could not wait so long. The unhappy state into which her soul was plunged, since she had come to the knowledge of her sin, made her impatient. Although foreseeing that her public confession would draw upon her the derision of the Pharisees and others, she heeded not; publicly she had sinned and publicly she would do penance. Hence, regardless of all human opinion, she hastened into the room where Christ was at table, and bitterly weeping, she cast herself at His feet, bathing them with a flood of repentant tears. Having wiped them with her hair, she kissed them reverentially and then opening a vase of alabaster, which she had brought, she anointed them with perfumes. It is not recorded whether, during or before the anointment, she spoke a single word, but her penitent heart was seen in her humble attitude at the Saviour’s feet, and the abundance of her tears spoke more eloquently than words could have done. It spoke of her repentance, it humbly asked pardon for her sins.
Christ well comprehended this language; for, turning His eyes upon her, He said these comforting words: “Thy sins are forgiven thee;” and afterwards: “Thy faith has made thee safe; go in peace!” Before saying this, He reproved Simon, the Pharisee, and praised Magdalen, because when Simon saw that Christ allowed Magdalen to bathe His feet with her tears and to kiss them, he said to himself: “This man, if He were a prophet, would surely know who and what manner of woman it is that touches Him; for she is a sinner.” Christ knowing the Pharisee’s thoughts, said to him: “Simon, I have something to say to thee. A certain creditor had two debtors. One of them owed him five hundred pence, the other fifty. As they, however, could not pay him, he forgave them both; which, therefore, of the two, loveth him most?” “I suppose,” replied Simon, “he to whom he forgave most.” “Thou has judged rightly,” said Christ; and turning to the woman, He said to Simon: “Dost thou see this woman? I entered into thy house; thou gavest me no water for my feet; but she bathed my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair. Thou gavest me no kiss; but she has not ceased to kiss my feet. Therefore I say to thee: Many sins are forgiven her, because she has loved much.” Oh! what great consolation must have filled Magdalen’s heart, when Christ’s own words assured her that her sins were forgiven! She certainly went immediately to announce to her brother and sister the inexpressibly-great mercy which the Saviour had bestowed upon her.
From this moment her heart was wholly changed, and entirely consecrated to Christ. She followed Him everywhere and listened with undivided attention to His instructions. One day Christ lodged at the house of her sister Martha, who was greatly concerned to serve Him well, while Magdalen, sitting at the Lord’s feet, listened eagerly to His words. Her sister complaining of her, said to our Saviour: “Lord, dost Thou not care that my sister has left me alone to serve? Speak to her that she help me.” The Lord, however, praised Magdalen’s zeal, saying: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things. But one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.” These words of the Saviour proved how much pleased He was with Magdalen’s eagerness to listen to His holy teaching. He also showed how great His love was to her, when, yielding to her prayers and to Martha’s, He raised Lazarus to life. This wonderful event is to be found in the holy Gospel of St. John, Chapter xi., and will be more circumstantially described in the life of St. Lazarus. Here I will relate only the event which occurred six days before the last Easter which our Lord celebrated on earth. Christ came to Bethany, to the house of Simon, the leper, where they had prepared supper for Him. Lazarus, who had shortly before been raised to life, was, with others, sitting at the table. Martha served, and Magdalen brought a costly sweet-scented ointment, and anointed first the head and then the feet of Christ. When Judas murmured against it, saying that they could have sold so costly an ointment and given the money to the poor, Christ again defended Magdalen against the deceitful murmurs of the traitor and of some others, and said: ” Why do you trouble this woman? for she has wrought a good work upon me. The poor you have always with you, but me you have not always. Amen I say to you, wheresoever this Gospel shall be preached in the whole world, that also which she has done, shall be told for a memory of her.”
Soon after this, when the passion and death of our dear Lord took place, the Gospel tells us that Magdalen, with the divine Mother and other pious women, was present upon Calvary at the Crucifixion of the Saviour. Words are too poor to describe the feelings of grief and tenderness with which she kissed and worshipped the holy body when it was taken from the Cross. Although after the burial, she went to Jerusalem with the other women, she returned to the sepulchre of Christ, with some other women, on the day after the Sabbath. It was their intention again to anoint the holy body of the Saviour with fragrant essences. On the way, they thought of the impediment which the great stone would be which closed the Sepulchre of the Redeemer. They most probably knew nothing of the guard which Pilate had set thereat the request of the High Priest. “Who will remove the stone from the entrance of the Sepulchre?” said they to each other on the way. God had removed this obstruction; for, when they arrived at the Sepulchre, they saw that the stone was rolled away and the Sepulchre was open. They went together into it, but found that the body had disappeared. An angel informed them that He, Whom they looked for, had risen, and commanded them to announce it to His disciples. Soon after, Magdalen was blessed with the appearance of the Lord in the form of a gardener, which is more circumstantially related in the Gospel. There is no doubt that she several times had the grace to see her Divine Master during the forty days He was upon earth. She was also present when He gloriously ascended to heaven; after which He, on Pentecost day, sent the Holy Ghost to His disciples, apostles, and other faithful followers. As long as Magdalen remained at Jerusalem, she was with the Divine Mother and other pious women.
A considerable time after these events, the Christians were cruelly persecuted, and the Jews were determined to suffer Lazarus, the brother of St. Magdalen, no longer in Jerusalem, as he was a living testimony to the divinity of Christ. Hence they placed him, his two sisters, Magdalen and Martha, a servant of theirs, named Marcella, and Maximin, one of the 72 disciples of Christ, in a boat, without rudder, sail, or boatman, took them far from the land into the high sea, and left them, being quite certain that the waves would soon swallow the boat and all its occupants. But God led them safely to France, and they landed at Marseilles amid a crowd of heathens who had come to the shore. This miraculous voyage prepared the hearts of the heathen inhabitants to receive the true Faith. Lazarus, who had been consecrated bishop by the apostles, made his episcopal See in the same city where they had landed. Maximin, as priest, chose the city of Aix as his residence. Martha slowly gathered a great many women around her, and having instructed them in the Christian faith, led a retired, pious, almost a religious life with them, while Magdalen converted a great many by her teachings and her holy life. In the course of time, however, she retired into a desert, far from any habitations of men, and made her abode in the dark cavern of a mountain. There she dwelt during 30 years, leading a most severe life, occupied in praying, contemplating the divine mysteries, and the bitter Passion and death of our Saviour. She repented daily, with floods of tears, of the iniquities of her former days, although she had heard from the lips of Christ that they were forgiven. In one word, her life was much more that of an angel than that of a human being. Hence we may well believe, what many relate of her, that she was frequently visited by angels, who provided her with food and even raised her into heaven to hear the seraphic choir sing the praises of the Most High. Before her death, she was carried by two spirits of light into a little church two miles from her dwelling, where, having received from the hands of St. Maximin the food of the angels, she soon after gave her soul into the keeping of Him Whom she had so fervently loved while upon earth.
The cavern in the mountain where the great penitent so long dwelt, as well as the little church which contains her relics, arc renowned for the many miracles wrought there. The most illustrious, however, was the Saint herself, who from so great a sinner became so great a penitent and so fervent a lover of Christ. The holy fathers can hardly find words of praise enough, not only for her heroic conversion, but also for her generous, faithful, and fervent love towards her Saviour. And who can sufficiently admire the austere penance, lasting for 30 years, which she underwent in the cavern, although she knew that her sins were entirely forgiven?
I. St. Magdalen is an example of a great sinner, a great and true penitent, and at the same time a great Saint. Consider her life well. She was a great sinner; hence the holy Evangelist calls her “a sinner of the city;” but she nevertheless obtained pardon for her sins and gained salvation. Learn from this that you need not despair, although your iniquities may be great and manifold. You can obtain pardon and gain salvation just as well as Magdalen, if you do true penance as she did. The beginning and the road that led Magdalen to repentance was listening to the word of God. Had she neglected this, who can tell if ever she would have come to the knowledge of her sin, and to repentance? May this teach you how necessary sermons are for sinners. Many remain and die in their iniquities because they neglect attending them. Magdalen displayed unusual greatness of heart, when, conquering herself, she entered the house of a stranger, and in the presence of all those at table with Christ, cast herself at His feet and repentantly acknowledged herself a sinner.
Let it be a lesson to you that a sinner must conquer himself, if he will do true penance and obtain pardon for his evil doings. It needs only one firm resolution to overcome himself, should it be a hard task to confess his iniquities. If he was not ashamed to do evil, why should he be ashamed to confess it? It is not required of him to confess his sins publicly before all men, but only to the priest, who, he knows, dares never reveal a word of what is told to him. If he still thinks it impossible to confess his sins, let him remember that it is incomparably easier than to bear the sufferings of hell. Magdalen begged of Christ nothing but the forgiveness of her sins, while others going to Him asked of Him health for themselves or others. “She alone,” says St. Chrysostom, “begged for the health of her soul, for deliverance from sin, and was immediately heard.” This should be an example to you, that you should ask nothing of God more frequently, than to forgive your sins, and lead you to everlasting life. This prayer will reach the throne of God much sooner, and be answered by Him much more certainly, than if you request of Him temporal goods, which are often more injurious than wholesome.
II. As soon as Magdalen recognized the gulf into which her sins were precipitating her, she did penance, which she continued until the end of her life, although she was certain that she had obtained pardon. She endeavored to atone for her past offences by following Christ even to His cross, by nourishing a fervent love for Him, by faithfully attending His instructions, by displaying unwearied zeal in converting others. God enlightens you in regard to the misfortune and danger in which you are. You also recognize the necessity to do penance. Oh! do not neglect to tear yourself away from all evil, and do not put off your penance from day to day until death overtakes you. Neither be content with only confessing your sins, but repent of them daily, and practise works of penance as long as your life lasts. Try to expiate, in a measure, the evil deeds of your past life, by great fervor in the service of the Almighty, and by other works of love and charity. Endeavor also to lead others to the feet of your Lord. By following the penitential life of St. Magdalen you may rest assured that you will follow her into eternal bliss. Further, do you not think that Magdalen has oftentimes given humble thanks to God for not having let her die in her sin, but having given her time to do penance? I believe this most certainly; and you have every reason to do the same, since, how long would you be in hell, if you had died in your sin? To whom do you owe thanks for not having died? Oh! to no one else than the infinitely merciful God, to the same God Whom you have so often offended! How do you thank your Saviour for so priceless a grace? ” Whom have I to thank,” asks St. Augustine, “that the earth has not engulfed me? that heaven has not annihilated me with a thunderbolt? that fire has not burned me to ashes? or that water has not drowned me? Whom have I to thank for it but Lover of my soul! Whose mercy is above all His works.” But let me ask you, does God, so inexpressibly kind to you, deserve that you should renew your offences? Oh! what a question! Truly you must be the most ungrateful of all human beings, if you again offend the Almighty, after He has shown such mercy to you. Magdalen acted not thus: but, on the contrary, loved her Saviour with a constant affection; as otherwise, her penance would not have been true. And thus will your penance not be true, not sufficient to save your soul, if you again offend God. “It is a useless penance,” says St. Augustine, “if we again tarnish it with new sin. Repentance is idle, if we commit the sin again. To ask pardon for sin committed, and then to sin again, is folly.”
Lives of the Saints: Compiled from Authentic Sources with a Practical Instruction on the Life of Each Saint, for Every Day in the Year by Rev. F. X. Weninger. Permissu Superiorum. New York: P. O’Shea, Publisher, 67 Barclay Street and 42 Park Place. 1876.