The Erasure of Mary the Tower

Saint Mary Magdalene by Bartolo di Fredi, mid-fourteenth century. From The Met.

I am Mary.

As a child I hated the name. In our Catholic circles, it was faster to point to the girls not named Mary, and in non-Catholic spaces I constantly heard, “Oh, you’re Mary? Like the virgin?” In those young years, anything even tangentially related to sex was embarrassing, so this taunt immediately made me blush with shame.

When I was about seven and we were on our way into church, I asked my mom why she named me Mary. It was early fall, but I still wore my frilly Easter dress and shiny fake patent leather shoes that had grown a smidge too tight. I shivered in the breeze and stared at the way the shoes reflected the changing trees as I asked, nervous about the answer. I had heard the stories of where some of my brothers’ names had originated, and I was hoping I was named for some distant and intriguing relative so I could share a story that would silence the taunters.

“Oh,” she said, distracted by my brothers shoving each other, “you know. It’s a good saint’s name.”

There was still hope. “Which saint?” I pressed. I didn’t know about any Marys besides the BVM, as my brothers called the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Magdalene, but I knew some saint stories could be downright horrifying. A good solid beheading, or maybe a failed attempt at burning at the stake, would stop the teasing.

“You can choose,” she said vaguely.

My heart sank. The only thing I knew about Mary Magdalene was that she was a prostitute (we didn’t know the preferred term “sex worker” at the time, and I’m convinced that even if we did, the priests would still have referred to her as a prostitute). So my choice as I saw it at seven was to be called a virgin or a prostitute. I stuck with the BVM.

As I grew I learned more about Mary Magdalene—specifically that there is no evidence that she was a sex worker and that she was the first to see the risen Christ. I saw her as another great woman who had long been discredited by patriarchy, but still didn’t give her much thought.

Then, a few days ago, my friend Jessica sent me a text: “Stop what you’re doing and listen to this right now. And then scream into the void with me. For Mary Magdalene.”

She had never made such a request before, so I clicked on the recording from Diana Butler Bass’s Substack. Bass had preached at the Wild Goose Festival, a sermon called All the Marys. I beg you, please listen to it in its entirety.

All the Marys

By the end I was bawling. And I wanted to scream. I also wanted to shout the news from the rooftops. Somewhere deep down in my bones, I felt a recognition awaken and say, “Yes. Yes, this is what I have always known.”

Jessica had the same reaction.

Reading the comments under the Substack, so did dozens of other people.

The extremely short version is this: Bass discusses the scholarship of Elizabeth Schrader, who discovered tampering and “editing” in a fourth-century copy of John. The editing changed “Mary” to “Martha” in John 11, among other things. There is some evidence suggesting that the Mary in question is Mary Magdalene.

There are only two Christological confessions in the gospels. One is Peter, who in Matthew 16 states “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus then names him Peter, the rock.

The other is this unknown Martha-actually-Mary-maybe-Magdalene, who says in John 11, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

Here Bass says that some scholarship suggests that Mary Magdalene was not, in fact, from a city called Magdala, but that Magdalene was an honorific title. In Hebrew, Magdala means tower.

Peter the rock.

Mary the tower.

Mary, the tower who confessed Jesus as Messiah before his resurrection.

Mary, the tower who was the first to see the risen Christ.

Mary, the tower who is widely known as the first apostle and the apostle to the apostles, since she carried the good news to the men hiding in the upper room.

I had never heard this in my Catholic circles, and neither had Jessica.

What if instead of the dichotomy of virgin/sex worker, all the Marys—and all the girls and women of Christianity—had a choice of The Tower?

What if, all along, we had seen women as equals in the faith? What would Christianity look like today?

Can we imagine it? A church built on a rock, that includes a tower?

Jessica mentioned that there is a tarot card called The Tower. She sent me a picture.

She said, “The tower card signifies destruction and liberation.”

The card reminds me of a scene from Rosalie Morales Kearns’ “Kingdom of Women.” The novel has much to say about the subjugation of women in society in general and particularly within the Catholic church, but the scene that stuck with me was when a church caught on fire and the rose window shattered. Whenever I hear news of scandal within the church—sexual abuse, racism, sexism, Trumpism, bigotry against LGBT brothers and sisters—I picture this scene.

I do not revel in thoughts of churches burning. But I do think it’s going to take our imagination to turn things around if we want to avoid it. There are some old habits, old ways of thinking and treating marginalized people, that will have to burn for us all to be free.

At Sick Pilgrim, we would like to invite all of you to imagine a liberated version of the church. What would it look like to have a church built on a rock that includes a tower? Some of our members will be answering this in coming months; we invite you to participate. If you would like to write about how you imagine a liberated church, send us an email at info@sickpilgrim.com, or send a message to our Facebook page.

And Happy Feast of St. Mary the Tower, July 22.

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