To God alone be the glory for this true story…
Join me as I meander along my musings and, as we wend our way, watch out for.:
- a modern movie and its location
- a medieval English abbey
- a lost Renaissance painting
- a legendary epic voyage
- the earliest Christian letter
- a new appreciation of prayer.
Except for the first, the rest took me by surprise the weekend before last. As pieces of an ‘invisible jigsaw’ they’d fallen into view like fresh snow.
Our long weekends off weekday busy-ness start on Fridays, and Friday before last we enjoyed strolling around Chichester city centre in warm sunshine. Even-tide, we relaxed by catching up on an iPlayer movie recommended by our eldest daughter…
This movie written and directed by Emilio Estevez is most engrossing. It stars Martin Sheen as an irascible American doctor, Tom, who goes to southern France to deal with the loss of his son (Emilio Estevez) after his accidental death after setting off on “The Way of St. James” (see map). Rather than returning to the States, Tom decides to honour his son’s ambition and complete the journey on his behalf. But he doesn’t expect the profound impact this trip has on him. The Way tells the story of his near-500 miles hike to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain.
The route is one of many to one of the oldest of pilgrimages sites in Europe. I recalled learning about its connection with Reading Abbey upon researching the abbey’s history Founded in 1121 by king Henry I, this English abbey was also one starting place for the Camino de Santiago, and is reputed to have the remains of St James’ hand as a relic. (My researches began in my office overlooking the ruins of the abbey’s mill, and are as copied here.)
So this movie had a personal, albeit indirect, relevance – but more was to come on the ‘morrow…
Lost painting found
The next morning I found buried inside Saturday’s paper some interesting facts about a ‘centuries-old art history mystery’ –
Caravaggio’s original ‘Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy’ has been discovered in a private European collection, the world’s leading expert on the Renaissance master has claimed.
Although the 1606 painting has been copied several times, historian Mina Gregori says the original has finally been found. The Telegraph’s Andrea Vogt says this expert won’t reveal which country it is in but can confirm that when she first saw the 100 by 90cm oil on canvas in the owners’ home, she had no doubt. Andrea reports, Gregori called the find a “marvellous addition” to the art world. The 80-year-old scholar and authenticator said seeing the original with her own eyes was a career highlight: “I think after all these years, I deserved it”.
This article rang a bell deep in long-forgotten memories of my pre-Christian interests because:
The painting refers to the legend in which Mary, living as a hermit in a cave in southern France near Aix-en-Provence after Christ’s death, was overcome seven times a day by “the delightful harmonies of the celestial choirs”.
That reference, especially about an ecstatic trance, would connect with remarks I was yet to hear on the third day, and thus start seeing a part of this ‘invisible puzzle’. But we should first consider the importance of this biblical person.
Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus alive after his burial in the garden tomb and so many, including Pope Benedict, regard her as an “Apostle to the Apostles”. She was the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back from the dead and was to later become Bishop of Cyprus. This family are reputed to have been of royal blood and owned estates in and around Jerusalem as well as at Magdala near the Sea of Galilee, where the younger sister Mary lived and is said to have fallen into a sinful life. Jesus is thought to have frequented one or other of their premises whilst travelling with dozens of disciples.
This blessed woman became deeply devoted to Jesus after deliverance – no wonder she later sat wrapt in His teaching instead of helping her sister. On that need Jesus remarked, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42 emphasis added).
Hence, Mary Magdalene is patron of contemplatives and Caravaggio’s painting reflects an outcome of her desire and her Master’s promise.
(Thank you to ‘Joe Catholic’ for also pointing out Mary is a model for penitent sinners. Also see this informative rebuttal of modern Catholic biblical scholarship.)
Next, I dived into my library and dug out a book bought in 1971 during my investigations into early Church history.:
The Coming of the Saints
This book by John Taylor, first published in 1906, is replete with source references and combines history and legend to portray the earliest Christian missions into western Europe (Spain, France and Britain). It helped me as a non-believer to learn about the early church’s transmission of Jesus’ original teachings. In my story, I explained my desire to find out why churches were not doing what Jesus had done, as He promised in John 14:12, as well as how much of His teaching had been lost.
The editor of the 1967 reprint answers complaints about mixing written records and local legend, to say this book shows they substantiate one another and dovetail together. “Of particular interest are the references culled from churches founded by the saints who were companions of our Lord during His ministry”, maintains Gladys Taylor. She writes her namesake gathered evidence from a pilgrimage made to the French churches, and other countries, and thus produced impressive proof of their antiquity.
One chapter summarises the Life of St Mary Magdalene complied by Rabanus Maurus (776-856 AD) – a manuscript copy of which is lodged in Magdalen College Library, Oxford. In his closing years he was Archbishop of Mayence (Mainz, Germany).
First however, I needed to re-remind myself of the book’s main thesis. Its first chapters examine the known historical events, and those behind the scenes, at the close of and after Jesus’ life. Taylor thus adds detail to scripture’s narrative and he posits a list of disciples additional to the apostles, deacons and the family of Jesus. In addition to considering the ‘home-base’ of Capernaum, he lists names of followers from the house on Mont Zion and the city of Jerusalem, and towns of Bethany, Emmaus and Jericho.
Then Taylor covers some early missionary journeys not covered in Acts of the Apostles, noting Dr Luke’s historic account doesn’t refer to the evangelical mission in Sardinia and Spain of John’s brother James. The only reference to James after that of Pentecost is his death at the hands of Herod in Jerusalem in 44 AD (Acts 12:2). His remains are said to have ended up centuries later back in Santiago de Compostela. Hence, pilgrimages to his shrine, as mentioned above.
Persecution following Apostle James’ martyrdom led to the dispersal of many disciples from Jerusalem. (This was about 10 years after that led by Saul of Tarsus.) Tradition of Provence, southern France, has a number of them being bundled into a boat without oars or sails somewhere near Mt Carmel and set adrift. They’re reputed to have been Lazarus, Joseph of Aramathea, Maximin (leader of disciples after the apostles and a friend committed to the care of the Magdalen) as well as Martha and Mary, Mary wife of Cleopas and a third Mary (Salome) and others.
However, I was interested in checking John Taylor’s reference to the correct James at Jerusalem. Was it John’s brother, or Jesus’ brother James who later led the Jerusalem church and wrote a brief epistle. It is James’ historic ruling at the first Church council that enabled non-Jews to associate with the Church without having to comply with the Mosaic laws their Jewish brethren had before coming to Christ.
So to clarify, I wasn’t so interested in Mary Magdalene as wanting to check out what Paul wrote to the Galatian churches about his post-conversion history. I recalled mention of church leaders he met when in Jerusalem, as well as Luke’s account of those meetings (Acts 15)
Written circa 50 AD Paul’s letter is the first and therefore the oldest, canonical Christian document and earlier than the Gospels. Therein Paul tells what he did, where he went and how he learned the Gospel of Jesus by direct, personal revelation; that is, not from any original disciple or apostle:
13 For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it….15 But when it pleased God…16 to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood,17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. 18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 (Now concerning the things which I write to you, indeed, before God, I do not lie.) 21 Afterward I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was unknown by face to the churches of Judea which were in Christ. 23 But they were hearing only, “He who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith which he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God in me.
Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and also took Titus with me. 2 And I went up by revelation, and communicated to them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to those who were of reputation, lest by any means I might run, or had run, in vain. (Emphases added)
Video on Sunday
The next day, Sunday, we wanted some extra teaching and – independently – chose to watch the Paul Keith Davis and James Levesque video discussion I’d blogged about.
In arguing for the supra-natural abilities and dimension required to bring in the harvest that meets the heart of God, “as it is defined in scripture”, Paul Keith maintains this is for those who walk with God in realms of glory and demonstrate the supra-natural. He defines and explains this relating it to Jesus’ own ability (from 27:00 on video).
Then he tells of his mis-perception of Jesus’ prayer life (at 30:35) and surmising what it had been like after a long day ministering and teaching and travelling on foot – and then go pray and spend hours in prayer…thinking,
“…what a disciplined life!” says Paul Keith.
“No, you totally misunderstood My prayer life!” the Lord said.
“He said, “My prayer life was My reward!”
“The Lord’s been showing me how, at the end of the day, after He did everything He was supposed to do, He went out into the wilderness and He was released into the Presence of the Father!
“Just think about that for a minute…after a hard day could you go pray 5 hours…? No? Think of it as this:
“James, go spend 5 hours standing before the throne of God, go spend 5 hours in the Presence of your Father – let Him download on you, let Him refresh you, restore you.
“That’s why Jesus could pray all night! He lived under an open heaven and when He went to pray – as soon as He quieted His flesh – He was standing in the Presence of His Father, standing before the throne of God, getting refreshed and learning what the Father wanted to reveal.”
An exceptionally instructional and fascinating teaching. At 41:30 he considers this was how apostle Paul spent lengthy periods with the Lord before he ever met any disciples and apostles and moved into any ministry.
Consequently, having considered that the day before I was ready for what he said!
This insight on Jesus’ prayer life is the common denominator between the discussion on video and Mary Magdalene, who spent lengthy periods immersed in God, as had Jesus.
Paul Keith’s insight doesn’t detract from but enhances the model prayer Jesus gave his disciples, as recorded in Matthew 6:5-15. And it magnifies Jesus’ personal prayer to our Father in John 17. It’s no wonder this Mary went so deep yet so high in contemplative ecstasy – will we?
(Remember to, “First seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness…” – Matt 6:33).
Furthermore, from apostle Paul’s explanation this kind of intimacy was the norm in the earliest years of “The Way”, as the fellowship was known before the term “Christian” was coined at Antioch. (See Acts chapters 18-24, especially vv 24:18 and 22.)
Also, Paul Keith later refers to the event on the road to Emmaus, about which and without any prior intention I’d inserted a remark just before publishing the latest blog before that weekend!
Therefore, that weekend is yet another example of ‘God-incidence’ (footnote refers).
By the way!
A couple of days later upon opening up my Bible to find where I’d got to, I found at the second turn the beginning of Luke chapter 8 staring up at me. There from the left-hand column just beside the volume’s spine I just couldn’t miss these words:
Now it came to pass, afterward, that He went through every city and village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with Him, 2 and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities — Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons, 3 and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided for Him from their substance.
Later, upon reviewing and adjusting the draft of this piece, I decided to refer to the first name for the group of believers as followers of the way of Jesus Christ; the way of life He taught and demonstrated as “The Way, The Truth and The Life”.
Then when I’d done and re-read the draft I realised I’d gone FULL circle – starting with the movie ‘The Way’ I’d ended up by including scriptures on ‘The Way of Jesus’ !!
Furthermore, an email arrived about that time which opens as follows.:
Truth, we find, is stranger than fiction. Some things that happen to us when in relationship with Christ no writer could make up. And I am amazed continually at what our God does in my life and in this world…(continue here)
Could the Lord be getting our attention to pray the way He does?
+ + + + + + + + + + + +
Image: Flying puzzles by Nokhoog Buchachon, courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.com