An Esoteric Quest in The South of France will be taking place from June 4-9 (with pre and post conferences). For complete information visit www.esotericquest.org.
A special Early Bird Rate is available until March 20th.
Kayleen Asbo, Ph.D., holds four advanced degrees in mythological studies, psychology and music. She is the Artistic Director for the Mythica Foundation and is a faculty member of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes at UC Berkeley, Dominican University and Sonoma State University. She has led workshops, retreats and pilgrimages throughout the world on the mythology of Mary Magdalene for the past ten years.
What led you to develop a fascination with Mary Magdalene?
I had a very powerful dream in 2002 in which Mary Magdalene appeared in a small wooden shack with an Orthodox dome and handed me the baby Jesus. She said if I wanted to find true Christianity, I needed to follow the path from France to Wales. I learned the next day that my birthday falls on her Feast Day: July 22. That set me on a course of pilgrimage and study that culminated in a doctoral dissertation in mythological studies and a decade of teaching, preaching and leading retreats. Before the dream, I had only known her from “Jesus Christ, Superstar”, which I had seen as a child.. The year after my dream, the Da Vinci Code was published, awakening a whole new collective interest in Mary Magdalene that seems like it is still growing. The past few years, I’ve taken people on pilgrimage to Provence, to follow in the footsteps of her life and learn of her teachings. The effect is always profound. She speaks in the depths of each human heart in unique and individual ways to offer liberation and transformation.
How did Mary Magdalene come to be so closely associated with the South of France?
According to the Legenda Aurea (the most popular book of the Middle Ages), Mary Magdalene arrived on the shores of Provence with her siblings from Bethany after being cast adrift in a rudderless boat from Palestine. The earliest actual evidence we have for her presence is ostensibly from the 2nd century, but oral tradition going back another century maintains that she taught and preached throughout this region that was known as Gaul at the time. In 415, the great Christian theologian John Cassian (a saint in the Orthodox Church) arrived in Provence to establish a double monastery whose purpose was both to guard the relics of her body and to provide a model of the contemplative life based on his years of experience and research living amongst the Desert Mothers and Fathers of Egypt.This became the blueprint for Saint Benedict in the 6th century, and hence, the foundation of all of Western Monasticism. Her presence is everywhere in Southern France – it is difficult to find a village in which there is not a church or street named after her, and the older stained glass windows and statues very often depict her teaching and preaching. In Southern France, she is revered as a figure of towering spiritual authority.
How has the way she is viewed changed over the course of history?
Mary Magdalene has had the most varied portrayal of any figure in history: teacher, disciple, virgin, whore, mother, bride, temple priestess, embodiment of Sophia. I believe that she has held what Carl Jung would have called the collective Shadow over the centuries. The earliest images emphasized her role as the faithful disciple of Jesus, the courageous witness to the crucifixion and the first witness to the resurrection. Her early title, “Apostle to the Apostles” carries enormous reverence within it. As Western Christianity adopted the doctrine of Original Sin and began to demonize the body, gradually Magdalene’s portrayal became conflated and confused with other women, particularly the unnamed sinner in the Gospel of Luke, the anonymous woman taken in adultery and a real-life penitent prostitute, St. Mary of Egypt. By the time Pope Gregory the Great preached his infamous Easter sermon of 591, a movement had begun to collapse all of these women into one. There have been other traditions throughout the centuries (such as the Cathars) that have maintained the emphasis on Mary’s spiritual teachings. This esoteric tradition was profoundly re-energized with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945 and the translation of the Gospel of Mary in the mid-twentieth century. These early Christian texts indicated that she wasn’t just one of the disciples of Jesus’s inner circle; she was the “Woman Who Knew All”, the “Embodiment of Wisdom”, and arguably the person that Jesus intended to take over his mission and message.
In our time, many people are claiming Mary Magdalene as a priestess, an initiate in the Isis mysteries. Side by side with the image of Mary Magdalene as teacher, leader and prophet, the image of Mary Magdalene as bride and mother has become extremely powerful and popular in our time. I can’t tell you how many people I have met who claim to be of the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene! I suspect that we are once more in the midst of a compensatory reaction of the collective. At the very time when marriage is at an all time low, and more and more women are electing not to have children, isn’t it interesting that there is such a powerful drive in our culture to turn her into Mrs. Jesus?
What are some of the most surprising facts about her?
One of the most surprising things that I learned this past year is that the original Tour De France was not a bike race but a pilgrimage journey that was undertaken by craftsmen. They would walk across France to the Caves of La Baume (where she was said to have spent the last 30 years of her life in contemplative prayer) to be initiated into a lay order devoted to manifesting the sacred within the ordinary, taking Mary Magdalene as their patron saint.
Both St. Francis and Teresa of Avila had profound inner relationships with Mary Magdalene. In the grotto of La Verna where St. Francis received the stigmata, the only objects are an altar table and a statue of Mary Magdalene, and the woman who is buried with Francis in his tomb, Lady Jacqueline di Settisole Frangipani (nicknamed “Brother Jacoba”) had a profound connection to Magdalene. Her family tended the Magdalene Chapel at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, where Fra Angelico and (most of!) Saint Catherine of Sienna are buried .
The beginnings of the Medieval Inquisition are completely tied up with Mary Magdalene. The first attack of the Albigensian Crusade was launched at Beziers on the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene when, on July 22, 1209, the entire town was put to the sword and the citizens taking refuge in the Cathedral of Mary Magdalene were burned. The following year, another mass attack was carried out in Minerve on her feast day.
Both the best and the worst of religious history are connected with Mary Magdalene. On one side, the music of the Troubadours, the magnificent art throughout the centuries, and the profound mysticism of great figures like John Cassian, Teresa and Francis; on the other hand, some of the worst atrocities ever known to humankind.
You have been involved with an opera in San Francisco about Mary. Can you tell us more about this?
I was very grateful for the opportunity to work for the San Francisco Opera during their world premiere of Mark Adamo’s Gospel of Mary Magdalene. The Opera was anticipating great controversy with this work, so I was brought in to provide a three hour workshop for the staff and board of the Opera outlining the historical background of Mary Magdalene and the non-Canonical gospels of Thomas, Philip and Mary which were used as source material for the libretto by the composer. I also wrote the program notes for the opera, and after every performance, conducted “talk backs” to answer audience questions. The audience reactions were intense (both positive and negative), and we had fascinating discussions. It was wonderful to be in the midst of such an important conversation about the woman who is nearest and dearest to my heart. The composer of the opera, Mark Adamo, is one of the most delightful and brilliant people I’ve ever met, but our perspectives on Mary differ quite radically. I believe the Gospel of Mary is truly one of the most inspiring and transformational pieces of sacred literature we have, but most of the text was cut out of the opera. Mark Adamo left out almost all of the spiritual teachings of the Gospel of Mary, and focused instead on the conflicts between Peter and Mary, and developing her character as a woman who was a bridge between the sexual and sacred realms. In doing so, like the Catholic Church in the 6th century, he conflated Mary Magdalene with the woman taken in adultery. Ultimately, my profound disagreements with this perspective spurred me on to write my own musical passion play in an effort to be more faithful and comprehensive to including both canonical and non-Canonical source material, where Mary’s sexuality is never addressed. Instead, she appears consistently and reliably as a woman of spiritual insight, devotion, faithfulness and courage: a disciple, teacher and spiritual leader, particularly in the Gospel of Mary.
What are you most looking forward to on our Esoteric Quest in the South of France?
I’ve been to Carcassonne three times before, and always love it. It is like walking into a fairytale. To be amongst fellow scholars and pilgrims sharing stories about the music, art and history of the astonishing Occitan culture is a dream come true. Every single presentation looks magnificent, and I wish I could go to all of them!