Tuesday 22 July 2014

'With springing tears to the spring of mercy': Anselm's Prayer to Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalen (St Winnow, Cornwall)

22 July is the feast of St Mary Magdalene - a major feast in medieval England, for which recorded names include 'the Maudeleyn day' and 'Maudlintide'. The MED entries for Maudelaine and Marie 2(a) make interesting reading as pointers towards her significance in the medieval period; her popularity was so great and the interpretations of her life so various that I couldn't begin to cover them in a blogpost, but it seems appropriate to begin with a dictionary entry, because the meaning of this saint's legend is closely wrapped up with the meaning of her name.

The above image shows the opening of a prayer to Mary Magdalene in BL Harley 2882, a collection of prayers made in the twelfth century for a community of nuns near Durham. It's a copy of a prayer to Mary Magdalene by St Anselm, which he sent to Adeliza, daughter of William the Conqueror, in around 1071.

St. Mary Magdalene, you came with springing tears to the spring of mercy, Christ; from him your burning thirst was abundantly refreshed; through him your sins were forgiven; by him your bitter sorrow was consoled.

My dearest lady, well you know by your own life how a sinful soul can be reconciled with its creator, what counsel a soul in misery needs, what medicine will restore the sick to health. It is enough for us to understand, dear friend of God, to whom were many sins forgiven, because she loved much.

Most blessed lady, I who am the most evil and sinful of men do not recall your sins as a reproach, but call upon the boundless mercy by which they were blotted out. This is my reassurance, so that I do not despair; this is my longing, so that I shall not perish.

I say this of myself, miserably cast down into the depths of vice, bowed down with the weight of crimes, thrust down by my own hand into a dark prison of sins, wrapped round with the shadows of darkness.

Therefore, since you are now with the chosen because you are beloved and are beloved because you are chosen of God, I, in my misery, pray to you, in bliss; in my darkness, I ask for light; in my sins, redemption; impure, I ask for purity.

Recall in loving kindness what you used to be, how much you needed mercy, and seek for me that same forgiving love that you received when you were wanting it. Ask urgently that I may have the love that pierces the heart; tears that are humble; desire for the homeland of heaven; impatience with this earthly exile; searing repentance; and a dread of torments in eternity. Turn to my good that ready access that you once had and still have to the spring of mercy. Draw me to him where I may wash away my sins; bring me to him who can slake my thirst; pour over me those waters that will make my dry places fresh. You will not find it hard to gain all you desire from so loving and so kind a Lord, who is alive and reigns and is your friend.
For who can tell, beloved and blest of God, with what kind familiarity and familiar kindness he himself replied on your behalf to the calumnies of those who were against you? How he defended you, when the proud Pharisee was indignant, how he excused you, when your sister complained, how highly he praised your deed, when Judas begrudged it. And, more than all this, what can I say, how can I find words to tell, about the burning love with which you sought him, weeping at the sepulchre, and wept for him in your seeking? How he came, who can say how or with what kindness, to comfort you, and made you burn with love still more; how he hid from you when you wanted to see him, and showed himself when you did not think to see him; how he was there all the time you sought him, and how he sought you when, seeking him, you wept.

But you, most holy Lord, why do you ask her why she weeps? Surely you can see; her heart, the dear life of her soul, is cruelly slain. O love to be wondered at; O evil to be shuddered at; you hung on the wood, pierced by iron nails, stretched out like a thief for the mockery of wicked men; and yet, "Woman," you say, "why are you weeping?" She had not been able to prevent them from killing you, but at least she longed to keep your body for a while with ointments lest it decay. No longer able to speak with you living, at least she could mourn for you dead. So, near to death and hating her own life, she repeats in broken tones the words of life which she had heard from the living. And now, besides all this, even the body which she was glad, in a way, to have kept, she believes to have gone. And can you ask her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" Had she not reason to weep? For she had seen with her own eyes -- if she could bear to look -- what cruel men cruelly did to you; and now all that was left of you from their hands she thinks she has lost. All hope of you has fled, for now she has not even your lifeless body to remind her of you. And someone asks, "Who are you looking for? Why are you weeping?" You, her sole joy, should be the last thus to increase her sorrow. But you know it all well, and thus you wish it to be, for only in such broken words and sighs can she convey a cause of grief as great as hers. The love you have inspired you do not ignore. And indeed you know her well, the gardener, who planted her soul in his garden. What you plant, I think you also water. Do you water, I wonder, or do you test her? In fact, you are both watering and putting to the test.

But now, good Lord, gentle Master, look upon your faithful servant and disciple, so lately redeemed by your blood, and see how she burns with anxiety, desiring you, searching all round, questioning, and what she longs for is nowhere found. Nothing she sees can satisfy her, since you whom alone she would behold, she sees not. What then? How long will my Lord leave his beloved to suffer thus? Have you put off compassion now you have put on incorruption? Did you let go of goodness when you laid hold of immortality? Let it not be so, Lord. You will not despise us mortals now you have made yourself immortal, for you made yourself a mortal in order to give us immortality.
 Christ and Mary (Haddon Hall)
And so it is; for love's sake he cannot bear her grief for long or go on hiding himself. For the sweetness of love he shows himself who would not for the bitterness of tears. The Lord calls his servant by the name she has often heard and the servant knows the voice of her own Lord. I think, or rather I am sure, that she responded to the gentle tone with which he was accustomed to call, "Mary." What joy filled that voice, so gentle and full of love. He could not have put it more simply and clearly: "I know who you are and what you want; behold me; do not weep, behold me; I am he whom you seek." At once the tears are changed; I do not believe that they stopped at once, but where once they were wrung from a heart broken and self-tormenting they flow now from a heart exulting. How different is, "Master!" from "If you have taken him away, tell me"; and, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him," has a very different sound from, "I have seen the Lord, and he has spoken to me."

But how should I, in misery and without love, dare to describe the love of God and the blessed friend of God? Such a flavour of goodness will make my heart sick if it has in itself nothing of that same virtue. But in truth, you who are very truth, you know me well and can testify that I write this for the love of your love, my Lord, my most dear Jesus. I want your love to burn in me as you command so that I may desire to love you alone and sacrifice to you a troubled spirit, "a broken and a contrite heart."

Give me, O Lord, in this exile, the bread of tears and sorrow for which I hunger more than for any choice delights. Hear me, for your love, and for the dear merits of your beloved Mary, and your blessed Mother, the greater Mary. Redeemer, my good Jesus, do not despise the prayers of one who has sinned against you but strengthen the efforts of a weakling that loves you. Shake my heart out of its indolence, Lord, and in the ardour of your love bring me to the everlasting sight of your glory where with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, God, for ever. Amen.
Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm, trans. Benedicta Ward (London, 1973), pp. 201-6. The Latin text can be found here.

What a wonderful piece of writing. Anselm was a young man when he wrote this, still in his thirties, prior of Bec, with his most famous works and his troubled time as Archbishop of Canterbury all very far in the future. The prayers he wrote at this early period of his career, such as his prayer to St Paul and to Christ 'our mother', are extraordinarily sensitive, thoughtful, loving meditations, breathing a new spirit of devotion which was to become very influential. Among the many beautiful, delicate turns of thought and language in this prayer, I most like how Anselm explores the liquid imagery inspired by Mary's tears: Christ as the spring of mercy, thirst refreshed, the healing balm of salvation, the watered garden where Christ the Gardener has planted Mary's soul. According to medieval tradition, Mary's most famous tears were those with which she bathed the feet of Christ, but Anselm focuses here on her tears of grief when she cannot find and anoint his body in the tomb - her very human desire to do this last service for the one she loves.

The translator describes this as a prayer of 'love and tears', which would also be a good description of Mary Magdalene's reputation as a saint in the Middle Ages. Tears were an important part of her legend, both in learned and in popular tradition; folklore said that her tears, when they fell to earth, became daisies, and various plants in the daisy family were known by her name - Magdalen daisy, sweet maudlin, costmary. There seems to lie behind this a thematic link between healing tears of penitence, the medicinal power of these plants, and the ointment with which Mary Magdalene was associated and with which she is usually depicted (licour would be the Middle English word which covers all three).
Prosit mihi, carissima, familiaris conversatio quam habuisti et habes circa fontem misericordiae. Hauri mihi ab illo unde lavem peccata mea. Propina mihi de illo unde satietur sitis mea. Infunde mihi ex illo unde irrigetur ariditas mea...

Dearest, turn to my good that ready access that you once had and still have to the spring of mercy. Draw me to him where I may wash away my sins; bring me to him who can slake my thirst; pour over me those waters that will make my dry places fresh...
It was traditional in medieval Biblical exegesis to interpret the name 'Mary' as meaning 'bitterness', and therefore Mary Magdalene as signifying the bitterness of penitence - as explained for instance in Ancrene Wisse (Part 6):
...the threo Maries bohten deore-wurthe aromaz, his bodi for-te smirien. Neometh nu gode yeme, mine leove sustren. Theos threo Maries bitacnith threo bitternesses, for this nome, "Marie," as "Meraht" ant "Merariht," thet ich spec th'ruppe of, spealeth "bitternesse." The earste bitternesse is i sunne bireowsunge ant i deadbote, hwen the sunfule is i-turnd earst to ure Laverd. Ant theos is understonden bi the earste Marie, Marie Magdaleine - ant bi god rihte, for ha with muche bireowsunge ant bitternesse of heorte leafde hire sunnen ant turnde to ure Laverd. Ah for-thi thet sum mahte thurh to muche bitternesse fallen into unhope, "Magdaleine," the spealeth "tures hehnesse," is to "Marie" i-feiet, thurh hwet is bitacnet hope of heh mearci ant of heovene blisse.

...the three Marys [who went to the tomb on Easter morning] bought precious spices to anoint his body. Now take good heed, my dear sisters. These three Marys betoken three kinds of bitterness, because this name Mary, as meraht and merariht, means 'bitterness', as I spoke about earlier. The first bitterness is in repentance of sin and in penance, when the sinner first turns to our Lord. And this is signified by the first Mary, Mary Magdalene, and with good reason, because she, with much repentance and bitterness of heart, left her sins and turned to our Lord. But because some may fall into despair through too much bitterness, 'Mary' is joined to 'Magdalene', which means 'the height of a tower', and this betokens hope of high mercy and heavenly joy.
Anselm implicitly draws on the same interpretation of the name 'Mary' when he talks about Mary Magdalene's amarissime dolens, her 'most bitter sorrow'.
Quid denique, quid dicam, vel potius quomodo dicam, cum eius amore flagrans eum ad monumentum quaerendo flebas, et flendo quaerebas? Quam affabiliter, quam amicabiliter te, quam consolari venerat, magis accendebat; cum ipse se celabat videnti, et ostendebat non videnti; dum praesens ipse quem quaerebas, quem quaereres et cur fleres quaerebat...

Erumpit amantis dulcedo, ut non erumpat flentis amaritudo. Nominat Dominus consuetum ancillae nomen, et cognoscit ancilla consuetam Domini vocem. Puto, vel certe affirmo quia sensit solitam suavitatem, qua vocari consueverat, Maria. O vox delectabilis! o quantum blandimenti! quantum sapuit amoris! nec brevius nec celerius hoc exprimi potuit. Scio quae sis, et quid velis. Ecce me, ne plores. Ecce me, quem quaeris. Illico mutatae sunt lacrymae: non enim credo mox esse restrictas: sed quas contritum cor se torquendo prius exprimebat, eas postmodum cor gaudens exsultando effundebat. O quam dissimilia sunt: Raboni; et: Si tu sustulisti eum, dicito mihi! O quam dissona sunt: Tulerunt Dominum meum, et nescio ubi posuerunt eum; et illud, quia vidi Dominum, et haec dixit mihi!
He tenderly traces how Mary's tears are turned from bitterness - the amaritudo implicit in her very name - into tears of joy: 'At once the tears are changed; I do not believe that they stopped at once, but where once they were wrung from a heart broken and self-tormenting they flow now from a heart exulting'. This is a highly-wrought and stylised prayer, but here Anselm is thinking of Mary entirely as a real person, imagining with deep sympathy this moment of heart-rending emotion. She was grieving, and the one she loved has suddenly come back to life: of course she can't stop crying.

In his prayers St Anselm is - perhaps surprisingly to a modern reader - notably given to tears, and here he sympathises and identifies with Mary's tears much as did a later devotee of the saint, Margery Kempe. Margery, as a penitent woman who herself found relief in floods of devout tears, identified strongly with Mary Magdalene in her devotions, and began her Book on the day following Mary's feast in the year 1436. In her lifetime Margery was often rebuked for her tears, and she is sometimes criticised for them even today - a criticism she shares with her patron Mary Magdalene. After the Reformation, tears like those admired by Anselm and imitated by Margery became synonymous with Mary Magdalene's name; hence the unfortunate post-medieval development whereby those (penitent, Catholic, female) tears became stigmatised as excessive, sentimental, and maudlin.


Ailbhe said...

Came on this when looking for something to send my son John, temporary fellow of Magdalen. Range of material covered very wonderful, and having an amateur interest in Norman ecclesiastical architecture and early liturgy, York Sarum etc when more time shall follow further.
Peter Gerrard, Co. TIpperary.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you!