“But I don’t have a patron saint,” I thought to myself. It was the first night of my lenten retreat and we were encouraged to ask for our patron saint’s intercession for the weekend.
In the past few years since my conversion to the Catholic faith, I’ve wanted to have a special friend in heaven, but no one stepped forward. Maybe St. Monica? St. Elizabeth Ann Seton? A mother like me? Someone bookish? A fellow convert? Crickets.
“The funny thing about patron saints,” said the speaker, “is that they usually find you, you don’t find them.”
“Well nobody’s making much of an effort to find me,” I thought. After a brief sigh of disappointment, I headed into the chapel for prayer and forgot all about patron saints. As my thoughts slowed down and settled into the silence, I tried to focus on what it meant to experience the lenten season, what it meant to go into the desert. Would I have to go all alone?
Then, there she was. Not in a vision or a mystical voice. Just the simple memory of a statue by Donatello that I studied 8 years ago in college: Magdalene Penitent. A wooden rendering of an old and weathered woman with only her long, wild hair to cover her emaciated body. Her hands in prayer. Her hollowed eyes in a gaunt face. Grotesque and yet beautiful, all at once.
The art history lecture was coming back to me: the statue depicted St. Mary Magdalene in her declining years offering prayers of love and repentance, living as a hermit in the wilderness. The story behind the statue might have been conflated with St. Mary of Egypt’s life of solitude in the Egyptian desert, or perhaps it was displaying the legend of the Magdalene’s latter years lived out in the wilderness of Gaul. Either way, this was the image of a woman who had gone into a desert of penitence, prayer, and suffering out of her great love for Jesus. As I tried to gather the courage to enter my own desert of penitence and self-examination in the Lenten season, what a perfect companion!
And yet, how unexpected! She isn’t a woman with children in her lap reading a book, the sort of saint I thought would find me. She isn’t a respectable or composed wife and mother. St. Monica or St. Elizabeth Ann Seton she certainly is not. Nope. My saint was the mad woman possessed by seven demons and set free by Christ.
Although it isn’t explicit in Holy Scripture, some have claimed that St. Mary Magdalene was also the prostitute of Luke 7 and John 12 who poured the precious ointment over Jesus in preparation for his burial—an act that scandalized those who thought Jesus should have nothing to do with such a woman. Judas criticized her for wasting a year’s wages on this act of love. But she didn’t count the cost. Jesus was her only treasure. She knew who she was: a woman who owed everything to Him. And she found in Him the deep and precious love of a God who found her valuable. More than valuable—worth dying for.
When it came time for Jesus to sacrifice himself for her and for all humanity, she followed him all the way to the Cross. Her love was not like the love of the disciples who fell asleep in the garden while He prayed in agony. She did not cower under scrutiny or deny her Lord, like St. Peter, when faced with the dangers of following him.
At the foot of the Cross, the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. John the Evangelist, and this redeemed prostitute watched the scandalous Love of God, suffering before their eyes. And even after his death, she did not give up, move on, run away, or hide like the disciples. She went to the tomb and wept. Finding it empty, she told some of the disciples, but after seeing the empty tomb, they went home.
When everyone else walked away, she stayed. And she wept and went on weeping because she knew she had nothing else in the world but Jesus. Jesus was her treasure and they had taken even his lifeless body away from her. She wept so much that the Gospel of John says she bent into the tomb. Perhaps she was holding onto the entrance with her hands to keep from fainting, her head down, weeping with hysterical grief. Or perhaps her anguish so consumed her that she could not physically stand and she fell into the grave.
Why would this sort of fanatical, hysterical saint find me–a homeschooling mom of three whose idea of excitement is a third cup of coffee and reading in the bath tub? She’s a wild bundle of emotional volatility. She just couldn’t seem to keep it together!
“I’m not like her,” I thought, almost disdainfully.
“No, but you should be,” prompted the Holy Spirit. “Why did she grieve more than the disciples? Why did she stay, weeping, when everyone else returned to their home?”
“Because she loved more.”
“Why did she love more?”
And St. Mary Magdalene started to make sense to me. “Because she knew who she truly was: a woman in desperate need of God’s mercy and love. She knew that Our Lord that was her only hope, that He had found her, freed her, and died of love for her.”
That’s why she couldn’t leave the tomb. That’s why she fell into the grave where her beloved had been laid, as if by doing so she could follow him into death and find him once more. Her reaction was not foolish. Her vision was clearer than the disciples. She knew who the Lord was. She knew that if the God of the universe loved her, nothing else mattered. Christ was her true home and if He was gone, she had no where to go. She knew that to place her hope, her worth, her love in anything else was folly, madness.
And when Christ was resurrected, He didn’t appear to the twelve disciples first. He didn’t appear to St. Peter, the first Pope on whom he founded his Holy Church. Our Lord came to St. Mary Magdalene, a soul on the margins of society, a redeemed sinner who had nothing but her love for Jesus to distinguish her. And because of this deep love, she was given the great joy of the first sight of the risen Lord.
In her grief Jesus spoke to her and she knew it was him. When he said her name it was like the parable of the sheep who know their Shepherd’s voice. She knew her Lord. And she grabbed ahold of Jesus because her joy upon seeing him was overflowing. She held on to her Lord so tightly that He actually had to tell her to let go of him!
I pat myself on the back for giving God the time of day. Could I ever posses a love of God so strong that He would need to tell me to “Calm down! Let go! Stop holding on to me!”
Outside of the empty tomb, Christ sent St. Mary Magdalene on a mission and she carried it out with joy. She ran to share the good news of the Resurrection. And two thousand years later, she’s still running, sharing the joy of the Gospel with me, reaching out to teach me how to love Jesus with the sort of scandalous, foolish love that is reviled by the world. The sort of love that pours out everything we have for love of Jesus. The sort of love that makes our vision clear to understand that He is our only hope and that because He loves us, we are free to run with joy to his embrace.
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.
This piece first appeared at Catholic Exchange and has been republished with permission.
What a lovely post! Mary Magdalene is my confirmation Saint, and I’ve really enjoyed walking with her. She has such an interesting impact on the Church through the ages.
What a great confirmation saint, Ashley!
Ailey Mora says
She is also my confirmation Saint. =)
Beth (A Mom's Life) says
Beautiful! Absolutely beautiful! Oh how I long to know Him and love Him the same way she did.
Beautiful! I love both St. Mary Magdalene & St. Mary of Egypt! In the Eastern Catholic tradition, Mary Magdalene is often referred to as the Apostle to the Apostles or as Equal-to-the-Apostles as she was the first messenger sent by the Lord Himself to announce His resurrection. What a gift she received!
The kontakion (hymn) for her Feast Day…
Standing before the Cross of the Savior,
Suffering with the Mother of the Lord,
The most glorious Mary Magdalene offered praise with tears.
She cried out: What is this strange wonder?
He who holds the whole creation in His hand chooses to suffer:
Glory, O Lord to Your power!
That is such a beautiful hymn, Patricia! You always have such lovely insights to share! Keep ’em coming 😉
Thank you for sharing. I have never looked at Mary Magdalene that way. Will definitely be spending time in prayer over this!
Thanks for reading, Mary!
St. Mary Magdalene was not the redeemed prostitute of Luke 7 and John 12, see: http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/200806/who-framed-mary-magdalene-27585
There are other sources confirming she’s not the prostitute spoken of in scripture.
Yes, but in artistic tradition she’s often conflated. I think it’s still worth reflecting on 😉
I remain convinced she was the prostitute. The Boble scholars were not there. St Catherine of Sienna would hear saints singing on her rooftop. One had a far more beautiful voice than the rest. She asked our Lord who it was and He told her it was Mary M whose voice reflected the depth of her live. Thank you for the lovely article.
I, too, have never really understood or seen Mary Magdalene in this way. Thank you for sharing your insights into our sister in Christ.
My pleasure, che!
Thank you so much for this! It could not have come at a better time. I also was feeling like I didn’t have a patron saint a couple months ago when St. Mary Magdalene found me too, and I have been feeling all funky this Lent like I just can’t get into the swing of it. This is just what I needed, a reminder of St. Mary Magdalene’s example of love of Christ and that I need to be asking her for her intercession! Isn’t it funny how the Holy Spirit works!
I love that, Emily!
I remember studying the same statue in my high school art history class and being amazed at how haunting and emotional it was to look at. And that hymn is my dish washing hymn! I find myself singing it whenever I’m doing chores.
I agree with the speaker from your retreat that patrons tend to find us rather than the other way around. St. Nicholas found me while my husband and I were going through the RCIA process and has been particularly helpful to us throughout our adoption journey.
What a lovely post. I’ve never heard the idea of the patron saint finding you. (The wand chooses the wizard…sorry! I can’t resist!)
I had a similar experience during RCIA, trying to choose a confirmation saint that fit my idea of the Catholic I wanted to be or who had some relationship to me. I almost choose St. Jane Frances de Chantal and I still feel very close to her, but in the end, St. Faustina found me. I remember feeling reluctant…thinking that if she was alive today she might be institutionalized, but for reasons very similar to your devotion to Mary Magdeline, I realized she was an example of complete trust and faith and would be a wonderful guide.
On a side note, Mary Magdeline is a convert! 🙂
This is such a beautifully written post. Thank you for sharing it.
I was always challenged by understanding Mary Magdalen. Then my heart completely opened to her and I was overcome with awe and humility after watching the passion movie, ironically. We were rewatching it after a few years during Lent last year, and I was completely floored during the scene when she was mopping up Christ’s blood alongside Mary after the scouraging at the pillar. I pray and hope that I would be brave enough, and love Christ deeply enough, to do the same before the crowds who so desperately want to kill him and his followers.
And, sorry for a ridiculous amount of typos. I’m typing from an iPhone with a very cracked screen….because 3 kids under 6.
Such a beautiful post! I haven’t thought about the Saint reaching out to us. Great point of view!
Such a good post! Thanks for a beautiful reflection on St Mary Magdalene.
An amazingly beautiful post that brought me to tears. God bless you. St. Mary Magdalene,pray for us.
This was absolutely beautiful and touched me on a deep level. I’m not sure I know who my patron saint is — I’ve always thought it was Maria Goretti because I fell in love with her at a young age (and she later became my Confirmation saint) but now I feel compelled to really ask the Lord who in His family he has for me, specifically.
Thank you for sharing this story. As always, I love your writing style and your beautiful insights. You are a gift to the Church!
Rebecca McEvoy says
Haley, this is wonderful. Thanks for sharing! I am going to spend some time pondering her life now this Lent.
So I love Mary Magdalene and wrote a paper on her for grad school. I realize your writing is more devotional than academic, but she was not a prostitute as far as we know. And she was no more (or less) of a sinner than St. Peter or St. Paul. She was the “apostle to the apostles,” and I don’t think that just because biblical scholarship was subpar in the past (and resulted in conflation of different Marys), we should perpetuate those misconceptions now. Overall, great article, and thanks for writing about the idea of a patron saint. I did the random saint generator for this year, and got the founder of Opus Dei!
I love your blog and podcast and I’m totally jealous of your farm living 🙂 My kids would be in heaven!
Jennifer Lynn Magdalene says
When I got married, I was so excited that I could finally add Magdalene to my name!
Lovely. Such a real, beautiful portrait…
Manda Rozsa @ Sweet Right Here says
I love hearing these stories! I’m currently spending time with many saints, trying to find a connection with one of them to call my patron saint. I love the reminder that they will find us. I can’t wait for a day when I can tell a beautiful story like this about how my patron saint found me!
I read your blog now and again but had to comment because Mary Magdalene is also my Confirmation / patron saint for similar reasons as you shared. I also picked her because she is patron saint of sinners, and aren’t we all sinners? A sinner is what I am in my most fundamental sense, and so that is how I most identified. I have also always been so moved by the fact that Mary Magdalene herself was such a sinner and yet was so revered by Jesus, and she so revered him. When I was younger I always used to wish that I could be like her and have had the chance to clean Jesus’ feet with my hair and tears. So inspiring. And how Jesus honored with so many wonderful blessings… truly demonstration of the forgiveness of sin. I love her as my patron saint.
I think it’s so funny how saints find you sometimes. I had a similar experience, (shamefully accompanied by a real reluctance to accept it on my part! ) Thanks for such a thoughtful piece.
Criscelda Mortimore says
I would like to write a sonnet about her. Any recommended reading or documentaries, art or movies to give me writing material? Anyone?
Hi – I know this was written years ago, but thanks for the lovely post.
I’m currently in the RCIA process and converting to Catholicism (former Lutheran) after contemplating it for several years.
After several, shall we call them wayward years, full of ungodly and licentious behavior, and years of unabated drug and alcohol abuse, I finally hit a new rock bottom on Christmas of 2019 at age 34.
Even looking back I can’t remember how, but I somehow stumbled upon St. Mary of Egypt and her story. I became so moved by her complete and total change that was afforded her by the grace of Jesus through Our Lady.
Her story continues to reassure me that a deeply flawed sinner, with many sins similar to my own, can and will change with God’s grace and mercy. She also reminds me that temptation is sometimes so unbearable but Our Lady and Jesus are always there to help us and with their help we can always win over the evil one!
Lastly, before even getting half way through your article, I kept hearing “St. Mary of Egypt” over and over again in my head and thought of her immediately when I saw the sculpture. And then when I saw her name right there in your writing, I knew for sure she was my patroness confirmation saint. 🥰
Thank you again!
She’s such a great saint! Welcome home!