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Hearing whispers of Mary Magadelene’s voice

Special Report Writer
New York

Sluts, tramps, harlots -- such women populate the pages of the Hebrew Bible, mostly authored by men. Yet the prostitute par excellence of the New Testament, Mary Magdalene, remains an enigma. Nowhere does it say she lived a life of prostitution. Yet her image as a repentant whore has fascinated painters, preachers, playwrights and the public down the ages.

Mary is the one from whom Jesus expelled seven demons, the one who washes, anoints and massages him, who witnesses his death and burial and is the first person to whom he appears after his Resurrection.

She is likewise the woman who has long haunted the dreams and waking hours of actress Anita Stenger Dacanay.

After a year of reading every book she could corral about Mary Magdalene -- both scholarly and fictional -- Dacanay wrote a play about her, titled “Qadishtu.” The word is Akkadian, the Semitic language of Mesopotamia, and refers to women who lived in temples in the goddess-worshiping civilizations of the Holy Land and parts of the Middle and Near East.

Scholars have labeled these women “prostitutes,” probably because of their liberal sexual practices, Dacanay believes. Yet she has learned that the literal translation for qadishtu is “sanctified” or “holy women.” What if these women were, as some scholars hold, priestesses in the tradition of goddess worship? Could Mary Magdalene have been one of them? What was her relationship to Jesus?

These are some of the questions that Dacanay, who performs the one-woman show, raises with her audience.

The playwright is also concerned about Mary’s significance to women of today. She’s convinced that Mary Magdalene represents every Christian woman. Her depiction as a sinful penitent -- the classic fallen woman -- is part of the heritage that has been yoked to women in the church for centuries, up to and including our own, Dacanay said.

She spoke with NCR at JFK International Airport here in February en route to Chicago, where she lives with her husband, Gary. Dacanay is a member of the Still Point Theatre Collective, a ministry of St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church in suburban Lincoln Park.

The actress has been touring with the company’s “Points of Arrival; a Jean Donovan Journey.” The play depicts one of the four American religious women raped and murdered by Salvadoran soldiers in 1980.

A cruel, distant god

Whether in Chicago or on the road, Dacanay, 32, admits to a 15-year struggle to reconcile the anger she has felt toward the Catholic church in which she was raised and her deepening relationship with the person of Jesus. “I believe the greatest abuse I suffered as a child, an adolescent and an adult was the idea propounded by my mother, the church and society that God was a man,” she said.

Dacanay felt that God the Father “represented something cruel and distant and very male” -- a God who could extract a “horrible” death from his beloved Son. By contrast, she found Jesus’ humility, grace, compassion and courage to be qualities more common to women than to men, she said. “In Jesus I was able to see a bit of what I could truly be if I learned to love well.”

The playwright described the birthing of her drama as “excruciating” and watched herself “vacillate between excitement and sheer terror.” Prayer, meditation, reflection along the shore of Lake Michigan and hearing Mary Magdalene’s voice “in snippets and whispers” all went into the work, she said.

Dacanay wondered if the reason for Christ’s great love for Mary Magdalene was “because she possessed her own spiritual strength and wisdom, because she herself was a child of the Goddess, [a child] who knew and claimed her rightful place on earth and who refused to apologize to the men in power in Jerusalem for being a strong, self-actualized woman.”

Dacanay’s probings lead her to “despise and disclaim” the “prophetic slut” image that she said the church has imposed on Mary Magdalene only to have it taken up in pop culture. The readings started her on a journey of recognition and worship of the feminine divine. Dacanay said that her spiritual searchings were not so much attempts to find a new religion, but to discover how so many had embraced a creed that so suppresses women.

For her, religion is at best a vessel in which to hold our faith. It gives us a structure, guidelines and a path by which to express our souls, she said.

A new consciousness

On her way to rediscovering the feminine divine she talked of detours she’d made into Native American spirituality, New Age, Buddhism, yoga and most recently Wicca -- all of them leading her to an awareness of the divine feminine and of the holiness of all creation, she said. Dacanay is convinced that a new feminine divine consciousness is forming on the planet.

The fact that many other women also identify with this concept is, she said, a result of their struggles, their feelings of alienation and loneliness, and their choosing at times solitude and at other times sharing, but always an interconnectedness to the divine. For Dacanay, the divine includes and reveres the feminine alongside the masculine.

Millennias of patriarchy and church teaching -- from the evils attributed to Eve, the first mother, to the Catholic church’s perception of women as unfit for priesthood today -- have silenced the souls of many women, she fears, and have caused them to feel unworthy. Dacanay was reduced to sobs last year when attending Mass in Toronto and hearing the words: “Lord, I am not worthy.” It echoed much of the patterning of her youth and of her Ohio Catholic school education, she said.

Still, on that trip, she made friends with a Canadian Jesuit who has helped her find peace while mourning the loss of the religion that has played such a large role in her life. Perhaps that is why the last scene of “Qadishtu” has Mary Magdalene kneeling to wash feet. Even though some who’ve seen the play in Baltimore and Chicago have been troubled by such a depiction, Dacanay sees it as the place where forgiveness can occur and where women’s work of caretaking for others across the ages is acknowledged.

The actress-playwright has layered “Qadishtu” with elements drawn from both goddess religions and Christianity, employing songs, readings and audience participation rituals in the hope of creating a healing ceremony as well as an interesting piece of drama. Over 75 minutes she has the character of Mary Magdalene lead the audience through the story, and she invites them to worship with her. Interspersed are monologues chronicling Dacanay’s own faith journey in writing the play.

A wise, complex woman

The work explores such spiritual themes as love, loss, forgiveness, healing and resurrection. To date the show has raised many questions from its different audiences, just what Dacanay intended. Her goal was not necessarily to provide a more sympathetic understanding of Mary Magdalene, but to show that her story and that of many women have been oversimplified and not given the credit they deserve, she said.

Whoever Mary Magdalene was, “I know she was more wise, more complex and more wonderful than the two-dimensional view of her that has come down to us. ... If I on a microcosmic level can create something that never existed before, then on a macrocosmic level we can create something new and better together,” Dacanay told NCR. What she wants is a world of peace.

For women, it just might have to begin with peace between the sexes, she said. The age-old gender war is both unnatural and manmade, she said. “It’s about culture and learned behavior” that have been the norm of patriarchy for only 5,000 years. What’s required for peace is to step away from the paradigm of one person having to be over another to survive, she said.

Dacanay believes that such a peace “can break out at any time.” It only requires “a community in which everyone is revered, respected and esteemed.”

For information about performances of “Qadishtu,” contact: Still Point Theatre Collective, 1337 W. Ohio, Chicago IL 60622, (312) 226-0352.

National Catholic Reporter, April 30, 1999