Pilgrimage to Reclaim a Matriarchal Christianity, Celebrate the Sacredness of Sexuality and Femininity

Leigh Ann Craig on Anna Fedele’s Looking for Mary Magdalene

Anna Fedele, Looking for Mary Magdalene: Alternative Pilgrimage and Ritual Creativity at Catholic Shrines in France, Oxford University Press, 2012, 336 pp., $35.
Anna Fedele, Looking for Mary Magdalene: Alternative Pilgrimage and Ritual Creativity at Catholic Shrines in France, Oxford University Press, 2012, 336 pp., $35.

In the summer of 2004, a group of women who had just visited the shrine of Mary Magdalene at La Saint-Baume in Provence found themselves engaged in a lively debate about the Mass they had heard during their visit. Some of those who considered themselves traditional Catholics had nonetheless enjoyed the non-traditional Mass, thinking it a powerful ritual for “moving energy.” Others were angered, feeling that the masculine authority they associated with the Mass had co-opted a distinctly feminine space.

In Looking for Mary Magdalene, Anna Fedele describes the varied experiences of such practitioners of “alternative spiritualities” who undertake pilgrimage to French Catholic shrines of the Magdalene. She bases the work on her own participation in three organized pilgrimages between 2002 and 2005, on interviews of her fellow pilgrims, and on interviews with a handful of pilgrims who sought the same shrines outside the context of an organized tour.

Fedele and her subjects visited multiple locations in southern France, including Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Marseilles, La Sainte-Baume, Saint-Maximin-de-Provence, and Carcasonne, as well as destinations further north, such as Rocamadour, Vézelay, and Chartres. While the pilgrims did not adhere to a unified theology, they all identified the Magdalene as a powerful feminine force who could help them meet their needs for spiritual healing and personal growth. Fedele’s study explores the creative and syncretic ritual practices of these pilgrims, and the equally syncretic spiritual frameworks within which they understood the rituals they invented.

The pilgrims themselves, and the organization of their groups, were surprisingly diverse. One group of largely lower- to middle-class Catalan and Spanish women, led by an Argentine-born woman called Dana, travelled cheaply, sharing cars, food, and accommodations, as well as large organized rituals. Dana directed a feminist spirituality group called Goddess Wood, to which many of the pilgrims belonged. A second, mixed-gender group of middle-class Italians was headed by a naturopath and neo-shaman named Celso, who also had experience facilitating spirituality workshops and tended to provide ritual guidance to the pilgrims he led. Finally, an older and more affluent mixed-gender group of American and English pilgrims was led by a Jungian psychotherapist named Roger, who organized outings, accommodations, meals at upscale restaurants, and a bus for his pilgrims, but took a hands-off approach to their spiritual and ritual experiences during the tour.

Fedele demonstrates that these three unconnected groups—divided as they were by gender composition, class, ethnic origin, and even (as we saw in one group’s response to the Mass) their individual engagement with particular ritual acts—did share some core theological stances. Drawing on alternative, American indigenous, and feminist spiritualities, as well as reinterpretations of Christian history such as those found in Begg’s Holy Blood and Holy Grail (1983) and Brown’s The DaVinci Code (2003), these alternative Magdalene pilgrims developed what Fedele calls a “polythetic class,” or common grab-bag, of ideas. These ideas included notions of a Goddess or Mother Earth; the reclaiming from a repressive Christian tradition of a matriarchal past and of the sacredness of sexuality and of femininity; and the use of energy discourse to describe spiritual matters. Beyond these points of agreement, the religious identity of the pilgrims seemed an uneasy one.

None considered themselves to be pagans, witches, or practitioners of magic (although both Dana and Celso had studied with American indigenous religious teachers), and many among them, like the women who enjoyed the traditional Mass at La Saint-Baume, felt there was great value in the Christian tradition. But they also felt that the Christianity they had known was in some way damaged, errant, or repressive with regard to key ideas about femininity. This repressed femininity was central to the pilgrims’ interpretation of Mary Magdalene, who was, for them, a goddess-figure. They felt that the Magdalene’s positive and self-possessed experience of sexuality, especially in her role as the partner of Jesus, provided a much-needed balance for the asexual and motherly figure of Mary.

Fedele begins her study of these pilgrimages by exploring and comparing each group’s experiences of and responses to a single Magdalene site: the forest of La Sainte-Baume, where the Magdalene was said to have lived for thirty years in a cave (the same cave where some of them heard the Mass that sparked such a controversial response). In her detailed descriptions we get a sense of the pilgrims’ understanding of energy discourse and energy-centered spiritual practices, of their creative construction of both group and individual rituals for use in established locations, and of the differing leadership and ritual styles of their leaders.

Following on this locus-based exploration, Fedele tackles the relationship between the pilgrims and their Christian (most often, Catholic) upbringings and surroundings. She mines her interviews to explore how it was that the pilgrims felt they had been “wounded” by the androcentrism of traditional Christian teachings, and how they understood their relationship with the figure of the Magdalene to heal these wounds. One of the ways that some of these pilgrims addressed androcentric teachings was by reframing menstruation, in particular, as a powerful feminine spiritual asset and a positive centerpoint of both individual and group ritual activity at Magdalene shrines and elsewhere, a theme which Fedele explores thoroughly and convincingly.

In a thematically vague chapter, entitled “Embracing the Darkness,” Fedele proposes to discuss the relationship between the pilgrims’ conception of the figure of the Magdalene and such negative themes as anger, destructiveness, and death. The discussion hinges on her description of a joyous ritual of initiation held by Dana’s pilgrims for the women among them who had passed menopause, and little of her evidence here focuses on anger, darkness, or negativity. Fedele is less thematic and more concrete in her discussion of the pilgrims’ return. Here she not only explores the personal changes the pilgrims reported as the result of their journeys but also more material matters, such as the movement of objects (those left at pilgrimage sites, and those brought home from them) and the increasingly blurry line between pilgrims and tourists, even in the minds of the travelers themselves.

Fedele brilliantly explores the pilgrims’ ritual creativity. Her thick description of a variety of rituals and the pilgrims’ understandings of their meanings—from the pre-planned to the spontaneous, group to individual—provides ample support for her contention that “what is new is . . . the self-conscious reclamation of the right to spiritual and ritual creativity, and the constant auto-reflective processes through which theories and practices are constantly put to the test and adapted.” Her observations about the sources of this creativity—which trace the pilgrims’ adaptations from Catholic and Protestant Christianity, South American and North American indigenous traditions, and Western feminist and alternative spiritual traditions—are analytically sharp. She offers smart cultural critiques of their authenticity and creativity, pointing out romanticized visions of Native traditions and simple inversions of Christian practice with equal candor.

Fedele also succeeds at bringing her subjects close to the reader. She handles evidence from interviews with a light touch, so that pilgrims’ voices appear clear and uncompromised. However, this very immediacy leads one to ask whether the work genuinely constitutes an ethnography. While Fedele convincingly demonstrates that pilgrims from across Europe and the United States share certain common ideas, certain aspects of identity (often predicated upon the theological stances they rejected, rather than those they embraced) and were inspired by some common texts, they did not seem to belong to a self-conscious movement. Indeed, Fedele herself refers to the pilgrimage “phenomenon” rather than to a movement, and is cautious in making summary judgments about that phenomenon.

This question of the coherence of her subjects as a group is exacerbated by Fedele’s inability to provide broader context for their activities. She notes that it is impossible to gauge the size of the Magdalene-centric pilgrimage phenomenon precisely because it represents a self-conscious rejection of centralized and organized religious practice. As a result, the reader is left without any data, comparative or otherwise, that might situate the pilgrims in a meaningful cultural or historical context.

It is certainly possible that the context simply does not exist yet. On the one hand, that makes the study exciting: it provides a snapshot of a nascent spiritual movement. On the other hand, as Fedele warns, the phenomenon might “disappear as a fad.” We don’t even know if the members of the three groups thought of themselves as similar to the others. The lack of context also raises interesting questions about the ritual creativity Fedele has discovered. In two generations, will the people who follow on these pilgrims’ example still feel free to create ritual entirely from their own authority and inclination, or do all new religious and spiritual movements look like this until they become established? At no point in her study, as detailed as it is, does Fedele grapple with these questions.