Looking for Mary Magdalene

Looking for Mary Magdalene: Alternative Pilgrimage and Ritual Creativity at Catholic Shrines in France


Oxford Ritual Studies Series, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press

336 pages; 6-1/8 x 9-1/4;ISBN13: 978-0-19-989842-8ISBN10: 0-19-989842-1

During the last twenty-five years increasing numbers of pilgrims who do not identify themselves as practicing Christians have visited Catholic pilgrimage shrines in France dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene or dark images of Mary. They do so to benefit from these places’ “energy” and “the power of the Sacred Feminine.” This book describes their beliefs and ritual practices, situates them in a wider context of feminist spirituality and neo-shamanism in the United States and in Great Britain, and shows how these concepts are filtering into predominantly Catholic countries like Italy and Spain.

During the period 2002 to 2005 the author accompanied three pilgrimage groups to Catholic shrines in France: one group, from Spain, was of women only; the other two groups, one Italian and the other Anglo-American, were of both women and men. These Magdalene pilgrims reinterpreted Christian saints and places and reclaimed shrines they considered to have been misappropriated and monopolized by the “Church.”  Following the example of the anthropologist Nancy Frey, the author got back in touch with the pilgrims some months after their pilgrimages to hear about the after-effects of the experience.

These three pilgrimage groups used different rituals and explanations: Italian pilgrims referred more to neo-shamanic beliefs and practices; the Spanish group followed rituals and discourses derived from Goddess spirituality; the English speaking group relied on past-life therapy and Goddess psychology. Nevertheless a comparison of the pilgrims’ beliefs and rituals reveals important points in common. The book is particularly focused on the pilgrims’ common practice of self-telling and on the consequent therapeutic reinterpretation of their lives. Through this continually surprising flux of invention and reinvention, the author follows the threads of the individual lives of the pilgrims, showing where they came from, how they used the pilgrimage for their own purposes, and what happened to them after it was over. Anna Fedele sought to catch religion in process in a way that presents with care and attention the spiritual configuring of people whom academics have great difficulty taking seriously.

In order to establish and describe their relation with their goddesses and gods, these pilgrims created their own vocabulary and semantics that built on the original force of terms from different religions but adjusted their meanings. The reader watches as each group leader gradually establishes authority and constructs a topography of the shrines they visit in close conjunction to the rituals they perform. A “new” and “authentic” Christian pantheon gradually emerges during the pilgrimage, in opposition to the “old” and “inhibiting” one offered by “the Church.” The pilgrims abandon the orthodox concepts, but not the orthodox terms, of their Christian education and create their own Jesus, Mary and Magdalene.

Magdalene pilgrims are steeped in what the author describes as “spiritual-esoteric literature” and particular attention is paid to the role and power of this written material as a resource for the continual, creative healing and reorganization of the pilgrims’ selves. One of the book’s major contributions is to lay out how Neopagan and New Age concepts are idiosyncratically combined by each pilgrim with Christian traditions to form a kind of personalized religion.

The author also offers a sensitive ethnography of the pilgrims’ rituals and theories relating to the female body. These pilgrims celebrate menstruation as the hallmark of women free from marriage and motherhood, and menopause as the onset of a phase of wisdom in women’s’ lives. They explain and denounce the body’s medicalization and relate exploitation of the planet (which they consider female) to psychological and physical violence against women. Through Mary Magdalene as an icon of “wounded femininity” these pilgrims address their psychological and physical histories.

This is the first monograph on alternative pilgrimages to Catholic shrines. Influenced by William A. Christian’s studies on rural religion in Spain and by Elisabeth Claverie‘s work on the Marian apparitions in Medjugorje, the author paid particular attention to the way in which this kind of spirituality is lived and expressed– the “grammar” used by the pilgrimage leaders to create the sacred geography of each visited site. The pilgrimage leaders’ rituals and informal homilies reinforced in many of the pilgrims a transition from Christian religion to feminist spirituality, and the reader sees how these persons learn to become pilgrims and relate with the surrounding world in terms of “energy.”

For most of the pilgrims the trips were therapeutic experiences, and their life stories, as told in the book, allow the reader to follow this healing process. In order to better understand the healing rituals and especially those related to the menstrual cycle Anna Fedele compared the pilgrims’ rituals with other contemporary invented rituals, such as those described by Michael Houseman and Ronald Grimes, and with menstrual rituals in traditional societies.

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Photo gallery 

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Table of contents

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More information about the spiritual leaders and authors described in the book







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