Over the summer of 2018, I received an enthusiastic email from my friend the author Anne Baring urging me to buy The Gospel of the Beloved Companion, which I ordered immediately. I have an enduring interest in the Gnostic Gospels, having read the book of that title by Elaine Pagels in the early 1980s and many other texts besides. I now live in the Cathar area of South-West France, where the story of Mary Magdalene is very present, both historically and archetypally.
This book is the first translation into English of what purports to be the complete Gospel of Mary Magdalene. As such, this is a momentous publication as the Gospel of Mary, with which it has many close correspondences, is fragmented. The translator/editor, Jehanne de Quillan, explains that the manuscript was reputedly brought from Alexandria to the Languedoc in the early to middle part of the first century and was translated into Occitan in the early 12th century. It has been preserved within a spiritual community since that time and this translation is from the original Alexandrian Greek. Of course, scholars would love to have access to the manuscript, but the translator does not feel she can break faith with those who have sacrificed so much to preserve it for over a millennium so that its message could one day be released back into the public arena, an action criticised by some members of her community. Hence, readers have to approach the Gospel with open minds and decide its authenticity for themselves in the light of the text itself and the translator’s comparative critical analysis with other canonical and Gnostic Gospels. The Gospel is set out in 44 chapters with verses, but the translator also explains that there is no punctuation in the original Greek.
The narrative is simple and powerful, and conveys vividly the non-dual state from which Yeshua spoke and taught: “Have I not told you that I am in the Spirit as the Spirit is in me? It is man who sees only poverty, for he sees with the eyes of the master of the world. But where man sees poverty, the Spirit sees only abundance. What the Spirit sees I see, and what I see the Spirit sees. And what the Spirit sees is. (6:8)” I find this an incredibly powerful statement, and many passages are preceded by the phrase ‘only from the truth’, corresponding to the New Testament translation, ‘verily’. In 21:2 we read “You do not know me or know where I am from. I have not come of myself, but the One who sent me is true; that One is the One whom you do not know. I know the Spirit because I am of the Spirit and the Spirit sent me.”
Then again in 27:3: “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in the name of the Spirit, these testify about me. But you do not believe, because you cannot hear my voice. Those that hear my words and follow them, to them I give eternal life. They will never perish. The Spirit, who has sent them to me, is greater than all. The Spirit and I are one.” At this point, the Pharisees take up stones again to stone him, and he answers: “I have shown you the many good works from the Spirit. For which of those works do you stone me?” Quite a retort! In 35:12, Yeshua states in response to a question by Thomas that they do not know where he is going so how can they know the way: “My words are the Way, the Truth, and the Life. For my words are given of the Spirit, and no one comes to the Kingdom except through Her teachings. If you had known and understood my teachings, then you would have known and understood the One who sent me also.” (The Spirit is used here in the feminine, referring to Wisdom or the Shekinah, while the canonical Gospel usage is always masculine and in John Spirit is always expressed as Father)
The most potent and seminal passage in the Gospel of the Beloved Companion comes towards the end, when the disciples come together after the crucifixion in the house at Bethany, and Mary tells them about her experience in the garden of the tomb. They are worried about exposing themselves to danger by going out and preaching. Mary stands up, raises her right hand and tells them not to grieve and to be resolute as Grace will protect them: “Let us praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us truly human.” As a result of this statement, ‘she turned their hearts to the good’ and Simon Peter says to her: “Sister, we know that he loved you more than any other among women. Tell us the words of the Rabbi, which you remember, which you know and understand, but we do not, nor have we heard them.”
The vision that follows is beyond measure, a priceless spiritual treasure so precious that it may well be, as Anne Baring suggested to me, the real treasure of the Cathars. I read it first while having a morning coffee in Lisbon, a moment I will never forget. She says that she will proclaim what is hidden from them, and that Yeshua had said to her, “Miryam, you came into being before coming into being (think about the significance of this), and whose eyes are set upon the Kingdom, who from the beginning has understood and followed my teachings [i.e. the inner meaning].” He then shows her in a vision a great tree whose roots are in the earth, ‘which is your body’. The trunk extends upward through the five regions of humanity to the Crown, which is the Kingdom of the Spirit. There are eight boughs on the tree and each bears its own fruit, which must be eaten in all its fullness; between each bough there is a gate with a guardian who challenges the unworthy who try to pass. She then describes the levels of initiation, the ascent from darkness to light. At the end, we read that many of the disciples did not understand what she had said and grumbled against her among themselves about these ‘strange and complicated ideas’. Simon Peter resents her exclusive access, while Levi defends her, remarking that “surely as his companion, Yeshua knew her better than all others. That is why he loved her more than us.”
Readers may have caught the tone of the Gospel of John from these extracts, but there are also passages that parallel the Gnostic insights of the Gospels of Thomas and Mary. In the second part, the translator analyses some of these parallels, using original Greek papyrus manuscripts for comparative purposes (the Greek is quoted in many instances). Using close textual analysis, she makes the case that this Gospel may even have been a source for the Gospel of John in terms of dating. There are also verses such as the famous passage about making the two into one that parallel the Gospel of Thomas, with the significant difference that the passage in the Gospel of the Beloved Companion is set within a coherent narrative framework, whereas, in the Gospel of Thomas it is just a fragment. Then in the Gospel of Mary, there are whole chapters missing, and the Gospel of the Beloved Companion illuminates these and other extant passages. The translator’s commentary also sheds further light on key passages from the Gospel. She sets the burial rites surrounding Jesus (only narrated in John) within the cultural context of the time, where only the immediate family would have been involved, with the wife or sister playing the leading role. This reinforces the message that Mary Magdalene was indeed the Beloved Companion.
The Gospel of John was beloved to the Cathars, and was laid on the head of candidates as they were initiated as a Parfait or Parfaite. This is the mystical canonical Gospel, which, ironically, contains the words used by fundamentalist evangelicals to insist on the exclusive divinity of Christ (I am the Way, the Truth and the Life and no one comes to the Father except through me). However, the Beloved Companion passage about his words being the way, the truth and the life quoted above makes a lot more sense to me. It is significant that the Vatican recently promoted Mary to the status of The Apostle to the Apostles, as also illustrated in the corresponding film Mary Magdalene that came out in 2018. (On reflection if the Gospel of the Beloved Companion – rather than Disciple as the Inquisitors assumed - was indeed the Cathar Gospel, then it is likely that it was this gospel that was laid on the head during initiation).
If all this sounds intriguing, please consider joining Marianne van Mierlo and me in October on a deepening spiritual journey in the Languedoc. Our retreat In the Footsteps of Mary Magdalene will enable you to explore the feminine spirituality associated with Mary Magdalene. This builds on the historical connections with the Languedoc and the mediaeval Cathars, who claimed to represent the original Christianity as a gnostic path of love in non-dual relationship with the Spirit. This is reflected in the spiritually powerful text associated with them, The Gospel of the Beloved Companion, which we will study during the week. We will visit local sacred sites associated with Mary Magdalene and the author of The Dream of the Cosmos, Anne Baring, will join us remotely for a session on Mary and the Cathar Esclarmonde de Foix.
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