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C.S. Morrissey – Global Theatre

Heartbreak abounded for Mary of Bethany

Voices Jan. 24, 2018

Despite the suffering of Mary of Bethany, identified as Mary Magdalene in the Latin tradition, divine providence had something more glorious in store, writes Chris Morrissey.  (Paloma Baeza as Mary Magdalene in The Passion, BBC / HBO)

God knows the deepest desire of your heart, even better than you do yourself.

But often you can be heartbroken. When the desires of your heart are not met, how then does God work in your life, to give you your heart’s desire?

Well, what if he were to give it to you, but in a way even better than you had originally conceived?

These questions were the focus of “Mary of Bethany and the Problem of Suffering,” a Jan. 19 presentation at Trinity Western University by renowned philosopher Dr. Eleonore Stump.

Mary of Bethany’s life story includes her act of anointing Jesus’s feet with perfume, which she also wiped with her hair (Jn 12:1-11, Mt 26:6-13, Mk 14:3-9).

People are most familiar with Mary of Bethany in conjunction with her busy sister Martha     

People are also familiar with her in conjunction with her busy sister Martha (Lk 10:28-42). However, it is when Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead that they both received more than their hearts had ever imagined (Jn 11:1-44).

Although deeply heartbroken that Jesus hadn't healed Lazarus when sick, they eventually learned how divine providence had prepared something even more glorious for them, even despite Mary’s bitter doubts about the depth of Jesus’s love for her.

Dr. Stump has thought deeply about these episodes, in a manner that reminds me very much of the approach to the contemplative prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

In her talk, she explained the spiritual meaning of these events by considering the human psychology of all the human actors in these dramatic events. In an extensive conversation with the audience, she continued to offer insights after her lecture, as a question-and-answer period yielded unusually thoughtful queries and replies from all parties.

Because of Dr. Stump’s brilliant work in the philosophy of religion, contemporary metaphysics, and medieval philosophy, it was a real treat to have her visit and spend time with a local audience. We listened attentively to her reflecting on the narrative arc of the Scripture passages about Mary.

In addition to publishing widely, Dr. Stump regularly lectures in the most prestigious venues. She has given the famed Gifford Lectures (at Aberdeen, 2003), the Wilde lectures (at Oxford, 2006), the Stewart lectures (at Princeton, 2009), and is scheduled next for the Stanton lectures (at Cambridge, 2018).

The TWU Philosophy Department, through a generous grant from the Society of Christian Philosophers, hosted Dr. Stump for her evening public lecture in the Northwest Auditorium on campus. She is past president of that same Society of Christian Philosophers.

Dr. Stump has taught since 1992 at Saint Louis University, where she is the Robert J. Henle Professor of Philosophy. Her books include her highly regarded study of Aquinas (Routledge, 2003), and her innovative investigation of the problem of evil, Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (Oxford, 2010), which she drew upon for her lecture at Trinity Western.

Dr. Stump devotes 60 pages to an illuminating and in-depth discussion of Mary of Bethany’s heart-brokenness and shame

In Chapter 12 of that book, she devotes 60 pages to an illuminating and in-depth discussion of Mary of Bethany’s heart-brokenness and shame. If you missed her lecture, I enthusiastically recommend her book.

Further, her forthcoming book on Atonement (to be published by Oxford, in November 2018) looks fascinating. Oxford University Press has a website which describes her thesis as an original contribution: “The interpretation of the doctrine of the atonement that Stump argues for accommodates much of what is best in both the Anselmian and the Thomistic kinds of interpretation; but it also explains what is challenging for them or incomplete and unexplained by them.”

Nonetheless, the book does orient its discussion from the outset in a clearly Thomistic framework (which is unsurprising, given the depth and seriousness of her previous work on St. Thomas Aquinas): “The book begins by sketching the Thomistic moral psychology. It then offers a brief overview of this moral psychology, which provides a tool kit for the chapters that follow.”

The Atonement book continues with a central concern of her meditations on Mary of Bethany

Yet what looks most intriguing to me is the way the Atonement book continues with a central concern of her Wandering in Darkness book, and of her meditations on Mary of Bethany; namely, “the bridge that overcomes the obstacle in the human will and leads to the desired life in grace.” Dr. Stump calls this bridging “the atonement itself.”

As Dr. Stump explains in her writings, and as she communicated in her lecture, Mary of Bethany received her heart’s desire in a way better than she had been able to conceive by herself.

Thus, in addition to recognizing the miracle of her brother Lazarus being raised from the dead, we can appreciate the providential way in which God will work in the lives of any human being living with heartbrokenness and shame.

Saul Bellow once wrote an excellent novel with the poignant title: More Die of Heartbreak. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to come back from that kind of spiritual death? Just ask Mary of Bethany.