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Finding Safety When There’s Good Reason to Be Afraid

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Hand holding a candle in the darkness

Last Sunday I heard these words announced in our church: “No matter where you think you are on your own spiritual journey, everyone is loved, accepted, and respected here in this church home.” So far, so good.

A little later, we heard a reading from the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Ezra, on how the Jews tried to rebuild their Temple but were frustrated by adversaries who wanted to destroy their work (see Ezra 4). They had to learn to protect themselves.

Then, about half way through the service, I saw a strange woman walking into the back of the church. I had never seen her before, she wore oversized dark glasses, and she looked a bit disheveled. I confess that a wave of fear washed over me, as the images from shootings in houses of worship shot through my mind.

Should we open our doors with hospitality to all, or guard and protect them from adversaries?

At that moment, I was torn between a welcoming outreach and a fear that I wasn’t prepared to protect myself or anyone else if I needed to. The service ended without incident, and she slipped out the back door before I could make my way to welcome her.

I left church thinking I needed to address my own fear-versus-love struggle. How does unconditional love deal with potential violence? Are worshiping communities mere targets for angry, disturbed people? Is our innocence a source of love desperately needed in our communities, or is it helpless in the face of attack? While I was pondering whether safety and generous welcome are compatible concepts, it struck me that this incident was quite similar to the story in the Gospel of Mary!

The author of this second-century book envisioned what kind of conversation the bereaved disciples might have had concerning their own safety in relation to their mission. Jesus had been preaching the message of the good news and of loving our enemies. But he was suddenly and cruelly crucified.

How could his followers now find the courage to go out and preach, when they too could easily be captured and crucified?

The scene is compelling. How should they face the danger?

The Savior had instructed them:

“Go then, preach the good news about the Realm (sometimes translated ‘kingdom’) ….

“After he had said these things, he departed from them.

“But they were greatly distressed and wept greatly. ‘How are we going to go out to the rest of the world to announce the good news about the Realm of the child of true Humanity?’ they said. ‘If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?’”

Mary steps up and comforts them:

“For his grace will be with you all and will shelter you.”

We can almost feel the tension in the room, as they start to question her about how she – especially a woman – could be so confident. The more she explains, the more the agitation mounts. Peter comes close to accusing Mary of lying. Levi shoots back,

“Peter, you have always been a wrathful person. Now I see you contending against the woman like the Adversaries!”

Levi silences the argument and cuts through the fear with a solution from their master’s teachings.

“Rather, [Levi continues], we should be ashamed. We should clothe ourselves with the perfect Human, acquire it for ourselves as he commanded us, and announce the good news….

“After he had said these things, they started going out to teach and to preach.”

(Translation, Karen King, Gospel of Mary of Magdala, 2003, 14-18).

Evidently that was enough to settle the argument, dissolve the fear, and encourage them to fulfill their missions. But what does it mean to clothe oneself with the perfect Human and acquire it for oneself?

According to the teachings of the Master, the ‘perfect Human’ is greater than a mortal who is attached to the limitations of matter. It’s a reference to the one’s ‘roots’ – or, the natural, original good within. The Master taught his disciples to turn from the degrading, destructiveness of passions from the material world and to conform to, or to reflect the pattern of the Divine Realm, available to everyone (see chapter 3, Gospel of Mary).

The ‘clothing’ of the perfect selfhood evokes images of spiritual protection against attacks, because Mary had assured them that “his grace will be sheltering” them. In the pattern of the divine, people find themselves not only good, but safe from the enemies of the flesh.

Spiritual defense is greater than locks and bolts.

I see how this kind of protective gear would work better than relying on only locked and bolted doors that eventually cave in. At the very least, conformity to the divine goodness quiets the fear that generally attracts bullies. It also redirects our sense of security away from building prison walls around ourselves toward the call to wise action when and where it’s needed.

A spiritual defense has the authority to turn a perpetrators’ anger into repentance or re-thinking, as we’ve seen from some of the heroes of our world today. Surely the knowledge of his ‘sheltering grace’ is more useful than fear and anger, when it keeps us clear-headed. “Acquiring the goodness for ourselves” implies we have all we need in order to act with wisdom, unselfishness, and compassion.

I have a new appreciation for what it means to welcome the stranger at the church doors. This message from the Gospel of Mary encourages me to ‘clothe myself’ with the perfection God has given all of us. This kind of love may be called upon to dismantle someone else’s anger or fear, just as much as it must comfort and bless the tired and poor.