Reviewed by Francis Etheredge
The Magdalene Mystery by Christine Sunderland, originally published by OakTara Publishers, in 2013, now forthcoming from St. Louis, MO: En Route Books and Media, in 2022.
While the following biblical text is about the danger of encountering a threatening individual alone or, more positively, the benefit of doing so in the company of others, ‘A threefold cord is not quickly broken’ (Eccles 4: 12), it can nevertheless apply at a number of levels to The Magdalene Mystery by Christine Sunderland.
A story, then, that weaves the vulnerable, whether layman or woman, the scholarly, whether honest or unscrupulous, those that follow, whether helpfully or drawn in to doing harm, with an almost liturgical recitation of the Christian Creed as the story progresses through numerous, intriguingly interconnected places and people, is advancing the biblical and streetwise wisdom of not “travelling” alone – but choosing your company well! Indeed, in what can be an anonymous and easily disguised forum for abuse of various kinds, the internet itself needs that open and companionable use to protect even those who are using it to do good; and, again, combating misuse is more about openness and collaboration than the “lone ranger” mentality so advocated in fiction generally.
The Magdalene Mystery takes us through a series of introductions, indicating each person’s complexity but not necessarily telling all until there is an unexpected twist which takes us into how the dreadful past reaches into the present – just as the magnificent and holy splendour of those who have gone before us can still encourage, inspire and even enable us to hope beyond our debilitating fears. The characters, then, are enthralling and varied people, as well as “unwanted” – not unwanted because of being rejected but because of being unwilling to be drawn out of the heart’s unholy preoccupations. Indeed, it is at once the challenge of the novelist to draw close to the heart of the character but, even where necessary, not to be drawn too far into the details of what does not need to be described; Christine Sunderland, then, does come uncomfortably close to her nemesis but, at the same time, she avoids turning too far down the drain.
On the one hand, Jesus Christ said: ‘you will die in your sins unless
you believe that I am he’ (John 8: 24). On the other hand, St. John Vianney, hearing the desperate plea of a woman’s prayer about the outcome of her husband’s suicide, answered that “I tell you he is saved. He is in Purgatory, and you must pray for him. Between the parapet of the bridge and the water he had time to make an act of contrition” (p. 122 of Ralph Weimann’s, Bioethical Challenges at the end of Life). The conflict between good and evil, at times played out within a character as between characters yet raises a good number of questions. Does revenge blind? Does escaping detection isolate a person even when they seem to be surrounded by others? Are there limits to the possibility of repentance such that, in the time it takes to die, would it be repugnant, impractical or even implausible to let a person reject their own wrongdoing? What if we consider a person from the point of view of God – does the figure of Mary Magdalene, the forgiven, freed and generous woman of the Gospel, raise the possibility of a different outcome beyond what we inevitably think a person deserves?
Even if, in the course of the book, there are dominating events there is also a golden thread which both entails being led to make discoveries, whether of evidence, personal culpability or faith or their interrelationship with one another, which lights somewhat like a faith flare-trail, taking us out of danger but still requiring our active participation in recognizing where we are at any particular moment and, just as importantly, where we are being led. But perhaps the danger we face is not just a consequence of our own singular, sinful ways, but the possibility of a “victim” mentality “justifying” any kind of action – because of what was done to us. Or, conversely, hiding ourselves so successfully that we do not realize that we are degenerating, somewhat like a living corpse, precisely because what is so well hidden is no longer in the fresh air! Alternatively, drawing on both faith and reason, reason and faith, we can begin to see the evidence of the need for faith and facts upon which faith is founded and, as they come together, see more and more clearly the answer to which they both point. Even so, is the journey of faith through the Apostle’s Creed too simple an account of meeting salvation in Jesus Christ? Or, alternatively, is it a beginning which, like the life of Mary Magdalene, can go to unknown depths of beauty’s radiance? What about evangelization, announcing the Good News that Jesus Christ is our Saviour and Lord of all that afflicts us? But does it always have to be a preacher that announces the love of God to us, although Mary Magdalene does preach! – cannot it be in that intimate, interior dialogue between God and each one of us that benefits, as well, from the word of witness from those to whom He has drawn close, that that closeness may help others come close to Him?
In between the diverse elements of the book so far, there is also a dialogue about the value of research and the university as an actual place of learning; indeed, if there are fake trails so there are also fact-finding trails too, which may not exactly coincide with “institutional learning” but may be more about the raw school of pursuing an investigation through the past’s presence among us. On the one hand, however, it could be argued that good, principled research will find its way into the academic halls of residence and influence those who can benefit from that; but, on the other hand, has the novel become a way of arguing in the marketplace, like the philosophers of old, to advance a reformation of learning to a wider audience? Is the very presence of the Catholic Church as an arbiter of good practice, a haven for the learned who have come to love God and their fellow human beings, and a sanctuary for those who need it, a place too perfect in view of the reality of human sinfulness? But, again, is the living inheritance of Mary Magdalene’s past a reproach, as it were, that the healing of Christ is to be sought more than the perfection of appearances; indeed, is she a permanent reminder that Christ came for those that need the doctor (cf. Mark 2: 17) - not those who are so unable to recognize their own reality that they cannot see the need to seek Him?
Returning to the theme of threads, with which this review began, there are several story threads that make a thoroughly woven account on a variety of different levels and, just as with the knotted back of a piece of embroidery, we do not see the whole clearly until turning over the last page and getting, as it were, the beauty of the whole design! A richly rewarding read from a closely observing, at times almost too close to the human heart and, therefore, a written warning not to let our conscience grow dull – but ever to seek out the help of God, His word and His sacraments! A good read at anytime but, as it is Lent, a particularly good time to read Christine Sunderland’s, The Magdalene Mystery now!
Francis Etheredge, Catholic husband, father of 11, 3 of whom he hopes are in heaven, author of 12 books on Amazon 2 more due in 2022:https://www.amazon.co.uk/Books-Francis-Etheredge/s?rh=n%3A266239%2Cp_27%3AFrancis+Etheredge