Me and Mary Magdalene

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him. (Mark 16:1)

I press my face against the pink, veined marble slab, smeared with a fragrant oil that lingers on my neck and hands.  As I push myself from the cold ground, a tension forms in my throat and my vision blurs, but I can’t explain why I’m crying.

Why do tears build above my lower lids, if I know that this rose-colored stone is not where Jesus’ body was washed and wrapped?  If I know that this black sepulcher, whose ashy walls rise into the shadows of the ancient church, is not its final resting place?

Wandering through the empty darkness, I find the chapel of Mary Magdalene situated next to the sepulcher, where a small group of priests, nuns, and brown-clad monks chant the Latin Mass.  The words are strange to my ear but the familiar intonation, which I haven’t heard in months, awakens the waters deep within the well of my chest and draws up buckets that slosh over my lap.  So I sit in Mary’s pews, crying, not wanting to leave the tomb.

And Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the grave. (Matthew 27:61)


Days later, I wander through a garden, the purple light of dawn rising over the rock-hewn tomb, and the breeze gently tapping the trees’ leaves.  I’ve imagined this place countless times before—even the red flowers that pop through the dirt and the boulders resting on their sides.

The worshippers packed in rows for the sunrise Easter service are only apparitions that float away like mist, and their loud songs of praise are muffled by the quiet coos of doves resting in the twisted arms of olive trees.

Like the woman with dark hair and a red shawl who waited in this garden many years ago, I too sit alone, waiting for a friend to call my name.

And just like he promised, there he is.  On the stone steps, under the green branches that dip and bend.

He pulls me in, my face pressed into the crevice of his shoulder.  Into the white, woven linen that smells of the oil I spread across the pink marble.

I am drawn in, sown in tightly like the threads that rub against my cheek.  I wonder if this embrace has lasted for eternity, and then realize that eternity itself is this embrace.

When he steps away, and when the mist condenses into human forms once again, the scent of oil lingers in my hair.

I feel a flutter of white wings, splashing around in the waters of my chest.  The wind slips across my neck and drags a trail of clear water down my face.

I now realize why I cried in the dark church.  It’s because I, like Mary, desire to be close to Jesus.

And, I cry here, in the brightness of the sunrise, because I, like Mary, am so desired by God, and pulled into his warm embrace.

She turned around and saw Jesus there…[He] said to her, “Mary!” (John 20: 14, 16)


This piece describes my visits to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, which are both considered potential sites for the Jesus’ burial and resurrection.  My experience in the garden was shaped by my favorite resurrection account in the Gospel of John, which was read at the sunrise Easter service I attended there.   

I would like to thank a Georgetown Jesuit who introduced me to this story, which has greatly shaped the way I approach my life with God.

Last Easter, which was coincidentally one year ago today, I wrote about Mary Magdalene as well.  That reflection, Praying with Mary Magdalene, is closely linked to this one.

Outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
A pilgrim reverencing a stone in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that commemorates the washing of Jesus' body before burial in the sepulchre. The slab was only placed in the church within the last two centuries, to replace a 12th century one that was there previously.
A sculpture in the chapel of Mary Magdalene in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jesus appears to Mary after the resurrection.
In the Garden Tomb at sunrise on Easter Sunday.
The red flowers that I'd always imagined in the Garden Tomb, without knowing they were actually there.

Midnight in Jerusalem (“Peeling Oranges” Series)

Jerusalem: Good Friday, and the first day of Passover.

Just before midnight, beneath a full moon and the shadow of the Western Wall, pigeons and crumpled prayers snuggle between cracks in bricks.  I sit nearly alone in the women’s section, except for a few Jewish ladies whose covered heads rest against the wall, their eyes pinched shut.  After blessing myself with the sign of the cross to conclude my own prayer, I run my hand along the cold stone, breathing in the silence that echoed through Jesus’ tomb and swept through the blood-smeared doorframes of anxious Hebrews along the Nile.

Kisses on Palm Sunday (“Peeling Oranges” series)

(My spring break spent in Jerusalem and Galilee provided me with many images that I hope to share through my Peeling Oranges series.)

Outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, I sulk in a mix of frustration and guilt, wanting to participate in the centuries-old traditions and services that originated in this city. On Palm Sunday, why can’t I find the leafy branches that laid across these stone roads two-thousand years ago?  Why can’t I find a Catholic Mass in this city of churches?

Momentarily distracted from my anxiety as I pass a group of young Palestinian children climbing on rocks, I wave as they yell, “Photo, photo!”

Discovering that I speak Arabic, they clamber down the ruins to shout out their names and ask mine.  The four girls pose for a photo, as the boy, Muhammad, stands shyly to the side.  In the clearest, highest Arabic I’ve ever heard, a girl with hair as blonde and eyes as blue as mine asks who my Arabic teacher is, and a girl with freckles on her forehead wonders if I pray.  I receive hugs and kisses on my cheek as I leave, waving goodbye to catch up with my friends.

But the blonde girl runs after me, calling, “Are you married?!”  I laugh at her question, which to her seems so important and to me so trivial.  After another round of embraces from the group, tears nearly slip down my cheek, where the coldness of their kisses lingers on my skin.

Once again, God is reminding me that it’s his people, not simply his traditions and rituals, where he can most easily found.  He has answered my prayer in a way I didn’t expect, substituting palms and incense with kisses and laughter.

Returning to the river

Jordan. In Jordan. At the Jordan River.

Before visiting Jesus’ Baptism site along the Jordan River this weekend, I had anticipated the moment for years.  Every time we’d sing “On Jordan’s Bank” at Mass, I’d think about how powerful the experience might be—going to this holy place from which my name comes.

(I learned from my archeology professor a few weeks back what my name really means: slopping, fast, running water.  Though its now stagnant and small, the Jordan River (or “Naher al-Urdun”) used to be a strong, flowing river that descended from the Golan Mountains and into the valley.  Because of the softness of the clay, its path was twisting, zigging and zagging, but still swift and quick because of the water’s strength.  “Urdun”—Jordan— seems to mean playful, determined, even passionate, and I’d like to think that there’s a reason I share that name.)

Though I tried to temper my expectations about my visit to the river, I still had them nonetheless.  I wanted to have a moving experience, to sit on the bank, alone and in quiet, and ponder my name, my life, and my God.

But, upon arriving, I realized that wasn’t likely going to happen.  Our group’s tour guide moved us quickly from spot to spot, and some students in my program were loud, unaware, and outright disrespectful.  Often, anger and resentment bubbled up in me—feelings that can never accompany good prayer.  I wanted my special moment, and others were ruining it.

Photo credit: Caroline Chapman

Thankfully, the Spirit was able to break through and settle on me at times.  The white wings of doves—the symbol of the Holy Spirit— flashed in the sun as the birds flew from the stairs of the nearby church.  The coldness of the water made the murky river feel somehow cleansing as I washed my hands in the shallows.  And a rich, warm smell rose up from the green, life-giving land that God wanted to give His people.

These moments didn’t make up for, or fill the place of, the moment I expected.  They were beautiful, but they weren’t what I wanted.  What I still want.

But, surprisingly, I’m not that disappointed. Because I realized that I can go back.  Maybe not physically, (though I hope to again,) but in prayer and in my imagination.

Whenever I need time to think or be alone, I can walk slowly and sit quietly in the grasses of riverbank. I can hear the birds chirp short “eeks,” and squint as a bug bounces against my face.  I can follow John the Baptist as he ducks under branches to reach the water.  And I can climb down the stone steps with Jesus, and take his sandals as he slips down into the water.

All of us have been graced with imaginations, and God wants us to use them.  God works through them.

And God wants for us the things that we want most for ourselves.  He wants me to come back to the river.

Photo credit: Caroline Chapman

What’s in a name?: Jordan goes to Jordan

Written January 23, 2012

Today is my first full day in Amman, Jordan.  During my four months studying abroad here, my blog will continue to serve as a place where I post stories and reflections, which will no doubt be enhanced by my new location, activities, and acquaintances.

I think it’s appropriate to begin this post by talking about my name, and how funny it is that I’m studying in Jordan.  The humor regarding my first name is obvious, but my last name is funny to people, too.  Denari is related to “dinar,” the name of the currency in Jordan.  My last name is a type of currency used by the Romans, whose empire stretched into the area that is now Jordan.

Already, it’s been funny introducing myself to other American students and the staff in my program.  Most of them have the same reactions: “Oh!” with a short chuckle, and an occasional “That’s funny.”  I then tell about my last name, which generally elicits a smiling shaking of the head.  I can’t wait until I start meeting ordinary Jordanians, who I hope will be pleasantly surprised. It would be like a foreigner coming to the U.S. with the name America Dollar.

You might be wondering what Jordan is like and why I decided to study abroad here—no, not because of my name—and I hope to answer some of your questions in this post. 

Where is Jordan?

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is located in the heart of the Middle East, which makes regional travel quite easy.

Jordan is the apricot colored country.

As you can see, Jordan is bordered by Israel, the occupied West Bank, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

What language do Jordanians speak?  Do you understand it? 

Jordanians speak Arabic, which I’ve studied for two-and-a-half years at Georgetown.  However, Arabic as a spoken language is very diverse, which makes my answer a bit more complicated.

I have studied Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is used in the news and other formal settings.  Jordanians don’t use MSA in everyday life, but rather a dialect that is specific to the region.  For example, person from Morocco could not understand the Jordanian dialect.  However, both a Moroccan and a Jordanian can understand MSA.

In Jordan, I will continue my study of MSA, and will also take a class on the Jordanian dialect so I can speak with ordinary folks.  If I were to get into a cab and speak in MSA, it would sound overly proper, sort of like if an English speaker started talking like Shakespeare.

I can’t understand much spoken language yet, but thanks to a bit of colloquial study I did last summer, I comprehend a bit more than most of the American students here.

What does the Arabic language look and sound like?

To English speakers, Arabic may sound like a harsh language—I also thought it sounded harsh before I started studying it.  But I’ve grown to find Arabic very beautiful and passionate.

The Arabic script is also very beautiful and is written kind of like cursive.  The text below, written in one of many Arabic script styles, is the Lord’s Prayer, which I hope to have memorized soon.

"Our Father, who art in heaven..."

Where are you living?

I’m living in Amman, the capital, with a host family.  Until I move into their home on the 25rth, I’m staying in a hotel with others in my program. My host family is Christian, and the children range in age from 20 to 2.  I’m looking to forward to having both peers and young children to spend time with.

Where are you studying?  What classes will you take?

I will be studying at the University of Jordan, the largest university in Jordan.  However, instead of directly matriculating into the university, I’ll be taking classes through CIEE, an organization that operates several study abroad programs all over the world.  My classes—two Arabic classes and two courses in English about regional culture, history, politics, etc.—will be with other American students.

Once you get settled, what will your everyday life be like there?

Friends who have studied abroad here say that, in some ways, my everyday schedule will be similar to my high school one.  I’ll get to school by 8a.m. and spend most of the day in class or in and around campus.  After school I may go to the gym or to volunteer with a Jesuit organization in Amman.  On the weekends, I’ll spend time with my host family, explore the city, and travel outside Amman.

Are you planning to travel in the region?

Yes. Because of Jordan’s central location, I hope to travel to Israel and the West Bank, Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt.  I’m also planning to travel within Jordan through CIEE trips and on my own.  Some notable sights include Petra, Aqaba, the Dead Sea, old Crusader castles, and ruins of the Roman Empire.

What is Jordan like? Is it safe? 

Amman has very little violent crime.  I like to tell people that I’ll act in Jordan the way I do in the D.C. or Indianapolis.  In the U.S., just like in Amman, I don’t walk alone at night or put myself in danger by becoming intoxicated.

In the Arab world in general, white women, especially blondes, get harassed by some local men.  It’s normally not more than getting yelled or whistled after, and if I dress appropriately and wear my hair up, I shouldn’t have too many problems.

Comparing Jordan to the rest of the region, Jordan is a politically stable and hasn’t experienced much of the upheaval associated with the Arab Spring.  That is likely due to the country’s relative economic prosperity and political freedoms.  (Relative is a key word in that sentence.  Many Jordanians are poor, and democracy is nonexistent–the monarchy has ultimate control over the parliament.)  However, there are protests and people calling for political change and reform (which I in many ways support).  We are not allowed to attend protests, which is unfortunate but probably a wise rule.

What do you wear? Do you have to cover your hair?

I wear clothes very similar to the ones I wear at home.  Amman is very cold and rainy in the winter, so I have sweaters and long sleeved shirts and jeans.  In the spring and summer, I will wear blouses or t-shirts with cardigans with long pants or capris.  The highs will only be in the 80s when I leave, so the weather won’t be unbearably warm.

The norms here don’t require me to wear a headscarf.  Most women do, but many don’t.  In Jordan, many women have adopted Western forms of dress.  Often, women wearing a headscarf dress in Western styles.  Hijab doesn’t always equal traditional dress.

What is the religion in Jordan 

Jordan is 95% Muslim and close to 5% Christian, and thus the country is clearly shaped by its strong Islamic tradition.  The workweek spans Sunday through Thursday, leaving Friday (the holy day) and Saturday off.  Christians practice freely under law shaped by Islam.

Why is Jordan called Jordan?

Jordan is bordered on the west by the Jordan River.  The country used to be called Trans Jordan because it was across the Jordan from Palestine.  I’m excited to travel to the Jordan River on our program’s “Sites of Biblical Jordan” day trip, when we’ll visit the spot where John baptized Jesus.

Why did you decide to study abroad in Jordan?

I’ve wanted to study in Jordan for a long time.  When I still was intent on a career in foreign journalism, it made the most sense in terms of the location and dialect.  At that time, the most news worthy places in the Arab world were Iraq and Palestine, and conscious that I might one day immerse myself in one of those regions, studying in the country that’s smack dab between them made sense.  Jordan’s history has been greatly shaped by the influxes of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, meaning I could learn about the political and historical situations in those countries without even being there.  Also, wanting to be a journalist who didn’t rely on an interpreter, I knew that learning spoken Arabic was crucial.  The Jordanian dialect would help me learn colloquial Palestinian later, since both are quite close.

However, both my own interests and the political situation in the Arab world has changed.  I no longer anticipate a career as a foreign correspondent, and thanks to the Arab Spring, the entire Arab world needs foreign journalists to cover its changing landscape.  Despite that my old reasons for coming to Jordan are no longer valid, I still chose to come here—why?

Most importantly, to have the opportunity to live with a host family.  To me, studying abroad is about true immersion, living how locals do, and I think that can be done best by living with ordinary people.  The other programs Georgetown offered me—in Egypt, Morocco, and Qatar—couldn’t provide me with a home stay.

A few other reasons:

-Jordan is centrally located in the region, and that makes travel easy
-its dialect is pretty and similar to MSA than other dialects
-it has a deep and diverse cultural history
-Amman is a bustling city but not too overwhelming for a first time in the Middle East

And, coming to Jordan simply felt right.  If I think more about it, maybe my name actually did have something to do with it.  Names are more than just words that identify us to others.  They point to the core, the spirit, of the thing they name.  By sharing names, the country of Jordan and I share something.  What that is, I’m not yet sure.

When I was young, I used to get little bookmarks with my name on them, with an explanation of my name’s meaning.  I was always a bit disappointed, because the cards usually said, “from the river” (the Jordan river, of course.)  It seemed a bit boring.

But now, when I think about it, that definition—“from the river”—makes a lot of sense.  Even before coming to Jordan, I was pulled by something about this place that seemed familiar, even though I’d never visited.   Maybe I’m drawn to Jordan because I’m somehow from here, because somehow it feels like home.

(I miss everyone back at my other two homes–Georgetown and Indianapolis. If you have more questions, please ask!)