I have written about my deep interest in massage therapy before. As I continue to age it has become a necessary fixture in my weekly routine. When I first started I told my therapist that for this to have any real meaning for me it had to resonate in some way with my Catholic faith. It did not take long for me to find a religious connection for the wonderful feelings of euphoria and rejuvenation her magic fingers have engendered in this old body.
Her massages always put me in a short-lived state that approximates the best feelings I have ever enjoyed. She skillfully unleashes what she calls the hormones of happiness. After a massage I am not only happier but I want to pass my feelings of love and joy to anyone I encounter that day. It is better than being in a Coca-Cola commercial. My euphoria, tutored by my Catholic imagination, has prompted me to imagine that this is how I will feel in Heaven. It has made the afterlife much more palpable to me.
Since Catholics have a saint for almost every country, profession, hobby and avocation, I wondered who was the patron saint of massage therapists. One can find a patron saint of architects, shepherds and even chimney sweeps…but alas no massage therapists.
I did find an oblique reference to St. James without detail or verification. One reader submitted Sister Rosalind Gefre, the Minneapolis nun who started a chain of massage spas. By doing so she rescued this ancient art from the sordid den of sex purveyors in the 1980s while providing a healing grace to thousands of elderly people. But Sister Roz is very much alive and you have to be dead, usually a long time to become recognized as a Catholic saint.
More recently I got the urge to try again. My new search led me to Pam, a massage therapist from Wheaton, Illinois who writes a blog on massage issues. In 2012 she addressed the issue of a Patron Saint for Massage Therapists. Her choice was Saint Mary Magdalene, who is often regarded as the second-most important woman in the New Testament.
Magdalene was present at Jesus’ two most important moments: the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Within the four Gospels, the oldest historical record mentioning her name, she is named at least 12 times, more than most of the apostles. The Gospel references describe her as courageous, brave enough to stand by Jesus in his hours of suffering, death and beyond.
St. Mary Magdalene is considered to be a saint by the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran churches. Her feast day is celebrated on July 22nd. (My therapist’s birthday is the 23rd) The Eastern Orthodox churches also commemorate her on the Sunday of the Myrrh bearers, the Orthodox equivalent of the Western Three Marys.
What is her connection to massage therapy? According to Pam she anointed the feet of Jesus with oil. That in itself should be enough. In a broader context Magdalene was misjudged by popes and Catholic history for over 14 centuries. It was Gregory the Great who first confused her in the 6th century with the woman caught in adultery. Director Martin Scorsese and writer Dan Brown enhanced her sordid historical reputation in the 20th century.
Similarly many people don’t understand massage therapy. Even today false associations with the sordid massage parlor industry still linger, clouding its professional and moral integrity.
Just like Magdalene, people don’t really understand what therapists do with their modestly draped but nude clients behind closed doors. Similarly, people’s uncertain reactions to Magdalene over the centuries concerning her relationship with Jesus were probably akin to:
Wow–that’s really inappropriate. If Jesus really knew who she was, he wouldn’t let her touch him…It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence they are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet.
In 1988 the Catholic Scorsese vividly reinforced this erroneous perception of Magdalene in his controversial film–The Last Temptation of Christ by casting Magdalene as Jesús’ fantasy lover. In his 2003 novel, the DaVinci Code, Brown raises her to the rank of Jesus’ wife who escapes with him to Southern France where their descendants start the Merovingian line of French monarchs.
It was not until 1969 that Pope Paul VI exonerated her without commenting on his predecessors’ abject error. Pam, who is also a registered psychologist, goes even further. Because our society is physically and chronically disconnected from their own bodies and sexualize much of their somatic experience, people project and misinterpret the actions of others. People fail to understand that massage therapists are able to communicate, nurture, care and love through their hands without even the hint of any sexual impropriety.
Perhaps even his disciples did not understand Magdalene’s relationship with Jesus and her desire to show her love for him the best way she knew how by honoring his body and person with fragrant oils and her gentle touch. Jesus probably told those around him to ‘Leave her alone! She has done a beautiful thing for me!’ Jesus would have understood. ‘Everywhere my story is told, hers will be too to honor her.’
Thanks to Pam I can start praying to Saint Mary Magdalene to bless my therapist every time she touches me. I have felt for a long time that a good massage can serve as a transmitter of God’s graces and love. In my book massage therapists, especially mine, administer their skills as the touch of sainthood. Imagine all this and Heaven too!