After two decades in the public eye, Madonna is spending this summer on her aptly named Re-Invention World Tour. From Boy Toy to Material Mom, from author of Sex to author of morality tales for tots, Madonna has built her career on fearless—some would say shameless—reinvention. She may be the world's most famous lapsed Catholic, and she is certainly the most famous convert to that esoteric brand of Jewish mysticism called Kabbalah.
Madonna has been studying Kabbalah since 1997, when she was unmarried and pregnant with her first child. She had her daughter baptized a Catholic at St. Jude's in Miami, and gave her a name that commemorates the Blessed Mother's miraculous appearance at Lourdes. Her second son, Rocco, was christened at Dornoch Presbyterian Cathedral in 2001. Next day, she married his father there. Since then, her commitment to Kabbalah has grown. These days she is never seen without a red yarn bracelet that she says will ward off the Evil Eye, a practice associated with the Kabbalah Centre, a modern—critics would say "new age"—version of Kabbalah started by Phillip and Karen Berg in the 70s that has grown to more than three million members worldwide.
But is Kabbalah where Madonna really belongs? I think not. This is a critical time for Madonna: she will turn forty-six on August 16. Sales of her last album, American Life, were disappointing. It's hard to believe that her shaky movie career will ever recover from the debacle of Swept Away. And reaction to the Re-Invention tour has been mixed at best. When you consider the direction her career is going, I frankly don't think Kabbalah—especially the Hollywood-lite version she's dabbling in now—is going to meet Madonna's spiritual needs for long.
Madonna’s reasons for embracing Kabbalah remain obscure, but it’s clear that she’s searching her soul, and asking the right questions.
I have a suggestion: Come home, Madonna! Come home to the Catholic Church!
I came to this conclusion after reading the recent, mean-spirited essay from Shmuely Boteach, the media-friendly rabbi best known as the author of Kosher Sex and as Michael Jackson's best friend. (Although, to be fair, the good rabbi now dismisses that two-year relationship as "one of the greatest mistakes of my life.") Boteach's screed, "Perverted Priorities," appeared on the Something Jewish website. He called on Kabbalah leaders to "Do us all a favor and dump Madonna as your principal spokesperson. Sorry to be so crass, but Madonna is a slut. Yes, she may sing, and she may dance but she is famous for being a slut. And no religion dare have a slut as its principal representative."
Well, gee, that seems awfully harsh. The Random House Dictionary defines slut as "a dirty, slovenly woman," which Madonna certainly is not. So Boteach must be citing the secondary meaning: "an immoral or dissolute woman." If so, I have news for him and possibly for Madonna: The Catholic Church was built on sluts. We love them! From Mary Magdalene to Dorothy Day, the Church has a long tradition of welcoming sluts, learning from their conversions, and ultimately canonizing them.
There have been entire books written about the sluts of the Old Testament. The most famous slut in the New Testament is, of course, Mary Magdalene. Her reputation has had its ups and downs, and there is some doubt that she was a slut after all. Contemporary scholars believe that the Mary Magdalene who was cured of "seven devils" [Luke 8:1-3] was not necessarily the repentant sinner—a/k/a slut—who bathed Jesus's feet, anointed them with perfumed oil and was forgiven [Luke 7:36-50]. You don't have to buy the whole Da Vinci Code hoax to acknowledge that the tradition of Mary Magdalene as repentant slut was important in the development of the Church, and she's sure inspired a lot of great art.
Madonna's reasons for embracing Kabbalah remain somewhat obscure, but it's clear that she's searching her soul and asking the right questions. Two years ago, she told Larry King: "I was looking for something. I mean, I'd begun practicing yoga and, you know, I was looking for answers to life. Why am I here? What am I doing here? What is my purpose? How do I fit into the big picture? I know there's more to life than making lots of money and being successful and even getting married and having a family."
Most of what followed in the interview was less coherent. She explained that Jesus was a Kaballist, but gave no support for that statement. She went on to say that "Unfortunately, Christianity has taken certain things out of context. I mean, there's no point in killing people if they don't become Christians." In a more recent interview in USA Today, she elaborated on this theme by citing her opposition to Constantine's establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. If nothing else, Kabbalah is giving her a lesson in Church history, even if it is a somewhat confused one.
The Church has a long tradition of welcoming former sluts, learning from their conversions, and ultimately canonizing them.
What she really should know is that Constantine was himself the son of a slut: Helen (c. 255-330), a barmaid on the Black Sea who became the concubine of an ambitious army officer. After thirteen years, her husband dumped Helen to marry up, banished her from Rome and kept custody of their son. When Helen's son became Emperor, he brought her back to Rome and encouraged her to embrace Christianity. At the age of eighty, Helen led a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and is credited with finding the True Cross. She built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that still stands in Jerusalem. Now there's a role model.
Another great slut was Pelagia the Penitent (d. 457), a patron saint of actresses. Like Madonna, Pelagia was an exotic dancer who scorned conventional morality. One afternoon, she was being carried through the Antioch marketplace in all her finery when she passed a street preacher who was lecturing a crowd. He pointed to Pelagia, and said that she spent more time on her appearance than most bishops spent with their flock. Pelagia was thunderstruck. She later contacted the preacher and began the process of conversion, giving away everything she owned and becoming a pious hermit.
Madonna has even more in common with St. Margaret of Cortona (1247 - 1297). Like Madonna, Margaret lost her mother early in life and she never got along with her father's second wife. And like Madonna, Margaret couldn't wait to escape her small town. In Margaret's case that meant running off with a handsome young nobleman and shacking up with him in his castle for nine years. She bore him a son out of wedlock, and she liked to ride through his village on a fine horse, flaunting jewels and gold chains. That all ended when her lover was murdered and Margaret found his body in the woods. This launched her profound conversion. She tried to go home, and her father would have taken her back, but her stepmother would not hear of it. Margaret walked to Cortona where she supported herself as a midwife, built a charity hospital and had visions in which God told her to found the Franciscan Third Order (Francis of Assisi founded the First, and Clare, no slut, founded the Second). The Church has room for those who are blameless, but it also thrives on the contributions of worldly types like Francis and Margaret.
At every Mass from the great cathedrals of Europe to the Visitation Church in Bay City, Michigan (where Madonna's parents were married), to the fugitive cells in China and Sudan, Catholics pray to God, "Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church." That Church was built on Peter, the disciple who denied Christ three times when he needed him most. How's that for a founding father? Yet Christ insisted that Peter was the Rock on whom he would build his Church.
"Surely Peter is the least authoritative and trustworthy of founders," Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, acknowledges. No slut himself, Neuhaus converted to Catholicism after more than thirty years as a Lutheran pastor, and took Holy Orders the following year. Looking at Peter, he's written that the "mystery of God's graciousness and freedom" can be "a source of incomprehension (perhaps even scandal) to many." But, writes Neuhaus, "we can trust Peter precisely because he has fallen, because he is weak, because he is forgiven, and because he is raised up to service. We trust him because in him we see God's power working in our human weakness." The same can be said of all our beloved Catholic sluts.
In Peter we see God’s power working through human weakness. The same can be said of all our beloved Catholic sluts.
But let's end with a very modern slut who has become a symbol of the power of redemption and reinvention: Dorothy Day (1897 - 1980). Like Madonna, Day grew up in the Middle West, went to college on a scholarship, dropped out and came to New York. She lived the Greenwich Village bohemian life very much like Madonna, although more political, embracing Socialism and Communism. She experienced troubled love affairs, an abortion, and bore a daughter out of wedlock before she founded the Catholic Worker movement. This former slut's heroic virtue was recognized in 2000, which is the first step on the path to canonization.
The same path is available to Madonna, and we can only hope that someday she'll choose it. She belongs in a church that welcomes such women. Forget that mean Shmuley Boteach, Madonna! Join the choir of great artists like Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Andy Warhol and Frank Sinatra, all of whom died in the bosom of the Church. There's always room for you. And just look at what a conversion has done for Mel Gibson!