I have heard it said that God has a way of fulfilling your dreams. Three of my childhood dreams were to travel the world, be a missionary in a foreign country, and write a book. God fulfilled that and much more when He sent me to Ancient Magdala in the Holy Land!
Jennifer Ristine got an unanticipated phone call in May of 2014. “We are looking for consecrated women to form a community in Magdala in the Holy Land. What do you think about going?” Having happily taught in the RC Consecrated Women’s formation center, Mater Ecclesiae College, in Greenville, Rhode Island for 12 years, she was not anticipating such a drastic change of assignment.
Discernment and obedience took her halfway across the world to mission in a foreign land for the next four years. She had always been moved by Jesus’ words to his disciples on the sea of Galilee, “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” In Magdala, she walked and prayed on that very beach where Jesus called the first disciples. Ancient Magdala is located on the western shores of the sea of Galilee, just north of the Jewish city of Tiberias.
What sort of mission work would a consecrated woman do in Ancient Magdala? In September 2014, when she arrived, the place was being run by a handful of volunteers and bursting at the seams with potential to touch thousands of people. The project began through the initiative of the Legionary of Christ, Fr Juan Solana. In his efforts to build a guest house on the Sea of Galilee, land was purchased next to a Franciscan owned site identified as the ancient town of Magdala, associated with Mary Magdalene. God’s providence led them to discover a first-century synagogue in 2009, a synagogue in use during Jesus’ public life. Visitors began flocking to the site. Upon arrival in 2014, Jennifer’s task was to ensure hospitality for the increasing number of visitors requesting tours, as well as train tour guides on the historical, cultural, and spiritual aspects of the site, be a spokesperson for media requests, and begin the Magdalena Institute to promote the dignity of the human person with an emphasis on women. There was no shortage of work to be done!
She often laughed at the irony of her mission in Magdala. Jesus preached, “Go out to the whole world and tell the good news!” But there in Magdala, the world came to her. In her four years serving on site, over 400,000 visitors entered Magdala from over 85 countries. Her interactions with people of various religious and cultural backgrounds increased a desire to share the good news through the figure of Mary Magdalene. On the saint’s feast day, July 22, 2018, Magdala released the first publication of Jennifer’s book entitled Mary Magdalene: Insights from Ancient Magdala.
Shortly afterwards, she transferred to Washington DC, where she made the most of an increasing interest in this enigmatic and popular saint, offering conferences and retreats based on a creative reflection of her life story, pieced together from archaeology, scripture, historical tradition, and spiritual theology. Since her time in Magdala, she has travelled the states, offering these insights to approximately 30 parish groups. As an RC Spirituality contributor she wrote their first Meditation Novena, Nine Days with Mary Magdalene. In addition, her focus in DC has been to offer support for spiritual and faith formation of adults. This has led to a variety of projects, from assisting in RCIA at her local parish, to engagement with Divine Mercy University’s Spiritual Direction certificate program, assisting women through the spiritual exercises retreats with conferences on the spiritual life and spiritual direction, and offering conferences on theology of the body related topics. While her childhood dreams were fulfilled in Magdala, God always has bigger dreams than we can imagine. She confesses,
Magdala was a mission assignment that I never would have dreamt of for myself, but it fulfilled the desires of my heart to reach out to many people and share the good news. The experience also taught me that the Christian journey is an entry into the Paschal mystery of Christ, involving the cross and the resurrection. Magdala was a beautiful, yet purifying mission; one in which I discovered the virtue of hope. Hope is like the light of Christ shining in the darkness, and giving light to all those in need. For me hope was nurtured and offered not only through preaching and hearing the good news, but from experiences of touching the living Christ: Jesus: our Good News in person. The Holy Land was an amazing place to encounter Jesus, crucified and risen, my only hope.