Tomorrow many will gather in Saint Maximin la Sainte Baume in southern France, to honor Mary Magdalene, as they have for ages. I wish I could be there again, as I find my heart heavy over all the deaths and violence of last week. Not in much of a mood to write, I am reposting this, as I seek a peaceful haven from a world I can’t comprehend.
For me, July the 22 nd has been a special day for a long time, because it is the feast day of my favourite saint, Mary Magdalene.
Those of you who know me and who have been faithful readers of this blog, probably already know about my devotion to this saint, as I have written about her previously in a post last September, 2012.
La Sainte Baume has been like a magnet that continuously keeps drawing me back to her mysterious wild beauty and sanctity.
My most recent photos were taken in May, 2013, except for the torch lit procession, which I participated in several years ago. The procession on the night before, 21 st of July, takes place in Saint Maximin encircling the Basilica , where the her relic (skull) is displayed.
I first discovered Saint Maximin La Saint Baume back in the early 90′s. I was fascinated by the rich tradition and reverence for Mary Magdalen throughout Provence, but especially in this somewhat mysterious area. And yes, this was well before Dan Brown’s writings about her, so he had absolutely nothing to do with my own beliefs and convictions.
Provencal legend has it that Mary Magdalene, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, left the holy land in a boat with several other people, who were close to Jesus. Accompanying her was her brother Lazarus, sister Martha, Joseph of Arimathea, her helper Sarah and several others.
The boat eventually landed at what is now known as Saintes Maries de la Mer, in the swampy part of France known as the Camargue, southwest of Marseille. On may 24, and 25, there is an annual procession and celebration there, that reenacts their debarkation.
All were involved in the Christianization of southern France, especially Mary Magdalene. Lazarus became the first bishop of Marseille, Martha were on to Tarascon, and Joseph of Arimathea went on to found Rocamadour.
After many years of her spreading the teachings and gospel of Christ, Mary Magdalene reportedly retreated to the grotto of La Sainte Baume, where she spent her last remaining years. When she was weak and feeble, she was said to be lifted up and fed by angels.
Geographically, this sacred site is about 30 kilometers west of Marseille, and about 22 kilometers north of the Mediterranean sea. The tiny village of La Saint Baume is at the base of the mountain, and is basically made up of the hotellerie, that has served as a place of pilgrimage for eons; having not only attracted many of the faithful, but forty kings and 15 popes.
Getting there, at least from Marseille, will take you on narrow hairpin roads with steep drop offs, enough to give anyone a little vertigo. The scenery is beautiful and the air is incredibly perfumed with wild thyme, rosemary and lavender, as would befit the saint who is always pictured with her alabaster jar of perfume.
From afar, the landscape can appear rather arid and mountainous as it is in most of Provence. Then suddenly you feel engulfed in a thicket of cooling greenery of the Forêt Dominicale of Sainte Baume. The Dominican brothers, who have guarded the grotto forever, attribute this unusual placed forest to the spirit and energy of Mary Magdalene.
The hôtellerie has been renovated and I was glad to note that the small chapel in back, where hangs a lovely tapestry of provocative symbolism is next on the list. A few Dominican brothers and sisters mill around discreetly amongst the many pilgrims who come for retreats and visits to the grotto.
For those interested in staying there, the room rates are very reasonable. All the times that I was there, the meals were nice, composed of an entree, main course, cheese and dessert, including really decent red or roses wines from the area at unbeatable prices.
I love staying in the hôtellerie for the sweet energy that abounds here and so I can be next to the rather rigorous trails up to the grotto. There are two ways up, one in my mind more difficult to navigate than the other, but both will take you about 45 to 50 minutes of steep hiking upwards.
I consider myself pretty much in shape, with all the walking I do here, but I must admit I found myself at times getting breathless towards the summit, stopping briefly before the final onslaught of stairs you have to climb to get into the grotto. Both trails are beautifully covered with canopies of hickory, oak, linden and european yew, some of which all well over a thousand years old.
The Druids considered the european yew, taxus baccata,which is indigenous to the area, a tree of death and rebirth. How fitting that they abundantly line these paths walked by Mary Magdalene, the most faithful of all the apostles to Jesus. Legend also has that it is a pilgrimage for women’s fertility.
One of several fresh water streams rushing down the mountain is said to be sourced by Mary Magdalene tears. In hiking up, I could feel her heaviness of heart accentuated with each breath and pull of muscle. The ascent is meditative, inviting us to bring forth our own tears and pain for deliverance.
As in our spiritual ascension, our awareness becomes sharper, our feelings within swirl to the surface. I found myself wondering also about all the other seekers before me who persevered up this same path with faith.
The grotto, finally reached with much gratefulness, welcomes us in her dim humid coolness. Occasion drips of water seeping out of the walls of the cave breaks the silent contemplation. Votive candles everywhere flicker in the darkness, their flames beckoning hope and prayerful intercession.
The descent(opposite to what I took to ascend) was in some ways more difficult to navigate than the ascent. I passed others already exhausted, trying to climb this wildly savage trail that was difficult to decipher which turn to take next, perhaps mimicking life. Back at the Hotellerie, one feels a quiet sense of triumph and relief from the rigors of the climb.
Mary Magdalene leaves behind a legacy of faithfulness, courage and utmost love and devotion. In a time when women were viewed with little merits of leadership, except from Jesus, who was the world’s first feminist, Mary left her country of origin for unchartered waters to preach the good news of her beloved rabbi Jesus.
Not surprisingly, She was the last to leave the crucifixion of Christ and the first to discover his resurrection. She invoked the jealously of the other apostles, especially Peter, who eventually usurped her power and mission to Christianise lands beyond.
Perhaps through historical analysis of treasures, not yet discovered, or through validation of what has been uncovered, can the truth of her relevant significance be redeemed. Though the early church fathers accorded her as being the Apostola Apostolorum, or the apostle’s apostle, the Gospel of Mary was never canonically recognised.
As in all things in the universe ,there is a time and season . Truths can only be revealed when people, as Jesus prophetically claimed have the ears to hear , the eyes to see and the hearts to understand.
- 53Hallelujah! I was hoping and praying in my lifetime that some artifact would surface from antiquity that would shed new light of the relationship of Jesus with Mary Magdalene. Any one who knows me well and had ears to listen, knew of my belief and convictions around this for almost 20 years. The Holy Spirit…
- 41One of the many things I love about French culture is the association of traditional foods around the many holidays here. In Paris and the rest of France, February the 2th is the celebration of Chandeleur or the Festival of Lights. The majority of the French celebrate the holiday with crepes, but not in Marseille!…