Here on the lawn, high above Cannes, surrounded by lavender, a nearby waterfall rushes in the distance, a soothing sound. I’ve been reading about Mary Magdalene’s time in the Marseilles area, a few hours west of here. She sailed from Jerusalem with Maximin and many others, escaping persecution, and retired to a cave in the Sainte-Baume Massif between Toulon and Marseilles.
This story is one of French legend, promoted by medieval chroniclers, but I’ve always sensed the kernel to be true. I was familiar with the dripping cave-chapel, the local Dominican monastery, the meditative walk up the mountainside. I had never climbed beyond to the top, Mount Pilon, where they say Mary was carried by angels to hear them sing. A chapel sits on the edge of a rocky promontory, a destination of many papal and royal pilgrimages over the last 1200 years, their names recorded by an 18th-century French historian.
The scholar Michael Donley examines the legend, and has come up with some interesting evidence. The valley below the cave, and for that matter, in the greater region stretching from the town of Saint-Maximin and its basilica to Marseilles itself, is dotted with hermitages and abbeys dating to the fourth century. These monastic communities were founded by monks from the Saint Victor monastery in Marseilles, a sort of “monks school” begun (we know from historical sources) by Saint John Cassian. Records refer to the “Cassian way.” The fact that there is such a congregant of these hermitages and abbeys near the site where Mary’s grave and oratory would have been is not conclusive but certainly indicative that the area was considered to be particuarly sacred.
John Cassian, too, is an interesting figure, for he was involved in the heady debate of the time about free will (Pelagius) versus grace (Augustine), landing firmly in the middle, which seems to me appropriate. Donley argues Cassian was from this area, became a follower of John Chrysostom in the East and when this saint was banished from Constantinople, Cassian was ordered out as well. He returned to his Provencal homeland where he founded two schools for monastics in Marseilles, and possibly spent his last days as a hermit in these hills. His name marks the Cannes airport – St. Cassien – and a town nearby as well.
Fascinating clues to the mystery of the amazing Mary Magdalene, who, Donley also argues, was not only Lazarus’s sister, but the woman who washes the feet of Jesus with her hair, the woman whose demons are cast out, and the woman called a “sinner.” In spite of recent statements by Church scholars to the contrary, and admitting there is no concrete Gospel evidence for the fusion one way or another, he makes it appear most likely they are all the same Mary.
I feel closer to Mary Magdalene, here in the country of her last years, when she preached in Marseilles about her Lord’s resurrection and her own salvation, then retired to the quiet of the mountain cave. I’m carrying in my luggage my little novel, Offerings, that talks about her, and hope she approves my account.
In the meantime I shall read some more, inhale the lavender, and listen to the distant waterfall.