After a week of rain and cold, we woke to crystal clear skies in a manor house in the wine country of Nans-les-Pins, east of Marseilles. Today we hiked up to the cave of Mary Magdalen in the Massif de La Sainte-Baume, where, legend tells us, she spent her last years after preaching in the valley below.
We drove through the village of Nans-les-Pins, winding through its quaint centre ville, following the signs to La Sainte-Baume, emerging amidst vineyards already full-leafed and promising. Beyond the vineyards and the forested plain, the broad massif of limestone stood against the cobalt blue sky. The lush green forest ran along its base, draping from its lower ridges like a dark green skirt. Today, after the rain and with the crisp air, the blues were bluer, the greens greener, the shades changing with the the changing light of the hours. We followed the road winding into the foothills rising to the higher plateau at the massif’s base, where the Hotellerie sent and received pilgrims. We edged the car into a graveled lot and parked amidst old oaks.
The ancient forest on this north side of the Sainte-Baume goes back to medieval days when kings and queens, saints and sinners, climbed to Mary Magdalen’s cave, and today sun streamed through leafy yews, oaks, and beeches, lightening the greens and landing on lichen, moss, and wild mushrooms. The forest is a unique micro-climate, covering 130 hectares, all that remains of the primeval forest of Provence from the tertiary era.
We walked up a broad path shaded by the tall trees, the sun distant and burning in the occasionally glimpsed blue sky. Signs reminded us to keep our silence as we entered this sacred forest. We listened instead to creation’s songs, birds chattering, breezes rustling, our feet padding up the trail. The path was well worn but well kept by the Dominicans in the valley, and there were benches for rest and votive shrines where we could pause and offer a prayer. Fine gravel covered the early stretch, but soon turned to rougher stones and ancient rock stairs, and finally, after about a forty minute hike, stretching our leg muscles and pausing to catch our breath, we arrived at the base of the cliff and looked up to the wall of rock and the small monastery built into its face. Here, the proper stairs began, and along the way we paused before crosses and carved plaques with Beatitudes in French…Heureux sont les… “Blessed are the…” We continued to climb, leaving the forest behind and rising into the massif, through a gateway with a sign announcing the presence of Dominicans since 1295, Benedictines before that, and Cassianites from the fifth century. We passed a life-size Calvary scene where red roses touch Mary Magdalen who cries at the foot of the cross. Turning up the last set of stairs we arrived at the top, 950 meters (3,135′) above sea level, having climbed 276 meters (800′) from the plateau.
From the terrace we gazed across the rolling green of Provence to the stone massif of Mount Victoire near Aix-en-Provence, a favorite scene of Cezanne. We turned again back to the cliff face and the entrance to Mary Magdalen’s grotto.
The semi-circular chapel is large, 29 by 24 meters, 6 meters at its highest point, or 95′ x 79′, 20′ at its highest. Water dripped from the cavern ceiling, echoing as it splashed upon the pools on the floor, but the chancel and nave were dry. We arrived in time for the daily 11:00 Mass as we entered the candle-lit space.
To the left of the doorway and commanding the central portion of the cavern is the sanctuary, with twenty or so pews and a nineteenth century altar of stone. Behind the altar, I knew, resided relics of Mary Magdalen, and to the left on a stone outcropping was the Reserved Sacrament on its own altar, with candles and a red lantern. Near this was the Lady Altar, the shrine to the Virgin Mary, with a lovely sculpted Madonna and Child and a bank of flaming votives at her feet.
At the far back wall of the grotto, beyond the High Altar but to the side was a sculpted Mary Magdalen, and it was here that I lit a candle in the damp, with some difficulty, using a taper to light from a votive nearly out. Finally my small votive burned bright, and I placed the flame in the iron stand with others. I looked up to the white marble sculpture of Mary dancing with the angels, and I thought of her sister shrine in Paris, at the Basilica La Madeleine. The image portrayed the dance of prayer, of meeting God. Legend says that Mary Magdalen was carried to Mount Pilon high up the mountain by angels to hear them sing. This may or may not be true, but I am sure that the Magdalen heard them sing in some fashion wherever she was. The sculpted image of the saint held by the dancing singing angels always brings me joy, and as I gazed on the white marble figures, I asked for her prayers that I might be given the words to write about her and Our Lord in my current novel, The Magdalen Mystery, that I do not disappoint her, that, above all, I tell the truth.
We took seats in the sanctuary in the back pew and watched and waited, praying before the Blessed Sacrament. As I watched the young Dominican enter and celebrate the Mass in this remarkable dripping cave, lit by candles and prayers and devotion, I wondered if Mary Magdalen did indeed spend her last thirty years in this grotto in penitential prayer and fasting. Whether or not she did, partly the subject of my current novel, there was no doubt in my mind that the presence of Christ in the Bread and Wine was real. And this reality, the living Christ, was what the Magdalene witnessed to with the disciples Maximin, Sidonius and others. Mary pointed to Christ just as John the Baptist had in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way…
We are touched by Mary Magdalen and are drawn to her because she is one of us, for we too have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. We too are forgiven. We too can repent and change. We too can find salvation and eternal life. We too want to tell others all about it.
The young Dominican from the valley sang the Mass and his voice echoed in the moist air of the wet cave. An oblate read the Scriptures appointed for the day, and a choir of one sang from the first pew. Our monk moved to the center, standing in front of the stone altar. There he preached a fiery sermon in French, one about faith, belief, taking the narrow path and not the wide. He clenched his fists and pointed with his index fingers, and his eyes glowed with certainty and love. I recalled that Dominicans are known to be great preachers and I regretted my poor French.
There were no more than a dozen of us there in the glowing candlelight of the Grotto of Sainte-Baume for this morning’s Mass. We knelt on the hard wooden slats and said our prayers, confessed our sins, glorified and gave thanks to God for his great gifts of salvation. As I said the few responses I knew in French, then the Lord’s Prayer in English, and watched the monk in his white chasuble offer the Body of Christ to each of the communicants, I realized that, in our search for truth, we must also search for the lies in our own hearts. These we must root out first if we are to see clearly, if we are to see the lies of others, of the world around us, a theme I in The Magdalen Mystery. It is only from humility and a blank slate, a heart washed clean, that God can write on our hearts his wisdom, truth, and indeed, his law.
We left the cave and entered the brighter terrace, and walked down the path toward our car, silently, pondering the mystery of this saint who was the first to see Christ resurrected from the grave. She ran and told the others. This much we know is true.
For photos see the PhotoGallery on my website, http://www.christinesunderland.com/