We took the road through the old village of St. Zacharie to Marseilles, past the hermitage St. Jean de Puy, in search of L’Abbaye de Saint-Victor, a fifth-century Cassianite foundation, to further explore the legend of Mary Magdalen in Provence, going farther back in time.
The eleventh-century abbey, a fortress with thick walls and towers, was built to withstand invasions, and the church rises on a hill overlooking the Old Port of Marseilles, a protective and defensive position.
We entered the sanctuary, and gazed at the high pointed vaults of stone and I could see in my mind the monks processing, chanting, as they moved toward the choir. The Blessed Sacrament was to the left of the High Altar, and we paused to pray for our world, for France, for the Church. In the north and south transepts relics were displayed behind glass, including the head of Saint John Cassian, the founder of these monastic foundations, whose monks settled in the valley below Sainte-Baume and around the small oratory built over the grave of Mary Magdalen. The place then was known as Villa Lata, said to have been the site of her last communion, and also the later grave of Maximin, the first bishop of Aix-en-Provence, still later to become the Cathedral of Sainte-Mary Madeleine in the market town of St. Maximin.
We paid four Euro to the Sacristan who manned the small gift stall at the foot of the nave, and descended stairs into the crypt, the fifth-century church of John Cassian. As I stepped on the old stone under these ancient vaults, I was stunned by the excavations and the many graves that had been uncovered, as well as the altars of these early years. Here today the clergy, now part of a parish and diocese, continue to offer the Mass, and here I added my own prayers for the freedom to believe. For the Cassianites had known the times when it was illegal in the Roman Empire to worship in public, and they appreciated the times when it became legal. Indeed, in 390 when pagan shrines were outlawed in the Empire, a great building of Christian churches began. Saint John Cassian was a part of that.
In the nearly three centuries after Mary Magdalen’s death and burial at Villa Lata, Christianity was illegal, but generations marked the place with a small oratory and remembered who was there, telling and retelling the story of this saint. When Christianity became legal, the Cassianite monks settled nearby, building hermitages, knowing the ground was holy. A monastery rose in nearby Montrieux. From the fifth-century days of the Cassianites to thirteenth-century Charles of Anjou, time and invasions destroyed the oratory, but somehow a few monks survived and rebuilt, never forgetting.
Today the story of the valley, of La Sainte-Baume, of the life of Mary Magdalen after she landed on the shores of France, is being told once again.