This week a procession will take place to Mary Magdalene’s grotto, La Sainte Baume, in southern France. The pilgrims will follow the “Way of the Kings,” a path well trod in the Middle Ages, from a broad plateau through an ancient forest, ascending high into a limestone massif. The porous stone has for centuries provided caves for hermits, and legend says that Mary Magdalene spent the last years of her life there. This Friday is her feast day, July 22, and folks from the nearby villages will honor her life and holiness.
Mary Magdalene’s last years is one of the subjects of my novel-in-progress,The Magdalene Mystery. I am deep into my fourth draft and recently edited the chapter on the grotto chapel. I recall visiting two years ago on a crystal clear day, the air washed by the rain of the day before. The forest was silent except for a few bird calls, and sunlight slipped between broad leaves. We walked the switchbacks, broad at first and graveled, soon turning to rockier going, passing small oratories and the Stations of the Cross, and finally arrived at the cliff face. We then climbed stairs to a monastery gate.
Dominicans have cared for the shrine for centuries, and before that Cassianites from Marseilles. We passed a sign showing a monk with his finger to his lips, imploring silence. We continued to climb to a broad terrace that overlooked the valley below and as far out to the horizon as Mount Victoire, the mountain Cezanne painted. Opposite the edge of the terrace we saw the chapel grotto carved from the mountain. We entered the dim and damp space.
The grotto is rough – the walls and ceilings craggy and shimmering with moisture. I could hear a drip drip drip into a pool of water somewhere. The cave is dark and smells of wet stone. To the left of the entrance is a small sanctuary and nave in white marble with stairs that wrap up and around behind the high altar. A sculpted image of Christ on the cross with Mary Magdalene kneeling rises over the altar. The monks say a daily Mass here in this dark cavern. They celebrate Midnight Mass at Christmas and the candle light must be stunning. This coming Friday they will process again, to celebrate Saint Mary Magdalene.
Each time I have visited Mary Magdalene’s cave I have sensed I have visited my own heart with its own darkness and damp, its places that need cleaning out, its pools of tears. I pray before the altar where the Reserved Sacrament is kept, knowing Christ will light these dark places. He will dry my tears.
Mary Magdalene has been considered many persons in the New Testament. Most agree that she is the woman from Magdala possessed by seven demons and the woman who saw the resurrected Christ in the garden. Some say she was the sister of Martha of Bethany, the woman who washed Christ’s feet with her hair, and even the woman stoned for adultery. Regardless of the debate, we know Christ healed her of those seven demons. We know she was changed forever.
It is this image of change, of turning away from the dark and toward the light, that captivates me when I see Mary Magdalene, the penitent, in my mind. She is sometimes shown carrying a jar of spices or ointment, but occasionally we see her carrying a candle, lighting the way. The favorite scene for many is in the tomb-garden when she tries to touch Christ, and he says, “Noli me tangere,” often translated as “Do not touch me,” but more accurately translated as “Do not hinder me,” i.e., do not keep me from doing what I must do.”
I thought about her today at church. The lessons were about judging and forgiving, about the blind leading the blind, the mote in your own eye that needs to be removed. “Be ye therefore merciful as your Father is merciful,” Christ tells us. (Luke 6:36+) And St. Paul writes to the Church in Rome about our human condition, that of corrupted goodness seeking the light:
“…the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
The glorious liberty of the children of God… I love that phrase. To move from corruption to glorious liberty!
And then there’s that poetic and touching passage about the natural world of which we are a part:
“For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.” (Romans 8:18+)
Anyone who has seen a sweet and innocent cat go after a sweet and innocent bird understands this passage. Or a hawk circle a nest. We are a fallen world indeed.
And so too is mankind as part of that fallen creation, with dark dripping caves that need light and love. Mary Magdalene, pray for us, priez pour nous, for you understand who we are and who we want to be. You knew the darkness and you know the light.