This is a long post, but I think an important one, so I hope you will bear with me and read on…
There is a place of extraordinary beauty in Provence that Mary Magdalene fans have known about for centuries. It’s called the Grotto of Sainte Baume, and local tradition indicates that our Mary lived their following the crucifixion. There are many versions of this legend, and is often the case with someone who was forced into hiding, many of them are contradictory or otherwise obscured in mystery. Some say she came there immediately following her exile from the Holy Land before moving on to preach throughout Provence and the Languedoc (this is my preferred version), some say she lived here a short time, some say for 40 years, others say she died here. There is even a legend that she was born aloft daily by angels from the top pf the mountain where she was kept alive solely by divine love and the periodic communion wafer.
Whichever version of the legend works for you, there is one constant factor that is absolutely undeniable: Mary Magdalene was here, in this place, and her grace and beauty and faith and strength infuse every inch of the area. Many of you know that I am outspoken in my opinions about the biblical “authorities” who love to claim that there is no “proof” that Mary Magdalene was ever in France. As I have said many times before, there is plenty of proof for those who choose to leave the comforting shelter of their academic libraries and go in search of it - but this sometimes means climbing a few mountains and getting dirt on your loafers. Heaven forbid. What would the Dean say?
The climb to the cave system at Sainte Baume is either rigorous or excruciating, depending on your level of fitness. As we near the summit, I always tell those who are climbing with me “you may hate me at this moment, but you will love me when we reach the top.” And it is always true. For the reward at the top is an extraordinary and unique place where the love of Notre Dame is there for all to feel and understand. I have seen many a self-proclaimed “stable and rational” human turn to jelly in this place. It is difficult to describe the potential emotional responses to it as it affects everyone differently, depending on their own spiritual frame of reference.
Yet as powerful as this pilgrimage is, I know a number of devoted Magdalene fans who will not go to this place at all, despite the fact that they are very clear that she lived here and that the entire region is suffused with her energy and spirit. Why? Because since 1296 it has been run by the Dominicans.
Dominicans, you say? The so-called “Dogs of God” who led the Inquisition(s)? The same order that called our people heretics and subsequently tortured and massacred the Cathars by the hundreds of thousands in a tragically successful attempt at ethnic cleansing? Yes, the same.
For some of my friends, it is unbearable to think that a place which is so sacred to Our Lady can be in the hands of those who destroyed her children. They simply cannot endure the Dominican presence, both here in Sainte Baume, but also in the neighboring town of Saint Maximin, where Mary’s relics are housed in “their” basilica. It feels like a hostile occupation, and indeed it may have been exactly that in the earlier stages of Christianity. I don’t think it is an accident that the Dominicans “claimed” this place as their own within 50 years of the final Cathar persecutions.
Like many of my friends in France and elsewhere, I have always had a strong reaction to Dominican presence in what I feel is one of her most sacred places. While I did not allow it to stop me from going there, it has always been a shadow on a place that was otherwise full of light. Further, while I would love to stay in those mountains for a prolonged period of meditation and prayer, I have refused to do so when the opportunity presented itself because the hostel there is run by the Dominican nuns. These women were an imposing presence in their full habits, and also a sharp reminder to me of where I felt the church had misrepresented the true teachings of Jesus - and of his wife and successor, Mary Magdalene.
But last week, my friend Isobel changed all of that on a beach in Southern France.
Let me digress to tell you about Isobel. She is a remarkable, inspirational woman, someone I consider a great friend, sister and extremely wise teacher. She lives part of the year in Southern France, where she teaches travelers about the true nature of the Cathars and their desire to create a Church of Love. She lives part of the year in Bosnia, where she works with the women who survived the horrific, nearly unimaginable, genocide of Srebinca in July of 1995 where 8,000 men were slaughtered in the worst act of mass murder since the Holocaust. One of the many things that Isobel has taught me is that these circumstances are not different - the campaign against the Cathars and the campaign against the Bosniaks. Genocide in all of its forms is the greatest of horrors, and caused by hate. We look at the torture of the Middle Ages and we like to think that we have progressed as human beings over 800 years. But the events in Bosnia in 1995 and in Darfur today show us that we are still capable of unspeakable crimes against our human brothers and sisters, and we will be until we can conquer the hate with forgiveness.
I once asked Isobel what the women in Bosnia wanted in terms of assistance. Financial aid? Political support? What would help? And her answer floored me then as it does now. The response, when asked, was simply this: “We want people to live their lives with more tolerance and more forgiveness. That is the only thing that will change the world. The rest is useless without those two things first.” And this from women who often live in the same neighborhoods with the men who murdered their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. But I shall quote these women again: “We know what hate can do. Now let’s see what love can do.”
And so it was that I was sitting on the shores of the Mediterranean with Isobel, where we meet annually to celebrate the arrival of Mary Magdalene here 2000 years ago. She had just returned from the Dominican convent at Sainte Baume. “How can you stay in that place?” I asked with disdain, nearly spitting out my sangria. “How can you not stay there?” was her reply. In her gentle but firm way, she then went on to explain that resisting the Dominican presence in Sainte Baume was not only useless, but counter-productive. She told me that she looks forward to it, that she speaks with the nuns and learns from them and that they are really quite lovely and didn’t I need to get myself back there asap and try to approach all of this differently? What would happen if I went into this place with a feeling of love and forgiveness, rather than one of anger and bitterness? After all, the nuns who are running the hostel today didn’t burn anyone at the stake. It isn’t exactly fair to blame them for the sins of their forefathers, is it? And what was it that I always tried to ask myself? What would Mary Magdalene do?
And so I agreed to give it a try and went to Sainte Baume the next day. I fortified myself by making the climb first, before venturing into the chapel and hostel that is run by the nuns. The chapel itself is very special, covered with marvelous murals of our Magdalene’s life, my favorite of which is one that shows her standing tall and firm on a rock, preaching to the fishermen of Marseille. Wait a minute, if the Dominicans commissioned a mural of Mary Magdalene preaching in Marseille, didn’t that indicate that they were respectful of her as an apostle in her own right? The murals in this chapel, painted in the early 1900s, depict none of the negative stereotypes that have haunted Our Lady for 2000 years. Instead, they show her in her power and grace! Hmmm… it was already starting to make me think…
There were several nuns in meditation in the chapel and I didn’t want to disturb them, so I went into the lobby where there is a small gift shop. In the window was the most exquisite little statue of Magdalene I have ever seen (and I’ve seen quite a few). She is beautiful, wearing a crown and carrying her jar, with one foot placed lightly on a book. I wanted to see it closer, but this meant actually having to address one of the fearsome Dominican nuns whom I have spent so many years avoiding. Well, here was the test. I asked her in my broken French if I could see it, and… she smiled at me. Then she went to retrieve the statue, and as she brought it down she looked at it with the most beautiful reverence. “She is magnificent,” she said, as she handed the statue to me. And in that moment, the two of us from entirely different worlds came crashing together. For a few seconds we were holding Mary Magdalene between us, and we both welled up with tears. It hit me then that this woman loved Magdalene every bit as much as I did, and perhaps more. She had devoted an entire life to the memory of her legacy here at Sainte Baume. And I had no right - no one does - to judge how she chose to express that love in her lifetime. But most of all, I realized that there was no separation between us, there was only love - the love for this extraordinary, inspirational heroine who has inspired so many of us for so long.
The wonderful post-script to this story is that in finding my forgiveness and operating through love, I also discovered that these Dominicans have more information on the history of Magdalene in France than arguably anyone in the world! And, they’re happy to share it with anyone who asks. In fact, the lobby of the hostel itself is full of historical information that is displayed openly on the walls in a celebration of her presence here. Some of it is borderline heretical, yet I think there is more value on the walls of Sainte Baume then in all of the history books I have ever waded through. It was subsequently in this convent at Sainte Baume that I found crucial, nearly priceless evidence to back up something I am writing about in my next book. While the feeling of love and well-being that I now experience at Sainte Baume is reward enough, I am most grateful for the additional blessings that were bestowed upon me in my research.