Finding Mary Magdalene – Blog 1: The Grotto of La Sainte Baume, Part 1: The Pilgrimage Begins

The Legend of Mary Magdalene post crucifixion is sort of a “choose your own adventure” story. However, what is commonly held as truth, in the South of France at least, is that Mary Magdalene, along with Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe were set assail in a boat belonging to Joseph of Armithea. They were in exile, fleeing the Roman Empire, and determined to spread the message of “the way” as expressed by Jesus. Their ship landed upon the shores of what was once known as Gaul but today is known as the Camargue region of France in a little sea-town called Les Sainte Maries de la Mer.

Although there are many variations on story and legend throughout the region, it is told that in her mission to convert the inhabitants of Provence, Magdalene eventually made her way atop Le Plan d’Aups, to the cave, La Sainte Baume. There she spent thirty years in prayer and meditation, taken to the heavens every hour of the day for material and spiritual sustenance by angels. And this is where my story begins:

La Sainte Baume is a pilgrim site at the base of Le Plan d’Aups. One must rent a car to get there, which, admittedly scared the crap out of me. For months I had been worrying about driving in France, and the moment was finally upon me. Making my way to the Aix-en-Provence train station, I quickly found my car for the next three days:  a compact citroen diesal engine – tiny, lightweight, and non-descript. After several deep breaths, as if preparing myself for my final child-birthing contractions, I began my engine and took off for La Sainte Baume.

Wanting to ease into my European driving experience, I chose to avoid the highways and instead took the back route from Aix to St. Maximin and then onto La St. Baume. After about ten minutes, the English-accented GPS guide and I had a running joke about his constant command to “Cross the round-about.”

The drive to Le Plan d’Aups was stunning. I drove through vineyards and unpaved countryside roads. After climbing from Nans-les-Pins to the base of Le Plan d’Aups, on what was practically a single-lane road, I came upon it: La Hostellerie de La Sainte Baume. The Hostellerie is a functioning monastery run by the Dominican order. They hold daily mass in the Hostellerie as well as atop the mountain in the Grotto Sainte Baume.

After depositing my baggage, I took a walk outside. The cave-turned-monastery lay just above the tree tops, awaiting my arrival the following day. I walked through the ancient untamed grass strewn with poppies and crickets. I felt the wind upon my face–which I was later told was coming eastward from Greece…ahhh, only a Frenchman could make such a statement sound so romantic!–and imagined Mary Magdalene walking upon this land 2,000 years ago. I slept well, knowing I was in the care of Mary.

The following day at the communal breakfast–which included a morning prayer and Sunday School songs–I met 17 yr old Marie, her mother Jean and grandmother Marie-Therese. This encounter put my French language skills to the test, as these ladies spoke almost no English. So, I braced myself and allowed our mutual passion for Mary Magdalene to guide the way.

Jean asked me why I had come all this way, by myself, to La Sainte Baume. I told her, “For Mary Magdalene. Why? Because I love her.” Jean looked me with piercing intensity, and said, “It is because she had so much love for Jesus.” Taken aback by the simple, yet deep undeniable truth of her statement, I could do nothing but nod in sincere agreement. It was then I understood the real impact Mary Magdalene has on her beloved followers for millennia.

I looked around the room and suddenly realized that this was a room full of people with a deep love and reverence for one of the most important women in Jesus’s life. Many of us had different interpretations of this love, but it was the pureness of Mary’s love–not a religious pureness, but the pure potential of unconditioned love–all the same that brought us together. And it wasn’t just me. Hundreds of people come to La Sainte Baume every day to hike to the cave and honor her.

Marie and I climbed to the top, so deep in our conversation, alla Franglais, that I didn’t notice the challenge of the steep climb. As we reached the base of the monastery, a stillness came over us.

The potency of the sacred feminine was in the statues of women surrounding and grieving at the foot of the cross. And that of Mother Mary holding the lifeless Jesus with Mary Magdalene weeping at his feet.

As Marie and I entered the cave, a cool dampness embraced us. I could hear the dripping of water. The haunting glow of the candles allowed the presence of Mary to become very real.

I felt drawn to the furthest most corner of the cave down at the base of the staircase. Walking in silence, I turned the corner and saw the statue of Mary Magdalene, cross in hand, in agony over her loss.  After investigating the rest of the cave, I soon returned to this corner, feeling the strongest presence of Mary there. There I remained, in prayer and gratitude for such a woman; a woman who has been misinterpreted and debased for too long.

The four of us stayed on for 11 AM mass, the chanting of the priests rang like bells in the cavernous space….At the end of the day, France is a Catholic country, and the Dominicans are a Catholic order. And for them, Mary is important for her profound love and devotion toward Christ, which she showed through her act of penance as well as for her role as the Disciple who spread the message of Jesus throughout the region. SHE brought the message of The Light and The Way to French Gaul, which was synonymous with her profound love and devotion.

Marie eventually asked me my beliefs concerning Christ and Mary, to which I gently explained that for me, Jesus and Mary represent the masculine and feminine faces of God. She told me she believes that Jesus is the one and true God and that Mary was his devoted disciple. I smiled and told her that I respect all points of view and at the end of the day, it is Mary’s profound love, devotion, and strength that connects us all.

After parting ways with my companions, I had lunch, but did not feel at ease. I heard the call in my heart and knew I needed to return to Mary, in that cave, and in that moment. I practically ran up the mountain. Reaching the top and out of breath, I entered the cave and was embraced by her love. I went directly for my hidden corner and prayed and asked for guidance. As I sat in meditation, she responded, “Just listen.” Laughing to myself at this most simple and often repeated advice, I stopped asking questions and surrendered to The Way she would have me go and be.

Some time later, I discovered I had missed a statue of Mary atop the Priest’s altar.  Here Mary appeared to recline in a somewhat erotic manner. Many notes and flowers were left for her, along with several engravings bearing her gratitude, the oldest of which from 1863. I felt this kind of gratitude was so pure; people are drawn to Mary because she shows them The Way to Christ through the power of Love. And it’s incredible to see this force sustained and strengthened throughout the centuries.

And then, suddenly, I heard it. I listened, and she spoke. She asked me to give a ceremony for her the following day upon my return to the cave.

Suddenly all was well, I knew the mission I had before me. I descended the mountain filled with light and joy.

That evening was filled with laughter as I met several new pilgrims; all forcing me to express my adoration for Mary in simple yet direct ways, allowing our shared passion to do the talking.