I arrived in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume with a pep in my step. I had just an hour to experience the Magdalene presence there before returning my car in Aix-en-Provence.
First, I decided to find a pastry to enjoy with my morning coffee. As luck would have it, I walked into the best artisinal patisserie in all of France! The shop was full of beautiful meringues adorned with pines nuts and delicate-looking tartes. My stomach only wanted a pain-au-chocolat, but my eyes feasted on them all. I walked across the way to a sidewalk cafe and order a cafe creme, which tasted somewhere along the lines of a caffe latte. After an exquisite moment of cafe life à la française, I was off in the direction of the basilica of St. Maximin.
St. Maximin has at its medieval core a basilica that is seemingly basic from the outside…that is until you enter through its unsuspecting doors. Prepare yourself to be dazzled by the glory of its grandeur in praise of the Magdalene. Walking into the large, dark, and cavernous space, I felt as if I was entering into the underworld or perhaps the womb of Mother Earth.
I was mesmerized by the magnificent stained glass windows at the front of the church. The rays of the sun hit the windows and illuminated the “underworld” in all their colorful glory. As I admired the way the light from the outside world lit up the interior space, I suddenly realized why the Church constructed these sacred spaced in this fashion. These churches were built to convey such ominous darkness so that the partitioners would feel as if the priest, who stood completely illuminated by the rays of the sun, was their only hope out of the tomb-like space.
AHA! I thought. The church was the first indoor theater house! They created a spectacle of heaven and hell right before our eyes; complete with an embodoed psycho-spriitual sensation of purgatory.
After this realization, I found myself nearly back where I started. That is, until I turned toward the central pews and saw it: the staircase to the crypt that held the skull of Mary Magdalene herself. I cautiously descended the staircase, touching the arch above my head as I took my first steps into the depths of the basilica.
On all sides protected by glass, the small crypt contained Christian artifacts. Hidden behind thick glass and golden iron gate was the blackened skull of Mary Magdalene. It was encased in glass and adorned with stiff golden hair and some sort of “ancient” outfit. I looked into where her eyes would have been and thought it so strange that this skull was kept and honored in such a way. Whether it actually Mary or not, we may never know. I bowed my head in respect for Magdalene and left the mysterious chamber.
St. Maximin and La Stainte Baume had shared qualities that I felt drawn to: an energy; a presence; a reverence for a person who showed such love, compassion, devotion, and strength and taught this to the world through her actions.
I left the basilica and traveled down the tiny street. On the way I passed souvenir shops, bakeries, and eye glass stores–the French love their eye glasses. I found my car and went onward for Aix-en-Provence. Before nightfall, I would be in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for the annual gypsy festival honoring Sainte Sara. This proved to be my biggest adventure yet!