***Continuation from Mary Magdalene's Cave in Provence Part 1***
Arriving back at the abbey (l'Hostellerie de la Sainte Baume) after my first trek to the cave, there was not enough time to shower before dinner so I cleaned up as best I could and hoped there might be other weary travelers at the table as possibly ripe as myself.
Meals at the hostellerie are served cafeteria/family style at specified times. Guests are seated along several long tables in a large window-filled room while the nuns sit together at their own table, secluded amongst themselves.
While each day of the week offers a different menu,
my one evening here, dinner began with a plate of tiny cubed beets with vinaigrette, baskets of sliced baguette and a carafe each of red and white wine.
The women were staying through the week and talked about the paths they had chosen up to the cave, their curiosity about the building next to it (what I guessed were the Priest's accommodations in between services), and what each did for a living. The older gentleman talked about how difficult it had been to find the abbey (on which we all agreed) and a book he had found about the cave at another site.
Dinner arrived in the form of thick chicken cutlets, semolina and fruit for dessert. Meals are for specified times and the young nuns who served began clearing away food while the older man was still eating. The women at my table tsk'd as they talked, pointing their fingers at him. The English-speaker told me they were unhappy that he wasn't allowed to finish his dinner in his own time.
After dinner I desperately wanted to retire to my room for a hot shower but stopped to peruse the many plaques hanging in the foyer. Each one told of a different century in the care-taking and history of the cave.
And as I looked around, I realized that every plaque, every piece of artwork, every bit of information centered on Mary Magdalene and the history of the cave.
I stood in front of the glass door to the chapel and peered in. The English-speaker at dinner opened the door, then turned to me and said, "You can enter." I followed her in and noticed several murals on the walls along the pews. Again, each one was a part of Mary's story. Not having spent much time in churches during my childhood, it seemed to me that the ones I had been in usually told the story of Christ, he being the central figure. I loved that here, Mary was central.
The murals depicted Magdalene in a boat, standing outside the cave and surrounded by angels. The chapel itself took the shape of a cross with the pews and murals along the base with two wings creating the T. In the left wing sat a piano where a young man played classical tunes, a young woman by his side. In the right wing, another small chapel with the 3 women from my dinner table. I watched them as we listened to the music and they whispered quietly together, staring peacefully at the altar and eventually separating to pray and wander alone.
I sat in one of the pews taking in the paintings of MM and listening to the pianist practice classical pieces I didn't recognize but which didn't sound like religious hymns. At one point, an older nun came in, stopped suddenly in the center of the aisle, cocked her head as if trying to place the music and then huffed right back out the door (by which I took to mean it was not her kind of music.)
I finally retired to my room and took the best hot shower I can remember, still not having gotten warmed up after my trip to the cave. I settled into my single bed with my lap desk to jot down notes about my first cave visit, occasionally peering out my window to watch a herd of tiny kittens scamper together in the nun's courtyard.
The next morning I joined the same group for breakfast, then hurried to pack up my room for their rather early (9am) checkout time. I packed the car and went in to the nearby gift shop where I'd seen a purple amethyst gem tree like the one I had as a kid. As a young adult, I'd given mine to a friend (who had long since lost track of it) and I hadn't seen another like it until I arrived here.
So I purchased it, packed it in the car and went to the Hostellerie's gift shop where I picked out 2 medallions of Mary Magdalene, 2 of the Archangel St. Michael and 2 bookmarks. One of each for myself and one for a friend who lives outside of Paris and whose eyes lit up when I told her of my upcoming journey. She told me her aunt made the trek to MM's cave every single year. I stuffed the medallions in my pocket to make the journey back up to the cave with me and I set out once again.
This time I took the path to the left, knowing what I would find at the top but like last time, not knowing what it would do to me, how it might change me. Again I chanted words in my head. The words Merci. And Mary Magdalene. And Thank You. My pilgrimage of gratitude and guidance.
I stopped for short breaks and took photos of hearts I found continuously along the path. When I got to the top, I again arrived during a service and waited outside in the courtyard with a few others.
I watched one of the women from my dining table crouch before the courtyard's statue of Mother Mary holding the body of her crucified son, Magdalene crying at their feet. The woman rocked back and forth and held her hands together in prayer. One of the other women joined her and they locked hands, crouching together.
I finally edged my way into the cave and slid into the nearest pew to watch and listen until the service was over. Then I wandered the cave for a 2nd time... and looked for places where a woman could sleep inside a freezing cave.
This time when I went downstairs, I pulled the 4 medallions from my pocket and held them in one hand while I dipped the other in the pool of cave water the monks had tried to fence off. Using my right hand, I cupped the cave's own holy water to my left hand and soaked the medallions with it. Then I did what I always do with holy water in any church I enter wherever I am traveling: I rubbed a drop of it at the site of the 3rd eye, the 6th chakra, the place of intuition and wisdom. And from the small pile of leaves that had fallen from the two potted olive trees, I pocketed a couple which now sit on my altar at home near the amethyst gem tree and medallions, all of which I consider my gifts from Mary Magdalene.
(The identical medallions blessed with the cave's holy water I sent to my friend in France.)
On the backside of the altar, I took a staircase I'd missed the day before.
At the top sat another statue of Mary Magdalene,
the area beneath her strewn with notes written to her
or the names of those prayed for in her name.
Each of the stained glass windows depicted a story with MM.
And a laminated poster board told the locations of each statue
and stained glass window and its history.
When I first put Mary Magdalene in my novel, it was with what felt like guidance to do so. But when I began asking for further guidance about her role in the book, I heard very little. I meditated on it, I prayed, I listened, I got scared in the quiet. Finally I did a meditation putting myself in the cave with her... and the Guidance. Was. Huge. Apparently, I had to come to her. And I decided someday, some way, I would get myself to her cave in the South of France.
When my family announced they were spending 2 months in Provence in the summer of 2015
and inviting all family and friends to come visit for any length of time,
I put us down for a couple of weeks about a year before the scheduled date.
As it drew near, I began to question the wisdom of taking 2 weeks vacation
when things were feeling tight
and my partner wasn't sure yet he could make it.
Then I looked at a map...
and suddenly realized MM's cave
was not far from Aix en Provence,
which was not far from Avignon
which was very close to where we were staying.
And I knew I had to go.
And somehow I am different...
not only for having made this journey,
but for making it alone.
I was able to break through barriers of fear,
so many fears of doing this by myself:
of making reservations by phone with a monk who doesn't speak English,
of driving myself there alone, of finding it alone,
walking it alone.
And now at any given time or place at any moment's notice,
I am back there in my mind. In her cave. Back there in the mystical, special, holiness of it.
And I am changed again.
When I returned to my family's vacation house, the first question to me was,
"Well, was it for real??!!"
And I had to answer that it doesn't matter.
It doesn't matter because the centuries of prayer to her, with her, for her still linger in the air,
painted onto wet walls, dripping and skimming the surface of the pools making them holy,
filling them with the magical essence of prayer.
The people who inhabit it every single day to offer services,
to sing and pray and feel what is there all make it real.
Their belief, CENTURIES of belief, makes it real.
I can't say if she truly slept there,
if she spent the last years of her life and widowhood there
or if her relics actually grace the inside of the stunning reliquary
on St. Mary Magdalene's Feast Day,
crowds of believers will carry what they believe to be her relics
through the town in communal reverence.
And I will return to see her again.
Happy Feast Day!
(Photos copyright: Kirsten Steen)