Friday, July 22, 2016

Happy St. Mary Magdalene's Feast Day (and MM's Cave Part 2)

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.

 Across the table from me, three middle-aged women were clearly together and next to me an older gentleman, all of whom spoke quietly in French as they passed the bread and wine. The only woman to speak English ventured to ask me a few questions and then tried, occasionally, to keep me informed of the conversation.

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. 

Most of my 2nd day in the cave I spent asking for guidance, praying for my channels to be open, for help finishing my novel and my writing to grow. And for the people I loved and my deep appreciation and gratitude for the blessings in my life.

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
but today,
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)

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Future of Paris

Between terrorist killings, flooding, never-ending strikes
and Parisians feeling like they've lost their joie de vivre,
it's easy to get caught up in depressing bad news.
Not to mention the stuff here at home. 
I choose here to focus on positive highlights.

And a bit of exciting news:
In February this year,
23 teams were selected to create architectural projects
to reinvent the future of Paris.

According to ArchDaily,,
an urban initiative
working with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo to reinvent city life,
put out a call for submissions
for innovative ideas and cutting edge designs.

 Looking to solve some of Paris' environmental, energy and consumption challenges,
including finding new use for abandoned spaces,
it will be fascinating to see what kind of creativity springs up around Paris 
with an eye toward the future.
I love the designs that endeavor to put a garden
in every inch of available space. 

 Click Here
to see design photos for yourself.

(Photo copyright: Kirsten Steen)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

...Another opportunity for deepening... ~ Buddhist thought for the day

"As a basis for change, we need to recognize that as long as we live in this world,
we will encounter problems, things that obstruct the fulfillment of our goals. If, when these happen, we lose hope and become discouraged, we diminish our ability to face these difficulties. If, on the other hand, we remember that not just we but everyone has to undergo suffering, this more realistic perspective will increase our determination and our capacity to overcome troubles. By remembering the suffering of others, by feeling compassion for others, our own suffering becomes manageable. Indeed, with this attitude, each new obstacle can be seen as yet another valuable opportunity to improve our mind, another opportunity for deepening our compassion! With each new experience, we can strive gradually to become more compassionate; that is, we can develop both genuine sympathy for others' suffering and the will to help remove their pain. As a result, our own serenity and inner strength will increase."  
~ His Holiness the Dalai Lama
(from The Compassionate Life)

Every day, it's another headline, another spiral, 
another argument online between sides. 
And I keep looking for ways to make sense of it all;
ways to give despair some meaning beyond hopelessness,
somewhere more opportunities for deepening. 

There are so many arguments 
that may seem to make sense in our rage 
but only add more flame to the fire. 

This thing that fuels understanding...
this thing that makes us see with our hearts...
that makes us step outside of ourselves...
that gives us a sense of peace.

(Photo copyright: Kirsten Steen)

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Florence Annunciation

While traveling awhile back,
I collected Annunciations for a client and friend who loved them.
And somewhere along my path of collecting them around Europe,
they have become my favorite as well. 

In keeping with our theme of Italy
for the setting of my novel,
this one is in Florence, Italy.

I love the cornucopia surrounding the scene
and the colorful wings of the angel Gabriel. 
He is often depicted holding the Madonna Lily
(Lilium Candidum)
which is thought to be the basis of the Fleur de Lis
as well as the symbol for Florence.
How fitting! 

I also love that in this depiction,
the Madonna is not putting her hand up
as she is in so many.
Often to me it looks like she is saying "Oh no, I couldn't possibly!"
or "Forget it, do you have any idea what that means?" 

In this one, it looks almost as if her hand is over her heart.

A Greek friend of ours,
who survived a very deadly form of cancer,
looks at every single day as a gift.
And when I see these depictions,
it reminds me to see every day as a gift from God and the universe
,,, for all of us. 

How will we use it?!  

(Photo copyright: Kirsten Steen)

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Baptistry Mosaics

As promised,
here are photos of the interior of 
the octagonal Baptistry in Florence from last week.

Oh to be in Florence again! 
I know of an author who rents herself an apartment 
in whichever country she happens to be setting her next novel
and then spends that month writing there. 
One of my future goals! 

And actually, that's why I'm posting photos of Florence,
because part of my novel is set there
and this way we can feel like we're there. 

I love that most of these photos and mosaics
depict angels in them. 

The scene below, of course, needs no explanation.

Can you imagine being responsible for putting all of these tiny mosaics in place?! 

I'm setting up a schedule 
to try to get my novel ready for Beta Readers this summer.
I'm NOT a puzzle person
but writing a novel feels a little like trying to place all the mosaics
in all the right places,
fitting all the correct colors with the right scenes
but without too much rigidity
and more than a splash of imagination.
There's a structured whole yet with individual chapters and scenes
which must have their own flavor and color,
textures and tapestries.

And I'm teaching myself novel writing as I go
so I especially appreciate this last mosaic
of an angel bringing information
during sleep. 

I'm working on the last little bits
of trying to make this book puzzle work
and will take all the help I can get. 

(All Photos copyright: Kirsten Steen)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Bronze doors of the Baptistry in Florence

So while my novel put me in Florence
thought I'd share a couple of exterior photos of the Baptistry. 

The above are the North Doors
created by Lorenzo Ghiberti.
These were originally the East Doors but moved to the North side.
Ghiberti was 21 when he won the competition 
(beating out Brunelleschi!)
and began the commission of the gilded bronze doors
which took him 21 years to finish. 

The first two are the Annunciation (always my favorite)
and the Nativity. 

The doors to the Baptistry are what Michelangelo called
The Gates of Paradise. 

Dante and the members of the Medici family,
as well as most Catholic Florentines,
were baptized in the Baptistry of St. John,
--an octagonal basilica in the Piazza del Duomo 
just next to the main Florence Cathedral--
and was built between 1059 and 1128.

Buried within the quatrefoil,
Ghiberti included plants and insects known to be harmful.
In Medieval thinking,
that was a way of keeping evil away.

Next time a few photos of the 
gorgeous mosaics that make up the ceiling of the interior.

(Photo copyright: Kirsten Steen)
(Info via Wiki)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Ponte Vecchio sunset

Recently I spent a week at my writing retreat on the Oregon Coast
and immersed myself in novel writing
... which put me in Italy. 

So as promised,
here is a bridge view in Florence.
My novel's love interests end up at a villa
overlooking one of my favorite cities in Italy
while they try to save civilization 
from foreign and domestic terrorism. 

Btw, I LOVE how these old bridges
still have shops ON them.
And in medieval times,
people actually lived in houses on the bridge. 
Oh, Florence!
Be still my heart.

(Here's another shot in Florence
from awhile back.)

Next week, Venice!

(Photo copyright: Kirsten Steen)

Monday, May 9, 2016

Eiffel Tower pond

Another tiny slice of Paris today
cause as always, I'm missing it.
But also because, like last time,
I'm giving you a small glimpse into my novel-in-progress.

My last post showed the Champs de Mars cave
where my protagonists (also love interests) spent some time.
And this is the view back across the duck pond 
to the base of the Eiffel Tower 
where they dance together. 

And tomorrow we'll get a little glimpse of Florence, Italy
where they end up chasing suspense.
And next week Venice. 
Til then,
A bientot.

(Photo copyright: Kirsten Steen) 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Cave in Champs de Mars

Another quick visit 
just a snapshot or two
of the cave 
that my protagonist and 
her love interest visit
in my novel
which I'm getting ready for beta readers. 

This location is a little man-made cave
which sits on a tiny pond
just next to the base of the Eiffel Tower.

Trying to get some inspiration 
for a scene I'm trying to finish. 
Thanks for coming with me. 

(Photos copyright: Kirsten Steen)