(My favorite scene right outside my bedroom door)
My partner and I had hoped this past late spring to make the 45 DAY pilgrimage through France and Spain along the Camino to Santiago de Compostela but work had kept him too busy. I was spending two weeks in Provence with family so decided to make the 45 MINUTE pilgrimage to Mary Magdalene's cave (the time it takes from the Hostellerie up the mountain path to the cave) on my own.
I was off on an adventure to La Baume...BY MYSELF!
The story is that after Christ's death, Mary Magdalene, with several others, set sail on a small boat (actually one legend says they were set afloat with no sails or oars) landing in the South of France where they spread the teachings of Christ. Mary is said to have lived the remaining 30 years of her life in the cave of La Baume.
So this summer, from my family's rented compound (an exquisite mini-chateau built in the 1600's...and pigeon house from the 1100's...near Blauvac,) I headed for the cave and my own private pilgrimage.
After a few hours of driving myself through the south of France, (I am not usually the driver in our travels) getting lost, stuck in Aix, backtracking, driving in circles, stopping for lunch and asking directions (received in the form of a drawn map on the table's white paper-covering from the only waiter to speak English,) I finally checked in to the Hostellerie de la Sainte-Baume, an abbey run by the Dominicans now caring for La Baume. Whew! Realizing there was enough time to get to the cave that afternoon before it closed for the evening, I quickly unpacked a few things in the small, sparse room with a view of the nuns quarters and courtyard, repacked a small backpack, grabbed a little sweater just in case, and made my way toward the path.
View from my room.
At the trail's entrance, I found a long meandering walk around the field or the straight path directly toward the forest. I walked the straight path along a field of white butterflies alighting over nearly every bladed and leafed surface. When I entered the forest, the path went both left and right. I stood looking both ways, hoping for a sign that would tell me which way to go. An older French gentleman stood talking to a young couple nearby, his feet in hiking shoes, a backpack over his shoulders.
As I stood feeling the familiar doubt that said I would end up going the wrong way, the gentleman approached me and told me in French that the left was the easier path and the right the harder one with stairs to climb but either way… 'c'est magnifique!' Thanking him, I started on the path to the right, grateful for my 'sign' that had actually approached me, literally 'telling' me the way to go.
Excited to get to this place I'd only seen and read about online and exhilarated and proud to be making the trip alone, I began the walk, taking the stone-terraced steps, working to raise my vibration as I climbed higher up the mountain. With each step, I thanked God, Mary Magdalene and the universe for getting me here, grateful for every single circumstance that had put me right here on this path with no one else to rely on or think of as I made my journey to my own experience, my own pilgrimage. I became a walking meditation of gratitude, working to be worthy of, and vibrate high enough, for whatever I found at the top
Warm air and birdsong filled the forest and soon my little sweater was tied around my waist, the balmy weather making me sweat on the trail. When I arrived at the first doorway and real set of steps, a plaque to the left of the door told of the different religious orders who had cared for the cave over the centuries. From a source online, I'd been surprised to learn that Kings had made this pilgrimage in past centuries to pray to Mary Magdalene. Now I was stunned to find that, according to the plaque, a religious order I'd never even heard of began caring for the cave in her name in the 400's. Two more sects had taken it over after them, the last being the Dominicans. People of devout faith had been walking these same paths hoping to be worthy for over 1600 years.
These first steps opened up to a landing under the rock with statues in a scene of the crucifixion and beside it a garden of statuary ruins.
Further steps led to the courtyard outside the cave with a magnificent view, another statue and small buildings built into the rock. Yet another set led from the courtyard into the cave itself, the entrance covered with a wall, stained glass windows and set of double doors.
View from the courtyard outside the cave.
I heard music coming from inside and realized I had arrived during the middle of a service which was my first realization that the cave is used just like a church with services every day and holidays.
I inched my way in, hoping not to disturb the service. Seating myself at a pew near the open door, I sat listening to the service in French while craning my neck to see as much of the cave as I could from my spot.
Looking out from my pew.
In front of the pews stood a large, stone altar with a statue of Christ on the cross and the Magdalene in prayer at his feet. To the left of the altar along a raised, rocky surface, a statue of Archangel Michael and another of the Magdalene. Everywhere candles glowed in front of the statues, each in lighted prayer.
Altar inside the cave.
After marveling awhile at the service and now anxious to see the rest of the cave, I began to worry about taking photos with the time I had and that my photo flashes would offend those assembled for religious worship. Within moments of this thought, the service ended and the priest and entire, small congregation left the cave. I was alone.
I wandered toward the back where I found another statue of Mary Magdalene with angels and more lit candles. And along the cave wall, a magnificent blue and gold container holding the relics of Mary Magdalene.
I had read online that the reliquary, decorated with lovely gilded angels, holds a piece of the tibia of Mary and a lock of her hair. Religious orders are notorious for exaggerating the truth about its precious relics and fabricating particular bone's importance when in need of money so who knows for sure? But these relics are brought down to the town and paraded through the crowds every July 22nd, Mary Magdalene's Feast Day. They have, in fact, traveled their own pilgrimages to different parts of the world in order for large crowds to be near them.
I ran around the cave taking photos while I was alone and found myself standing in front of a chained-off stairway to the lower level. Before I could even think, "I wish I could see what's down there," another robed priest burst through a nearby door adjoining the cave, leading to what must have been the Priest's quarters built into the rock. He hurried straight to the stairway I stood in front of, unchained it and waved me entrance to go down. His actions were as swift and perfectly-timed as the elderly gentleman at the beginning of the path giving me directions. I thanked him, descended below and wandered the lower level with more lit candles and a small altar flanked with mini, potted olive trees. Near the end of the wall, plastic orange fencing tried to keep pilgrims away from a walled off water source. But the fencing had been torn back, offering a tiny entrance to the small pool of run-off.
As I seated myself again at the pews nearest the cave's entrance (at a slanted perpendicular direction from the altar, with views of both the altar and cave and out the door to the courtyard overlooking the vast terrain and view below,) the four of them began some of the most gorgeous singing which rang throughout the cave. As I listened, a storm gathered outside, throwing a light rain and hurling its thunderous voice inside and out.
The beauty of the singing and the storm's thunder echoing each other pierced my soul so achingly, at one point I feared I might sob out loud. I looked toward the only other woman in the cave, one of the three of the congregation, and found her face covered by her hand as her shoulders rocked up and down.
On the path.
When Vespers was over, I had just enough time to get down the mountain to make the family-style dinner the nuns serve daily at the Abbey. The storm delivered enough rain that I was freezing as I made my way down, practically running, my little sweater again providing no protection against the cold after a couple of hours in the cave and now a wind and rainstorm. But the beauty and the magic of my experience kept me smiling. And one day soon, I'll continue the story of my first ever pilgrimage...on my own.
For now, let me wish all a very Merry Christmas. This seemed the perfect day to finally post about the location of Mary Magdalene's alleged final resting place.
'It may be that the satisfaction I need depends on my going away, so that when I've gone and come back, I'll find it at home.'
(All Photos Copyright: Kirsten Steen. Please do not reproduce.)