Amazing, I am holed up (as in: a refuge, a cave) for three days in St. Maximin, an ancient little village holding the gothic basilica of Mary Magdalene. Her relics, especially her skull, are on display in the crypt, sheathed in gold, and held by golden angels. The small stone entrance to this crypt is inviting, a quiet place to dwell underground with her mysteries. Horseshoe carvings, all over the walls that go down into the crypt, are inscribed into the stone by pilgrims past.
This cathedral housing her mortal remains is run down, in need of repair. It is like a relic itself, with its crumbling stone facade. But there is the beauty of what is falling down, the ancient feeling of such a place.
I was drawn to visit here. An opportunity, a pilgrimage, knowing this place was relatively close to where we just had our university women’s and gender studies meeting in Nice. I’ve had a years long process with the Christian figure of Mary, as a divine Mother figure. In France, it’s hard to study these things overtly, as the Catholic religion is understood by progressive, secular people and academics to be aligned with the extreme right. But I am also versed in a Mary Magdalene “revival” of sorts, from feminist folks back home, those looking at biblical stories and history in new ways. I thus wait-with, witness, and follow my own sense of/with the Magdalene, the ‘something’ that radiates. A story missed, or not yet told, a mystery unfolding.
A great mysterious facet of French spirituality is this worship and honouring of “la Madeline,” or Mary Magdalene. When I was in Paris this past spring, my friend Barbara and I happened upon an extraordinary place, totally previously missed by me in my Paris wanderings. It is a huge neo-classical temple, taking up an entire huge city block. I had the pleasure of walking into it, without realizing its purpose as being the Paris house of Mary Magdalene. Completely and only devoted to her. Her figure is carved in stone on the altar. The sculpture depicts her being held by gorgeous angels, as she submits to their heavenly transport. Her arms are extended at her sides in a gesture of easy surrender. Her chest and hips sway sensuously, in a yielding pelvic thrust. Her gaze is composed within herself. She knows. Noli me tangere.
She was the “Apostle of the Apostles,” being the first person to bear the teachings of Jesus. The Magdalene waited in anguish at the foot of the cross until his death, stayed at the door of his tomb (an endurance of grief, longing, love), and was there when he appeared at the tomb, arisen from his deathbed. She was the one to which he delivered his final message.
Noli me tangere. Mary rushed to touch him, but he asked that she stop. He had not yet arisen to heaven, and could not be touched in this state of transition. He asked her to “teach” what she had come to know of his message, and to tell the others she had seen him.
There are very long and intricate stories to tell, in several book length forms, which I am learning from (biblical, feminist, historical, Gnostic), and as I go, rooted here in this place. Suffice it say, Mary Magdalene has been labeled as a prostitute, and conversely, as the bride/lover of Jesus. She famously washed the feet of Jesus with expensive, perfumed oil from an alabaster jar. She accompanied Jesus everywhere, the thirteenth apostle, with his entourage of 12 men. Here, in the south of France, she is revered as a gifted teacher and a contemplative, who lived in meditation for 30 years in a cave, at the end of her life.
She is said to have escaped the Middle East by boat, landing with others in the South of France. She spent the rest of her life, living like a yogini in a cave near Aix, at the place of St. Maximin de la St. Baume, where I am now. Of course the Christian tradition wouldn’t make this connection to yoginis in caves (as in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition), but I do. Here is the hard-won work of the contemplative, enlightened woman.
“Oh! I am the army of love—to love, alas, one must first embody the fight; this was my first knowledge; that life is fragile and death holds the power. That life, occupied as it is with loving, hatching, watching, caressing, singing, is threatened by hatred and death, and must defend itself.”
(Hélène Cixous, Coming to writing, p. 24)