Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Pilgrim's Progress: Trudging to the cave of Mary Magdalene in Provence

            Cave of Saint Mary Magdalene Interior Grotto

      Cave of Saint Mary Magdalene

The air of Provence is redolent with mystery. Provence, itself, is a hybrid of cultures--the Greeks who founded Marseilles in 600 BCE, the local Celtic-Ligurians who traded with them for wine and the Romans who established a series of cities in interior Provence along the Aurelian Way. In the midst of this cosmopolitan province arose the story of Mary Magdalene's life after Jesus. Mary is reported to have sailed from Palestine or Ephesus and landed near the mouth of the Rhone with her brother, Lazarus, her sister, Martha, her handmaiden, Sarah, and an early disciple, Maxmin. Mary then went on to evangelize the people of Marseille.

After a few years, Mary Magdalene retreated to a remote cave at the top of a mountain, named Sainte Baume. There she became a contemplative and is said to have been elevated by angels seven times each day on account of the depth and intensity of her prayers.
Sainte Baume--photos above--is isolated and exhausting to hike up to. But the exhaustion was sweet and meditative and transforming in its quietness. Our guide told us that the mountain was a center of feminine spirituality, even before Christianity, where the forest leading up to the grotto was a Druid sacred space.

It is astounding how different Provencal spirituality feels from the spiritual disciplines we liberal religious folk usually employ for self-cultivation. At once emotional and profound, it is difficult to acquire a sense of detachment from either the world or the Divine. The adoration of Mary Magdalene more resembles the bhakti (devotional) yoga of South Asia than the detached, raja (royal) yoga of renunciates. In fact, the Gypsies of Provence who originate from India will each year celebrate the arrival of Mary Magdalene and Sarah to the mouth of the Rhone similar to the worship of the goddess Parvati or Lakshmi in India.
A cosmopolitan Provence has implanted diverse and syncretic religious practices on its rich vintage soil.

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