On the Trail of Mary Magdalene

The true depth of love is manifested only when tested in the trials of fire. This love manifests when one is ready to risk it all including their very life, for the people, ideas and ideals that they love. Mary Magdalene outshines the apostles, disciples and all followers of Jesus in this demonstration of her love for their Master. She was a neglected woman battered and shattered in life by the seven demons who relentlessly tormented her for years. It was Jesus who broke this treacherous bondage and gave her a new lease of life. She immediately joined the disciples and followed Jesus till His ascension. She remained with Jesus even at the foot of the cross when all His disciples ran away and stayed there till His body was put into the tomb. She was the first one to reach the tomb on the third morning while it was still dark and was the first one to see Jesus after His resurrection. She became the first person Jesus spoke to after His resurrection, in fact Jesus calling her by her name – Mary. She became the first one to preach the risen Christ when He had asked her to inform the disciples that He has risen from the dead and would meet them in Galilee. This is the last we hear of Mary Magdalene in the Bible. Mary’s life or whereabouts thereafter were not given much prominence in early church history. So the world does not know much about her after the resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus gave me a wonderful opportunity to learn more about Mary Magdalene as I reached Southern France in search of the tomb of St. Martha. According to the tradition of Provence, Martha, Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, Maximinus (one of the seventy) and some companions were put in a boat without rudder or sail into the Mediterranean.

Reliquary containing the Bone of Mary Magdalene

Jesus took care of the boat and brought it to a place called ‘Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer’ in Arles, Gaul (France) in 47 AD. Lazarus went to Marseilles and converted the whole province. Martha went to Avignon and Mary Magdalene retired to a cave in the 3500 feet high rocky mountain La-Sainte-Baume amidst a dense forest, where she spent the last 30 years of her life in prayer and contemplation. The tradition of Provence says that she was lifted up by angels seven times a day and was fed by heavenly nourishments. This proved to be no exaggeration because even today we found no human inhabitation there. The Dominican Order of the Catholic Church have been guarding this relic for hundreds of years. They have set up a hostel nearby for the stay and hospitality of the pilgrims. We were told by the priest in charge of the hostel that we could  reach the cave only by foot and it may require a minimum of thirty to forty minutes’ walk.

So we started and after a few minutes the path began narrowing and we had to climb hundreds upon hundreds of crudely cut steps up the mountain through the forest. The trail was named “The King’s Way” through which hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had walked – pilgrims which included eighteen kings and eight Popes. There is no sign post or anything to show directions on the way to the cavern. There is not even a plank to sit and rest during the climb and no drinking water is provided even in the cave for the tired pilgrims who reach there, exhausted after the climb of more the 2200 feet. Worst still is the fact that no toilet is provided may be because of a perception all the water may be excreted as sweat. It is not because there is a lack of space as there is a building adjacent to the cave where the Dominicans claim that 4 of their priests reside. We were unable to find any humans there even  to clean the premises. We found only a couple of brochures inside the cave and needless to say that these too were in French. There was no refreshment stall in the premises – may be because the authorities may think that it may hamper the penitence of the pilgrims. I put on these remarks because those in possession of this sacred place have failed to show to the world a beloved disciple of Jesus and have dampened the spirits of the pilgrims who reach the site.

Reliquary containing the Skull of Mary Magdalene

However all our frustrations vanished as we finally reached the very place where Mary Magdalene lived the last 30 years of her life secluded from all contacts of the outside world. The cool breeze and the divine aura inside the cave lifted us up to a new plane of peace and mental bliss. There was yet another cave beneath the main one, which appeared to be the place where she had lived. Some of the material inside here were broken and as I was looking at a broken cross there, a French pilgrim told me that there was an attempt to destroy the site during the French revolution.

Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene

Still Mary Magdalene’s statue stood there even after 20 centuries radiating the fragrance of the love of her Master. In the main cave there was another statue of Mary Magdalene being lifted by the angels. The return trek was much easier and as we were having lunch we were told by other pilgrims that the tomb of Mary Magdalene was in the Basilica of Mary Magdalene, which was only an hour’s drive away. We were astonished when they told us that skull of Mary Magdalene was placed in a golden reliquary which could be seen by everyone.

Though the almighty God had given me the privilege to visit the final resting places of many of His beloved saints in different parts of the world, it was the first time that I had seen the skull of a saint. There was another reliquary which contained a tiny piece of her bone. My Master blessed with yet another blessed experience on this journey and that too a rare one to remember throughout my days on earth.