When I lived in Moscow, the way of functioning of public institutions was a mystery to me, which however I did not search to discover.
After my moving to France, the mystery seemed to be bored to remain so, and she came along with a broad friendly smile. Madame Françoise Sur (who’s literally “sure” by definition), President of the Association of Friends of Saint Mary Magdalene Basilica, appealed to me with a proposal to join it. The circumstances had allowed me to become a member of its Administrative Committee straight away, a honourable and flattering advance for a newcomer.
I’ve noted that the French are a socially active nation: in every, even a small, village you could find one, or even several non-profit voluntary communities. Their aim is to protect historical monuments, gastronomic traditions, crafts, flora and fauna, well, anything!
Let alone the chance to have the “third burial of the Christian world” (after Jerusalem and Rome) located nearby, – namely, the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene in Saint-Maximin-La-Sainte-Baume (Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Saint-Maximin-la -Sainte-Baume), where lie the relics of this saint.
Without claiming to be an expert on the history of religion, I was nevertheless aware that this central figure of Christian mythology is quite contradictory (as well as the figure of a woman as such). For more than 20 centuries she has been disturbing the minds of the faithful and scientists: there is a certain lack of clarity on whether this was a single woman, or three completely different but possessing the same name; we remain quite ignorant on the nature of her relationship with the Son Divine; even her lifetime after the execution of Christ, according to different data, took its course in contradictory geographical points.
I want to share the version that I learned after joining the Association of her Friends. The local legend has it, 14 years after the Ascension of Christ, Mary Magdalene, persecuted, left Palestine and arrived by boat in France. She disembarked in the estuary of the Rhone River, in a town that became known after this remarkable event as Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, accompanied by her brother Lazarus, her sister Martha and several other disciples of Christ. Off from the current capital of Camargue, she moved inland and settled recluse in a grotto in the mountains of Sainte Baume. Evidently, this mountain was later named likewise, because the word baume means grotto in Provencal. She spent the last 30 years of her life sheltered there, living on roots, kernels and water from the mountain springs, and receiving daily visits from the angels. She came down to the nearby valley – for the first and the last time – only on the eve of her death, to be given the last rites by Saint Maximin, the first Bishop of Aix-en-Provence. She met him in a small village that has been named after him ever since – Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, – and was buried there, in a small chapel belonging to the bishop.
I have to say, even in its current state, turned into a tiny church at the Catholic Dominican monastery, this grotto stays a dubious place for a carefree life. Far from the main roads, hidden from the sun in the mystical forest, cold and gloomy, humid almost all-the-year-round due to moisture leaking from the walls, it is nevertheless an ideal seclusion where modern world is instantly forgotten.
Needless to say, over the centuries these places have been an important halting place of pilgrim journeys, including those of royalty (on the Way of St. James), as explicitly states the name of one of the two paths leading to the grotto – Chemin des Roys (Road of Kings).
Beginning with Saint Louis IX (and even earlier), during whose reign was started the construction of a magnificent basilica on the spot of the ancient burial, the kings and queens of France, Popes, European nobility and common pilgrims have been ascending every year to the grotto and then descending to Saint-Maximin, to the eternal resting place of Mary Magdalene. By the way, the Royal Covent (Le Couvent Royal) was built to provide certain comfort to crowned persons. Leaning its walls on the temple, it continues nowadays to offer its excellent service so that you could feel yourself enriched both spiritually and physically (there is an excellent restaurant in the hotel that kept the original name).
Despite all this, to my great surprise and pleasure, the basilica is not flooded with crowds of tourists (according to my observations); although listed in the register of historical monuments, it is still off the sightseeing highways. The greater your pleasure would be, if you pop in our region to discover without fussing the treasures of the basilica, which it can offer in abundance.
To start with, the crypt, the oldest part of the building, houses the skull of Mary Magdalene in almost perfect condition. It is mounted on a special pedestal, located exactly above the place of her original burial. In a small receptacle under the skull you can see a piece of her skin: after Resurrection, Jesus Christ touched her forehead with his finger and the skin there never decayed.
The same crypt contains the marble sarcophagi, ordered by the Roman Emperor Constantine, who proclaimed Christianity as official religion in the IVth century, to keep the remains of the people buried in the chapel. Notwithstanding her voluntary solitude, even after her death Mary Magdalene was surrounded by friends. Saint Maximin, Sainte Marcelle and Saint Sidoine, the very born-blind church beggar that Jesus had healed, reposed in a humble old chapel. His skull of the latter, by the way, is exposed in the left part of the basilica.
The basilica was never finished: it’s especially obvious from the facade of the building, but when you enter inside and look onwards to the majestic organ, you would notice a drawing of the wind rose, which never became a stained glass. Yet, its central part forms an amazing nave, separated from the rest of the premises by carved wooden panels. The alter, facing the East and decorated with a delightful marquetry of different types of marble, gold and sumptuous paintings depicting the life of Mary Magdalene, is particularly captivating in the morning, when bright sun penetrates through the colour stained-glass windows and paints everything around with incredible hues of goodness. Apparently, the visitors are so inspired by the atmosphere that they can’t help leaving numerous inscriptions of thanksgiving and affection directly on the old stones.
Marcel Proust wrote: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
In my case, the new landscapes of my new life intertwine with the history of my own family. My stepson Maxence, born July 22, celebrated by the Christian world as the day of commemoration of Mary Magdalene, is probably one of the few, if not the only child in the world, baptized in the sacred grotto. Usually such Sacraments are not held there, however the Dominicans had made the exception given his birth date.
Could I imagine, singing the arias of “Jesus Christ Superstar” rock opera with my school friends after countless performances viewed in the Mossovet theatre and on the video, that I would be in direct, albeit ephemeral, relationship with one of its characters? Indeed, life is beautiful and amazing!
Read in Russian:Друзья наших друзей