The South of France with Mary Magdalene and the Cathars
As I entered the massive Gothic basilica at Saint-Maximin in the southern French countryside near Aix-en-Provence, I felt I had entered another dimension. My pulse quickened, and I understood that I was about to embark on a sacred journey through time and memory to the very center of my being. Dwarfed by the basilica’s soaring, vaulted interior ― illuminated by numerous votive candles and beams of rainbow light filtering through stained glass ― I found my way down a small staircase to a marble sarcophagus containing the relics of Mary Magdalene and a bronze reliquary said to hold her skull.
Gazing upon the beautiful sculpture of the saint adorning the sarcophagus, I was instantly overcome with emotion. I began weeping softly and soon fell to my knees, bowing in prayer. Not one to engage in public displays of any sort, I questioned this sudden outpouring. I knew only that my heart had expanded in love, a current of energy that, for a rare moment, connected me with the source of all that is. A fellow traveler from our small group helped me back up to my feet and embraced me. “I didn’t think this kind of love was possible,” I whispered, seeming to access a long-buried memory. “I loved her so much. How I miss her.”
And so began my reconnection with the remarkable woman at the heart of the Christian mysteries ― Mary of Magdala (a small Galilean town north of Jerusalem). Teacher, healer, mystic, divine feminine archetype, apostle, and beloved companion of Jesus of Nazareth, she was eventually maligned by the church as a sinner and prostitute, but her legend has always maintained a strong following. More recently, Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code sparked renewed interest, exemplified by the masses of pilgrims who continue to flock to the South of France, where she allegedly lived out her last days.
I and seven other women were among these pilgrims, having traveled for nine days last summer to sacred sites in the Camargue, Provence, and Languedoc regions associated with Mary Magdalene and the Cathars, a sect of mystical Christians branded as heretics and brutally exterminated by the church in the thirteenth century. Our mission was to reconnect with the divine feminine and Christ consciousness energies, in order to become vessels for both personal and collective healing and spiritual growth. Organized by Julie Gullick-Wiley, founder of Spirit and Adventure tours, which specializes in small-group sacred journeys, our mystical sojourn began in the bustling seaport of Marseille, a launching pad to the tiny, picturesque village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer south of Arles in the Camargue ― a wild, rustic area of salty wetlands and rough pasture, pink flamingos and cattle ranches, bulls and white horses.
Here, according to an ancient French legend, Mary Magdalene landed in a small boat around 42 CE, along with a number of early Christians, including a young, dark-skinned servant named Sarah, patron saint of the gypsies and often equated with the black Madonna statues in the churches of France. They had braved a dangerous passage from the Holy Land, without sails and oars, to spread Jesus’s teachings after his Crucifixion. Purportedly a great preacher in Palestine who even wrote her own Gospel (among the more recently discovered esoteric Gnostic texts being studied by scholars), Magdalene is said to have preached to the locals in Saintes-Maries, converting many.
The Da Vinci Code speculated that Magdalene made this overseas journey, bearing a child by Jesus. This theory, or even that Jesus and Magdalene were intimate partners, has not been proven, though much speculation and fascination continues to surround the subject.
After our stops at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, site of a Romanesque church dedicated to Magdalene, and St. Maximin, where we stayed in the thirteenth-century royal convent that is now a hotel, with beautifully preserved Gothic cloisters, garden, and chapel, we took a short drive into the countryside on the summer solstice. Our destination was the legendary cave in the Sainte-Baume Mountains, where Magdalene supposedly retired to spend the rest of her life in prayer and contemplation after performing many miracles in the region. Another story suggests that she traveled to the British Isles after France, settling for a time around Glastonbury, where she also still remains a subject of adoration.
It was a relief finally to reach the cave after a long, winding walk up the mountain. There was a special urgency to our work this day, as we had planned to engage in a sacred ceremony inside the cave