Praying in Southern France

Golden mimosa blossoms along the azure sea and in vacant lots on hillsides.  Grey-green olive trees, ancient twisting trunks.  Cork-oaks.  Almond blossoms at the edges of dormant vineyards. Cyclamen in window-boxes. Confetti scattered on pavements , residue of local festivals in the local villages.  Elaborate creche scenes in every little church.  Fresh catches of fish at the market still squiggling, then seared and served for supper.  Cheese plates.  Marron (chestnut)  spread stirred into thick rich yogurt.  The Mistral wind pulling at my shutter-door.  Intense starlight waking me in my bed.

The prayer-highlight of my trip to Provence: climbing Sainte-Baume to the cave where Mary Magdalene lived as a hermit. 

According to Provencal legend, Lazarus, Martha, their servant Maximin and Mary Magdalene fled Bethany after Jesus’ death and resurrection and arrived Marseilles in 42 C.E.  They evangelized southern France (and indeed, Christianity did come very early through that port-city.)  Mary’s bones (or some Mediterranean woman of the first century) are entombed in a reliquary beneath the church of St. Maximin.   

After preaching and teaching, Mary chose the ascetical life, living in a cave in the cliffs of the still remote mountains of Sainte-Baume.  Each day, angels lifted her from the grotto to the mountain-top at the hours of prayer.  She died in Maximin’s arms, who lovingly preserved her remains.  We say, “The church is built on the bones of the martyrs.”  More than a mere Christian adage in Europe, churches literally grow around relics.  And every church seems to have a bit of St. Martin or a thread of St. Therese’s hair or a photo of Padre Pio along with other treasures in their stores both old and new.    

Mary Magdalene exemplified that living-martyrdom so popular in the desert and later the monastic tradition.  My favorite image of the Magdalene is the late 15th century Giovan Pietro Birago’s painting from The Sforza Hours (British Library). Mary, clothed in her hair, hovers above the rocky mountain, the sea, the city, the road, carried by four handsome angels as she prays the Hours, oblivious to the action below her.  She’s oblivious of the studly angels as well.

In our party of friends, competing claims made conversation interesting.   One position clung to the historicity of the family from Bethany settling in France.  The other equally literal position expressed a desperate need for the rest of us to acknowledge the legend as a cynical invention.    

To me, hearing “Maria!” “Rabbouni!”  sends chills through me whether Mary subsequently went to Marseilles with Lazarus, to Ephesus with John, or disappeared into obscurity in Jerusalem.   Her power surfaces even through conflations of the various Biblical Marys with Pelagia the Harlot and Gregory’s fifth century layering of the woman with the alabaster jar over Mary as a model of repentance.  It doesn’t matter to me whether she came from Bethany or from Magdala, whether Magdala means Migdol (fortress/tower/) or “the great” or whether her name signifies a place or a title, or whether she was Jesus’ wife, mistress or financier.

To me, the liminality of prayer breaks down boundaries of time and space making the inner experience of companionship in the communion of saints fruitful, whether in a grotto in France, a cave on Patmos, a tourist marketplace in Jerusalem or my fuzzy brown chair at St. Aidan’s.  Mary’s encounter with the risen Lord in John 20 illustrates the progress of contemplative mystical life from darkness to apostolic union in eighteen verses. 

Of course, my kinds of observations just frustrated everybody.

Monks have tended the grotto set into the cliff in Sainte-Baume since the fourth century – first Cassianites, then Benedictines, and now Dominicans.  The monastery clings to the cliff like a swallow’s nest.  Benedictine sisters run a retreat and guest house at the base of the mountain.  After lunch at the hostel, we climbed to the grotto.

I knew the hike might be a struggle physically, so I chose a prayer of reparation to keep me going.  Like many people, I find it easier to do things for other people than to bother to do those same things for myself.  Reparation is the offering of a sacrifice, a suffering, pain, a difficulty on behalf of someone else.  I dedicate my ordeals in the dentist chair to a specific person or issue on my intercession list.  I’ll scrub at the stubborn baked-on muck on a cooking pan praying against a friend’s cancer tumor.   Perhaps I’d just think getting my teeth fixed or scrubbing the pot was a waste of time without good works attached.

A close friend of ours suffered a trauma just before our trip, and her anguish affected all our experiences during our vacation.  So I dedicated my hike to the healing of my friend, step by step up the mountain to the grotto. 

I mention this only because prayers of reparation seem to be a lost art.   I recommend this practice if you are used to an active intercession life.   I can imagine abuses, exaggerations, and excesses – and of course the key to any practice is always balance, always moderation.   

Reparation gives you something to do when you are helpless to help, impotent to solve, bereft of resources to rescue, and your own words and deeds offer no comfort.  Perhaps in that strange economy of the kingdom,  reparation in one soul touches the soul of another.  At the very least, this kind of intercession widens the inner landscapes of empathy.

I loved praying in Southern France. But I’m also happy to shuffle through the snow to our little round chapel at Melrose as the bell rings.  This place of prayer opens to the communion of saints as surely as the ancient and holy shrines of our fathers and mothers in the faith.  I’m grateful to be home.   

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