Travelling through France on our way back from a holiday in Italy we had decided to make a stop at the Sainte-Baume Grotto in the heart of Aix en Provence to visit the cave where Mary Magdalene spent her final 30 years living the life of a hermit.
We had heard that it had a very special energy and were intrigued by the various stories that abound regarding Mary Magdalene and her place at the inception of Christianity.
My family are not church goers, although my mother did use to pack myself and my two older brothers off to Sunday school each week, but I suspect this was to allow her to prepare Sunday lunch in peace. But even with my limited Bible reading knowledge I knew that Mary Magdalene held a special place in the church.
Mary was a follower of Jesus and witnessed both the crucifixion and the resurrection, these events are universally accepted. There are however many other stories about Mary Magdalene that are more controversial and some of them emerge from supposed apocryphal gospels unearthed in various places. There are schools of thought that say Mary played a very significant role in the inception of Christianity. It was Mary who Jesus appeared to after his resurrection and it was she who told the other disciples of this amazing event. Some people think that Mary was indeed a favourite disciple and in some of the unearthed texts she is seen to be the disciple who asks the most pertinent questions. Is she the disciple who seemed to understand most clearly the message of Jesus? Others go even further and claim that Mary Magdalene and Jesus married and had children. A very intriguing idea indeed. So whatever you believe about the role of Mary Magdalene in the early Christian church she undoubtedly lived a very full life. She ended up in France due to the persecution of the early Christians and having converted the area of Marseille Mary is said to have spent the last thirty years of her life living in the grotto that we were planning to visit. Mary’s only sustenance is said to have been the Eucharist which was brought to her daily by angels.
Finding the starting point for the walk up to Mary’s grotto wasn’t easy, especially as there are two places that sound very similar in the same vicinity and I chose the wrong one to put into the satnav. It was also market day in this little town so various streets had been closed off and the town was busy with impatient drivers who did not appreciate us pulling over to try and sort out where we had gone wrong. When we eventually found the correct car park the first thing we noticed was an old oak tree which we had read ‘shapeshifted into the form of a woman’ – presumably Mary herself?If finding the starting point had been a bit of a trial it was nothing compared to a 45 minute climb up at least a 30 degree sloping path through a deciduous forest. It was beautiful but arduous. Apparently penitents in olden days had climbed this ‘Chemin des Rois’ on their knees if their sins had been great enough. We took a more liberal view and stopped regularly to catch our breath and mop our foreheads, overtaken regularly by charming French people who without fail gave us a cheery ‘bonjour.’
People returning down the path having completed their pilgrimage smiled knowingly and even offered a helpful ‘ not far now’ – in French. It certainly is not the shrine to visit if walking for 45 minutes to an hour up a steep incline would cause you some discomfort. The final part of the climb should be done in silence and not in your bathing gear according to a sign along the path. The silence bit didn’t seem to be adhered to, though I saw no one in their bathing gear. As you get closer to the top the views of the valley below are amazing and the final three flights of steep steps bring you out right in front of the grotto beside a huge statue of both the Marys with the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. This cave is no cosy affair but a huge opening in the rock face at least 100ft square. There are statues, altars, relics, stain glassed windows everything you’d expect from a church but it’s all contained within this dark, dank cave.
There was a very special feeling to the grotto and despite the arduous climb and the total lack of any facilities at the top we were glad we had made it. We sat for quite some time soaking up the special atmosphere in the grotto.
There was a little shop selling the usual rosaries and postcards but of course that had shut by the time we got there.