The Magdalene in the Mountains

Legends abound regarding the fate of Mary Magdalene.  The more you read the more different fate/s you find.  Her life story is shrouded in mystery and misinformation.   Somewhere within all that is the real Mary Magdalene.

And anyway, why shouldn’t she have some secrets?  It is a woman’s prerogative, so they say, and it is unlikely that she ever asked to be a Rock Star.  But it is the very secrets that lead people to seek, and search and speculate.  They are what makes it interesting.

There are stories of her travelling here and there and dying here and there.  Some of these are seemingly inconsistent with each other and they are all inconsistent with the story which is told in a tiny French town with an impressive name …. St Maximin la Sainte-Baume.

We went there.

and that is when it all started … and when I began complaining about mountains


Later we learned that our tour guide also works as a mountain hiking guide.  He is nice and cheerful and informative.  He is kind and genuine, but he has ‘boy-brain’.

For instance, we discovered that when he says “don’t worry this is a short, gentle hike” … what he really means is that you won’t need to worry about getting together a collection of ice picks, ropes and helmets.

This is an example of ‘boy-brain’.  He is not trying to be misinformative, he is just mismatching words and situations and assuming that everyone understands his personal frame of reference.

At one distressed stage I accused him of being crazy and he couldn’t understand why I would think this.  I pointed out the obvious – that he was dragging a bunch of unsuspecting tourists some of whom were elderly and many others of whom were not very fit up an extremely steep and indecently high mountain.  His only response was to explain to me solemnly (as if it were relevant) that this mountain is  ‘not anything like the ones in Nepal …… ‘

why were we on this *#^<~.!#** mountain?

In St Maximin la Sainte- Baume it is believed that Mary Magdalene went to live in a cave on a mountain for 30 (some say 40) years in isolation and meditation before she died.  It is believed that her remains were buried under the church in the town and if you go into the crypt of that church you can see her skull.

One of the highest mountain ranges in Provence is called Sainte-Baume and somewhere rather uncomfortably close to the top of Sainte-Baume is the cave where she is said to have lived.  Pilgrims and sticky beaks can walk up there.  There is a path but it is on such a long relentless incline that you feel as if you are climbing a never ending flight of stairs and get that painful build up of lactic acid in your legs followed quickly by deep exhaustion.  There are endless switchbacks which are disheartening because each time you get to the end of one you turn and pause in horror because you find yourself at the foot of yet another, even steeper, one.

To be honest I would never have made it up there if it wasn’t for the encouragement of other people who more or less pushed me up with jokes, spontaneously created affirmations and visualisations which involved me having to focus on pretending I had wings and was flying,  gifts of water and remedies of various sorts, all in the midst of me crying, wimpering and complaining like a child and telling everyone how much I hate mountains.

which is not really true, I don’t hate mountains they are nice to look at but climbing them seems to be quite unnecessary especially since you can go up in a car.  Yes, the path is the width of a road and I didn’t fail to notice cars both on the way up and on the way down.   When I was complaining to our guide about lots of things including the lack of being provided with a car (or even a donkey) he explained that only Forestry Workers are allowed in the cars.   So in between visualising I had wings to fly up the mountain with I began visualising all manner of plots and schemes to get a loan of a Forestry Worker’s outfit.

Probably the wings were more realistic.

I also visualised creating a business called Dazzling Donkeys in which people can hire adorable little donkeys with Swarovski crystals on their bridles to go up the mountain on and if anyone is cruel to their donkey they have their shoes confiscated and have to go up barefoot and if anyone is kind and nice to their donkey they get a discount.

It is a ‘thing’ going up this mountain so if anyone starts such a business it should go well.  There were so many people there on the day we went including at least two school groups.  Apparently no less then 40 French kings and can’t remember how many Popes have walked up this mountain to go to Mary Magdalene’s cave.  One King apparently walked up on his knees so I would love to know what visualisation got him up there.

It was only centuries later that a Pope inserted into the Bible the references to Mary Magdalene being a ‘harlot’ who was ‘forgiven’ by Christ.  Others believe that she was a high priestess of ancient mystery traditions who facilitated the initiation of the man who was later known as “Jesus” in a sacred ceremony known as “Christing”.  No wonder the King walked up there on his knees and no wonder a subsequent Pope saw the need to defame and denigrate her as stories like this did not suit the belief system that over time became known as ‘Christianity’.

interestingly after The Da Vinci Code (by Dan Brown) caused the sensation it did I read a book comprised of a compilation of essays that different scholars and academics wrote in response to that book (even though it was a novel).  Whilst the various authors came to differing conclusions about other aspects of the book it was unanimous that not only is there (1) no actual evidence to suggest Mary Magdalene was a woman of disrepute there is (2) clear evidence that the harlot story was deliberately inserted into the Bible for the first time many many centuries later.

Meanwhile, in defiance of the dignity of earlier Kings and Popes I went up that mountain huffing, puffing, complaining and cursing, and feeling with each step that I could hardly take another one.  The guide and others carried my bag most of the way, which I very much appreciate, but it didn’t stop me being exhausted and overwhelmed by the experience, and it was days before I could walk properly again.

the cave itself was atmospheric, larger than expected, and had a few rose plants and a lovely view.  A small ‘church’ has been constructed in there and a priest was giving mass while we were there.  I didn’t understand the words but I did think the priest had a fine singing voice and the chants sounded nice in the cave which has natural acoustics such that he didn’t need a microphone.

People speculated on how she could have lived here for so long, where was the bathroom, where did she get water from, what did she eat?  Actually I read a funny story about that.  Apparently one of the monks from the monastery in the town used to be drunk all the time.  His fellow monks decided to ‘dry him out’ by abandoning him in a hut in the forest where he was not able to access any wine.   When he was eventually allowed back into the monastery he told a story about wandering through the forest and seeing Mary Magdalene in her cave.  He reckons that he saw angels descending from ‘on high’ and lifting Mary Magdalene up to heaven each day to feed her and then taking her back to the cave.

Obviously a drunk monk is unlikely to be considered a reliable witness but the story has persisted into legend and when you are standing there on “Mt Everest of Provence” you do feel closer to the clouds …

here are some photos




meanwhile, having developed a healthy distrust of anyone with a French accent saying the words ‘short gentle hike’ …. I chose not to participate in any other outdoor activities which turned out to be a smart decision as according to other people on my tour things went rapidly from bad to worse … they were lead slipping and sliding through muddy forests, clambering up rocks in the sides of mountains where there were with no paths or handrails and everything was made more slippery by the fallen autumn leaves that were covering everything and still wet from rain.   Unbelievable they were not the only ones.  This is apparently something the French do.  For this the guide can probably be excused however there was nothing on the itinerary that lead one to suspect this was what the tour involved, in fact one girl apparently asked beforehand if she should buy hiking boots and was told she wouldn’t need them. Ha ! The thing is that a lot of the castles and forts of the era were built on the top of huge ‘hills’ that were very difficult to access.  This makes sense from a military perspective but makes touring and sightseeing problematic.


One place that I did agree to go to is called Rennes la Chateau, a little commune in the middle of lots and lots of mountains which became famous because the priest there (surname Sauniere …) became suddenly very rich.  He is rumoured to have found buried treasure some of which he used to improve and decorate the church, and it is possible to visit this church without hiking.  Here are some photos


I was also very grateful that the tour took me to Carcassone, a place I had wanted to visit.  Next stop, more mountains, but located over the border in Spain where you can drive up in a bus ….

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