Friday, July 22, 2016

La Sainte Baume - St Mary Magdalene’s Cave

Even scholars least inclined to skepticism in treating of the lives of the Saints find it difficult to accept as true the legend that St Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha and brother Lazarus, together with many companions, settled in the Provence region of southern France. The most serious objection to the story is that it is completely unheard of before the 11th century among the many ecclesiastical writers and liturgical books surviving from before that period. Mary Magdalene is said to have spent many years in a purely contemplative life in a cave high up on a mountain about 40 miles to the east of Marseilles, and was frequently rapt up into heaven. In the Tridentine liturgical books, there is no reference to this legend in the office of St Mary Magdalene, but it is included in the Matins lessons for the feast of St Martha. The Martyrology also refers to it by giving Marseilles as the place of the Magdalene’s death; it also lists Lazarus as the first bishop of that city on December 17th. St Martha is said to have ruled over a community of religious women, and died at Tarascon, about 60 miles to the northwest of Marseilles. (Tarascon is also the name of a dragon which she subdued – more on that next week.)

The cave said to be that of St Mary Magdalene, known in French as “La Sainte Baume”, is still a popular pilgrimage spot, in the charge of the Dominicans; I was able to visit it this May during the Fraternity of St Joseph the Guardian’s Pro Civitate Dei summer school in nearby La-Londe-les-Maures, certainly one of the highlights of the program.

The entrance to the church complex.
The cave, which is now a church, has been under the care of the Dominicans since 1295, with an interruption of over 40 years at the French Revolution. Before that, it was under Benedictines, and before them, “Cassianites,” i.e., monks who followed as their principal rule the writings of St John Cassian, who died at Marseilles in 435.

A relic of St Magdalene now kept in the cave - her principal relics are at the church of St Maximin, which I wrote about on his feast day in June.
A statue of St Mary Magdalene being rapt in ecstasy into heaven.

The relics shown above it kept in a niche under the staircase seen here on the right. 
The entrance to the church/cave itself.
Students of the Pro Civitate Dei conference singing the Salve Regina before a Pietà.
One of two little shrines along the fairly steep and long climb up to the cave. (Not a via Crucis.)

The Massif Sainte Baume is the highest point in the Bouches-du-Rhône, 3,763 feet above sea level at its summit. This is the view from the area in front of the cave/church of the Massif Sainte-Victoire, an 11-mile long limestone ridge to the north, the highest point of which is over 3,300 feet above sea level.
The Massif Sainte Baume seen from the plain below.

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