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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

St Marie-Madeleine à la Sainte Baume - France

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher

When one goes on pilgrimage, a certain web of grace connects people and places in surprising and unexpected ways. One of the great surprises of our pilgrimage was in St. Baume, France, at the purported cave of Mary Magdalene. She is known in the Scriptures as the woman whom Jesus delivered from seven demons, and is also identified as a witness to the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord. Although she disappears from scriptural tradition after she proclaims the resurrection to the apostles (she is called the Apostle to the Apostles), it is a pious belief that she continued to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus for the rest of her life, even in the face of persecution. It was even believed that she and her friends were put adrift at sea as a form of execution, and that God saved them and guided them to southern France. This is how a cave in a remote region of France came to be connected with the initial proclamation of the Gospel.

Those who climb the mountain at St. Baume find a cave where the Magdalene is said to have lived out a life of quiet penance and contemplation. A small crypt contains what is believed to be her remains. Historically, royalty and other government officials came here as an act of penance. A small plaque indicates Blessed Charles de Foucauld was also drawn to this place as part of his conversion and that intellectuals like the 19th Century Dominican Lacordaire identified this cave as a place of spiritual renewal. Today, the cave is filled with pilgrims, generally young people, at prayer or at least wanting to pray.

As for my family and me this summer, we experienced a certain kind of grace that drew us into prayer. We hiked from the quiet retreat center just below tree-line to the cool dark cave which is just above it. A certain peaceful silence overtook us as we entered the holy grotto. Each of us went off by ourselves to be alone in different parts of the cave. Something in this cave drew us to prayerful solitude and reflection.

When I came to the reliquary honoring and perhaps containing her remains, I could not help but think of Golgotha and the empty tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where we had been less than a couple weeks before. Something about this cave and that empty tomb drew me to contemplate the reality of the resurrection, and the kind of life we want to live when we encounter the Risen Lord. What if it were true that she who had recognized the Risen Lord had been here? Would not such a person spend the rest of her life proclaiming the Gospel to the very ends of the earth and praying for the salvation of the world? After seeing his resurrected eyes gazing on her in love, would she not devote her life to intimacy with him and to making up in her own body what was lacking in his sufferings for the sake of the Church? If it was not her who had lived in this cave, then it must have been someone like her, for the grace of deep prayer flowed in that cave like the water that dripped from its cracks. It was the kind of grace which left me wondering whether there might really be something to the highly unlikely but pious scenario connecting St. Baume to Jerusalem.

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