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Pilgrimage to Sacred France:
In Search of Mary Magdalene




I am a pilgrim. By this I mean that I see my life as a sacred journey. And throughout this life I have made many pilgrimages to sacred sites as part of my spiritual practice. For me, the outer pilgrimage to distant lands reflects the inner journey through the landscape of the soul toward greater wholeness and spiritual transformation. For many years a major purpose of both my inner and outer pilgrimage has been to discover the sacred feminine that is represented in my Christian tradition as Sophia (Wisdom.) In recent years it appears that her primary manifestation has been through the figure of Mary Magdalene. I am one among the multitudes of people today who have felt an intensely numinous attraction to this enigmatic woman in Christian tradition. So in May of 2010, Richard and I embarked on a pilgrimage to the heartland of the sacred feminine and the cultural home of Mary Magdalene: France.

The stories of Mary Magdalene in France are numerous and diverse. Legends abound regarding her travel from Jerusalem to Gaul after the crucifixion of Jesus. We know that Christianity appeared at a very early time in the area that is now known as Provence and Languedoc in southern France. While there is no way at this time to verify the historical truth of her legendary activities in France, we were nevertheless strongly aware of Mary Magdalene’s presence as we traveled throughout the country. The ubiquity of the name of the “Magdalene” (or “Madeleine” in French) and the many sites associated with her attest to her continued existence in the soul memory of the people of France.

As we began our pilgrimage my focus was on the archetypal feminine in both her light and dark aspects. As many contemporary writers have pointed out, while the feminine face of divinity has been largely repressed in Western culture, the dark feminine has been the most hidden figure. The Virgin Mary, who has been the primary representative of the sacred feminine throughout Christian history, portrays her light qualities of purity, mercy, and compassion. It is Mary Magdalene who has acquired the characteristics of the dark feminine. Although New Testament and gnostic gospels portray Mary Magdalene as a close companion of Jesus and the first to witness the resurrection – earning her the title “Apostle to the Apostles” – her dominant characterization within the Christian church has historically been that of the penitent sinner. Thus her image throughout the centuries has often depicted the dark feminine. We now know that this reputation was an untrue slander of the foremost female disciple of Jesus, whose power and wisdom are also aspects of the archetypal dark feminine. The discovery of the light and dark representations of the feminine, and their subsequent integration, dominated the early stage of our pilgrimage.

Our first destination was St. Maximin in Provence, where tradition claims that Mary Magdalene is buried. The Basilica of Sainte Marie Madeleine, a superb example of Gothic architecture, was built in the 13th century to house her relics. I was amazed when first entering the impressive basilica at the number of representations of her: exquisite wood carvings of the scenes of her life are proudly displayed on the pulpit, and finely crafted depictions of her are also carved on the altars in several chapels. Here she is not the hidden aspect of the feminine but instead she is fully present. Most intriguing of all was the reliquary in the crypt. A dark metal mask covers her skull, supported by two golden angels. My first glimpse was unsettling. She reminded me of Kali, the Hindu goddess of the death and destruction that must precede new life. Deep in the crypt, in the image of the black goddess, Mary Magdalene appears as this most hidden form of the feminine. It was here, underground, that I experienced the powerful presence of the feminine most intensely. After leaving the crypt, I sat facing the altar with the chapel of Mary Magdalene on my left and the chapels devoted to the Virgin Mary on my right. I noticed that all the stations for prayer candles were in front of the statues of the Virgin! The Magdalene’s chapel was dark. I reflected that the archetypal feminine has been traditionally symbolized in Christianity in her light aspect as the Virgin Mary – the mother with her life-giving and compassionate qualities – while she has been symbolized in her dark aspect as Mary Magdalene – the penitent sinner associated with sexuality and death. In the basilica at St. Maximin they are equally represented but are still polarized. I wrote in my journal at this time: “The task that remains, both here and within the psyche, is to integrate both of these aspects of the feminine.”

This integration was symbolically accomplished when we continued our pilgrimage to Rennes-le-Chateau in the neighboring region of Languedoc. This small, quiet hilltop village has attained worldwide fame due to the tradition that it contains a mysterious “treasure.” We wanted to visit Rennes-le-Chateau because it has become a central focus for contemporary interest in the Magdalene. The Church of Mary Magdalene, extensively renovated by the controversial priest Berenger Sauniere in the late 19th century, is central to the mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau. Many believe that Sauniere’s funds for his massive building project must have come from his discovery of the legendary treasure. Speculations about the nature of this unknown treasure suggest that it might be a horde of gold, the Holy Grail, or an ancient manuscript that could provide a radical alternative version of Mary Magdalene’s role. When we entered the small Church of Mary Magdalene I was struck by its peaceful, sacred atmosphere despite its sensational reputation. Chant was playing as people entered quietly and lit prayer candles. I was gratified to see the many representations of Mary Magdalene and I was drawn first to the relief sculpture under the altar that depicts her praying in a cave. I realized that the darkness of the cave that is associated so strongly with Mary Magdalene can be understood to symbolize the unconscious, the visionary imagination, or feminine wisdom, and that this is the true mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau. Then I looked up at the round stained glass window over the altar that shows Mary Magdalene with the alabaster jar, wiping the feet of Christ with her hair. The rays of light shining through the window at that time illuminated only the figure of Mary Magdalene. I then noticed a statue of Mary as the crowned Queen of Heaven standing beside the altar. The light shining through the Magdalene window illuminated her robe and the lettering at the statue’s base, “Vierge Mere” or “Virgin Mother.” I thought how synchronistic it was that a single ray of light illuminated the Magdalene and the Virgin, uniting these two representations of the archetypal feminine. The light symbolizes the bringing to consciousness of the repressed feminine, which has been hidden in the dark cave of the unconscious. This interpretation seemed to be further confirmed for me as we were leaving the church and I saw this message posted on the bulletin board: “Dans cette eglise, le tresor c’est vous.” Translated into English this means, “In this church, the treasure is you.”

But the mystery of the “treasure” still remains, for what is meant by the “you” in this statement? In other words, who are you? Is the treasure the ordinary person that we usually identify with, the deeper aspects of the unconscious psyche, or the divine presence within that Christian mystics have called the “indwelling Christ”? After returning from our pilgrimage, this message and related experiences were clarified for me when I read Cynthia Bourgeault’s book The Meaning of Mary Magdalene. Her critique of the current psychological approach to “the quest for the archetypal feminine” is based upon a profoundly deeper understanding of the meaning of Mary Magdalene as the “alchemical feminine.” The alchemical process that she refers to involves “a transforming of the ‘lead’ of egoic perception into the ‘gold’ of unitive awareness.” Mary Magdalene, as a transformed woman – a “living spirit” according to the Gospel of Thomas – represents the archetypal Sophia in her androgynous qualities of wisdom. “As Sophia/wisdom herself exercises her powers on unitive grounds, from that imaginal space between the realms, so, too, does Mary Magdalene as she walks forth from the garden on Easter morning to become the first witness to the resurrection.” She personifies the wisdom that transforms both females and males into the “single one,” the term used in the Gospel of Thomas to designate the person who has attained unitive consciousness. This understanding of Mary Magdalene was very illuminating to me as it resonated with my own deepest encounters with Mary Magdalene in her sacred places.

My first breakthrough into this awareness of the transformational nature of Mary Magdalene occurred in the depths of the cave at St. Baume where, according to legend, she made her home in France. Tradition asserts that after her arrival in southern France, Mary Magdalene spent 30 years living in this cave set high in the mountainous area of St. Baume. Thirty is a symbolically significant number because it corresponds to the “hidden life of Jesus,” those unknown years before he made his appearance in the Gospel accounts of his ministry. Mary Magdalene is said to have spent these 30 years in meditation within her cave and in apostolic work with the people of the surrounding area. I felt the presence of Mary Magdalene very strongly throughout our time at St. Baume. As we walked along the beautifully wooded trail that ascends the imposing massif of St. Baume to Mary Magdalene’s cave, I vividly imagined her here in these woods filled with light-dappled trees and birdsong. At the end of the long upward climb, our first steps into the grotto itself were breathtaking. We were in a huge cavern, transformed into a chapel, its darkness illumined by numerous prayer candles, with statues of Mary Magdalene and the Virgin throughout. I could see both inside the cave and also the trees and sky outside. I realized that in this cave within the mountain I was simultaneously in the depths and the heights, in both the earth and the sky. The cave of St. Baume is a place that unites the opposites of Earth and Heaven – the worlds of matter and spirit. I could understand why Mary Magdalene would choose to make her home here, “tethered between two realms, mediating the invisible to the visible” as she enacted her role of wisdom bearer. As we descended into the crypt, I felt her presence even more strongly in the cold darkness below than in the lighted chapel above. As I gazed upon the statue of the sorrowful Magdalene holding a cross and listening to the water softly dripping from the stones, I opened my heart in meditative stillness. I later wrote in my journal: “I had a sense of Mary Magdalene’s presence in the grotto – her being here in communion with Christ through many years, and through her union with him, manifesting his energy into the world. This is what we are also called to do: unite with the Christ within so that we too may manifest his energy into the world. Mary Magdalene -“the Apostle to the Apostles”- is the model for us to be disciples of Christ through the ages, including our own.” This palpable sense of the communion between Christ and Mary Magdalene in the grotto at St. Baume was clarified for me further when I read Cynthia Bourgeault’s description of the relationship between partners who travel the path of sacred love together when one passes beyond the earthly realm: “While the couple is in the asymmetrical arrangement – one in human flesh and the other beyond – the sphere of engendering becomes very powerful between them, as transforming wisdom pours through the crack between the realms…this is the configuration in which virtually all of Mary Magdalene’s apostolic work is done.” This is the “engendering sphere” between Christ and Mary Magdalene that still reverberates in the cave of St. Baume today. It supports the legendary accounts of Mary Magdalene’s life at St. Baume, where her long period of meditation – actually her communion with the Living Christ – and her intense apostolic work were simply the reciprocal activities grounded in her unitive relationship with her Beloved.

After this intense experience at St. Baume, I was amazed to find that an even more profound encounter awaited me at our final destination: Vezelay. We left the arid, rocky lands of southern France for the lush green, gently rolling fields of Burgundy to visit this site of the first major pilgrimages for Mary Magdalene in the Middle Ages. We turned the corner on a country road and there it was, the town of Vezelay high on a hill, with its beautiful basilica dominating the landscape. We walked the narrow winding road uphill through the town to the magnificent Romanesque church of St. Marie-Madeleine. The church was built during the 11th and 12th centuries, when Vezelay was the most important pilgrimage site in France because it contained the relics of Mary Magdalene. Today it is a thriving spiritual community, has a strong message of universality, and is once again a major center for modern pilgrims. I felt a profound sense of spirituality, peace, and vitality at Vezelay which I believe is due in part to the dedicated work of its monastic community. But the inner harmony I experienced at Vezelay is also one of the great secrets of sacred architecture in the Middle Ages. The design of the basilica and its sculpture are representations in stone of the spiritual union of opposites. My first glimpse of this theme was a relief sculpture on the western front of the basilica that depicted Christ with the Virgin on his right and the Magdalene on his left. The dual aspects of the feminine are thus united with the masculine. As we walked into the church we moved from the darkness of the narthex into the extremely high nave where light poured in through clear glass windows. As we were close to the summer solstice we were able to follow the “path of light,” ten circles of light that appear on the dark center aisle and lead to the altar at this time of year. The juxtaposition of light and dark is continued in the arches in the nave which display contrasting sections of white and gray stone. Mary Magdalene herself has two major representations within the basilica. The first we encountered in a sunlit chapel to the right of the high altar, where a statue depicts her as a beautiful young woman holding her emblematic alabaster jar. Immediately to the side are stairs leading down into the crypt underneath the high altar. In the darkness underground stands an exquisite golden reliquary containing some of Mary Magdalene’s bones and beside it is a Byzantine icon depicting the resurrected Christ’s appearance to her on Easter morning with the cave of his tomb in the background. Many prayer candles blaze in front of her relics. At the opposite end of the crypt is a stone altar with a wooden image of Jesus on the cross. We sat in the middle of the crypt, positioning ourselves so that we were right between the Magdalene’s reliquary and the Crucifix. Centered in this direct alignment between them, we both immediately experienced a powerful flow of energy and an overwhelming sense of awe. As we entered the inner stillness we felt the surging energy between the Magdalene and Christ centers pour through us. We felt our hearts as fully open, in resonance with the energy flowing between them. We returned to the crypt many times during the several days that we stayed at Vezelay, each time drawn more deeply into the numinous power that we experienced between the Magdalene and Christ. At one time the undulating waves of energy appeared to be a Moebius strip of rainbow light – a beautiful symbol of the union of inner and outer, darkness and light, masculine and feminine – complete wholeness. Another time we each had an inner vision of the Holy Grail emanating a golden light that permeated the darkness of the crypt. I realized that this light symbolizes the “alchemical gold,” the priceless treasure of transformation. We were very much aware while at Vezelay that these experiences were affecting us at all levels of our being: physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. When we returned home, Cynthia Bourgeault’s writings once again helped illumine the meaning of these powerfully integrative experiences in light of the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene as Beloveds. As she explains, “If this ‘asymmetrical apostleship’ is exercised with sufficient force and spiritual prowess, then, when the other party has also left the flesh, the imaginal sphere that has been brought into being between them will continue to reverberate i n alignment with their realized oneness and will become its own localized agent of ‘the engendering spirit.’ It will continue to beget its ‘children in the Realm of the Unseen,’ since its presence has become a crystallized field of creative love.” This was what we experienced in the crypt at Vezelay as we sat between the relics of Mary Magdalene and the crucified Jesus, both of which symbolize their death and entry into the transhistorical dimension, the imaginal realm. We were experiencing the continued reverberation of their “engendering spirit” in the flow of energy that opened our hearts to their creative, transforming love. This insight also helped me understand why my encounters with Mary Magdalene throughout this pilgrimage had been most profound in the caves and the crypts – those dark, underground places where transformation takes place. The crypt is the church’s equivalent to the cave, a symbol of both death (the tomb) and life (the mother’s womb.) In Christian iconography it is also the place of resurrection, as shown by the empty tomb in the cave on the icon. Resurrection as the inner transformation that takes place in the “cave of the heart” was what we experienced in the crypt at Vezelay. During our final visit there, these words came to me as I sat in silence: “The pilgrimage is completed – the journey now is inward.” I later wrote in my journal: “The pilgrimage culminates here at Vezelay, where all is united: outer and inner, Earth and Heaven, time and eternity.” Yet the journey always continues, taking us to ever deeper inner union, as we travel along the Way of Love that is shown to us by Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

NOTES

Cynthia Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity (Boston: Shambhala, 2010), p. 173.
Bourgeault, p. 175.
Bourgeault, p. 168.
Bourgeault, p. 197.
Bourgeault, p. 197.

Portions of this essay were previously prublishd in Voices: The Art and Science of Psychotherapy, Winter 2010, as "Pilgrimage as a Journey Toward Wholeness.


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Wooden statue of Mary Magdalene

Although New Testament and gnostic gospels portray Mary Magdalene as a close companion of Jesus and the first to witness the resurrection – earning her the title “Apostle to the Apostles” – her dominant characterization within the Christian church has historically been that of the penitent sinner.






















































Mary in the cave

I was gratified to see the many representations of Mary Magdalene and I was drawn first to the relief sculpture under the altar that depicts her praying in a cave. I realized that the darkness of the cave that is associated so strongly with Mary Magdalene can be understood to symbolize the unconscious, the visionary imagination, or feminine wisdom, and that this is
the true mystery of
Rennes-le-Chateau.













































































































The church was built during the 11th and 12th centuries, when Vezelay was the most important pilgrimage site in France because it contained the relics of Mary Magdalene. Today it is a thriving spiritual community, has a strong message of universality, and is once again a major center for modern pilgrims.