Pilgrimage to the Magdalen

By Fenton Johnson

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Here, far from prying eyes, surrounded by cohorts of holy angels, you are rewarded by being ravished seven times daily . . . transported among the celestial choirs to listen to their sacred singing.

   — François Pétrarque, “Elegy of the Magdalen”

Provençal legend has the Jews of Palestine setting Mary Magdalen and her fellow disciples Martha, Lazarus, Mary Jacobe, Mary Salome, Maximinus, and Cedonius afloat on the Mediterranean in a small barque without sail or rudder. After uncounted days they drift ashore a thousand and more miles west, near the mouth of the Rhône River. All but the Magdalen crisscross Provence proselytizing and performing miracles—Martha charms into submission the Tarasque, a monster that has been terrorizing the Provençal village of Nescul. Acting out one of our most ancient storylines, the villagers stone the now-docile animal to death, then as an act of repentance take the animal’s name as their own (today’s Tarascon) and give it a place of honor on their coat of arms.

"Street in Saintes-Maries" by Vincent van Gogh.
“Street in Saintes-Maries” by Vincent van Gogh, ca. July 17, 1888. Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the town where the disciples supposedly landed.
Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In fact the disciples’ rudderless boat could never have negotiated the treacherous Mediterranean, in fact with Jesus dead these disciples would think of themselves as Jews, not Christians, but I am asking questions when what is called for is a miracle and so I will shut up and turn to the story that still fascinates—that of the Magdalen. Sin is always more interesting than virtue and in Provençal stories the Magdalen is the reformed prostitute who became Jesus’ devoted follower. The story reinforces a thousand-year-old confusion that persists into contemporary times (cf., The Da Vinci Code). Of the Magdalen the canonical gospels tell us only that she was a devoted disciple of Jesus and that she followed him to Jerusalem (Luke 23:55), where she helped take him down from the cross and was both the discoverer of the empty tomb and the first to see him after his resurrection (John 20:1-2 ff.). She is traditionally identified as a prostitute, but nowhere in the New Testament is she referred to as such. She is traditionally identified as a sinner, but the “woman who sins” (Luke 10:38) is never named.

Sinner or saint, our Provençal Magdalen makes her way from the Mediterranean to a cave in the interior mountains, long sacred, according to my guidebook, to the Ligurians, the region’s prehistoric tribes. There she spends her life in contemplation. She locates a cave high on a cliff side where she lives until her death 30 years later. She is buried locally and revered until the eighth century, when the Saracens overrun Provence and her bones are dug up and hidden from their depredations. Five centuries later Charles of Anjou, looking for a way to boost the local economy and to reinforce his kingdom’s claim to legitimacy, arranges to “discover” those bones, now located many mountainous kilometers distant from the Magdalen’s cave. He builds a cathedral to house them as well as a shrine at the cave itself.

The story is familiar and ancient—seeking to obliterate a local cult, an upstart religion appropriates its holy places and fabricates a myth in keeping with its own designs—but here I, the writer, and you, the reader enter the story. I go on these pilgrimages in homage not to relics but to the imagination that calls them into being, and to remind myself of my roots among these pilgrims who still come by the thousands, many of them Roma or Gitanos, outcasts for whom the Magdalen is patroness.

The stairs leading to the Grotto at La Sainte Baume.
The path and stairs leading to the Grotto at La Sainte Baume.
Photo by Anders Harbo.
And so in the heart of winter I drive inland from the Provençal coast to the cathedral at St. Maximin-le-Baume, a rather drab affair interesting mostly for its introduction of Gothic architecture into a part of the world where Romanesque prevailed. The skull of the Magdalen, preserved in a glass jar in the cathedral’s crypt, is worth a mild shiver, though a more emphatic chill awaits with the small cylinder of glass in which floats the scrap of flesh said to be the spot where the risen Christ touched her forehead.

From the cathedral I drive south into the mountains to the Magdalen’s grotto. Halfway there I almost turn around—I hadn’t thought the journey would be so far; the road is winding and treacherous but I am drawn by this forest, long sacred to the Ligurians…. The road is a white-knuckler, barely wide enough for one car and with so little oncoming traffic that I get careless and hog the middle only to round a hairpin curve and encounter a car hurtling downhill or two bicyclists riding side-by-side. The countryside is fantastically deserted, in stark and pleasing contrast to the tourist-mobbed coast.

At the grotto trailhead there’s a hostelry with a parking lot and many postcards, most from elsewhere. The trail skirts a muddy field before plunging into the forest, which is immediately and satisfyingly deep, a cathedral whose ceiling is the intricate web of the oaks’ bare branches and above them the winter-blue sky. Far away and above I hear the baying of a church bell, echoed in the tinkling of a belled hunting dog dashing past in pursuit of . . . a fox? At this altitude the mossy oaks shelter blackberry canes and small pines but as I climb the pines give way to mottled beeches and the oaks acquire mistletoe garlands in their highest branches. Soon, even at midday, I am in the shadow of La Sainte Baume, the holy mountain—this forest will not see direct sun until February or later. I walk on for a mile and then another, up and up until I reach the stairs at the foot of the shrine. The bone-white cliff rises dramatically hundreds of feet straight up, with the shrine built into its vertical face.

I climb the steps and for the first time encounter other tourists, a couple who ignore the signs requesting silence and gab in mellifluous French. How we are given to chatter like sparrows, how noteworthy that silence requires a conscious act! How much of our talking is a flight from demons when so often the demons, masters here as elsewhere of sleight of hand, live in the beautiful, treacherous words themselves…. Inside the grotto, the cave lit only by candlelight. Even the chattery couple are hushed to whispers. The only sound is water dripping one drop, then another, from the ceiling to the floor and from the mouth of the cave the baying of the dogs, still in search of their fox. Scattered about are statues of the Magdalen in sorrow or in meditation or in ecstasy—legend, commemorated in Petrarch’s poem, has angels transporting her seven times daily to the heavens to listen to celestial choirs.

"Montagne Sainte-Victoire, von Bellevue aus  gesehen" by Paul Cézanne
“Montagne Sainte-Victoire, von Bellevue aus gesehen” by Paul Cézanne, ca. 1882-1885.
Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The grotto offers a sweeping view across the plain of Provence, punctuated by Mont Sainte Victoire, beloved of Cézanne, and in the farthest distance Mont Ventoux. It’s an extraordinary feature, a mouth in the middle of the cliff’s vast vertical face—little wonder that it was sacred to the Ligurians and their successors. It sets itself apart, calling: climb to me, enter me, make a story to explain why I am here.

Belief is easy, the postmodern rationalists tell us, it’s skepticism that’s hard, and for the longest while I was on their side—in my skeptical youth I would have dismissed the story of the Magdalen’s relics and grotto with a world-weary sigh, grateful for the triumph of reason that, among its many other gifts, liberated me from the anti-Semitism of my Christian ancestors.

But now I recall the parable of the talents, in which the master rewarded the servants who took risks and punished the servant who played safe. To those who are given few talents, belief is enough—religion or science, the means to the end hardly matters; what matters is an unquestioned confidence that life’s great questions have answers. “When we have unified enough certain knowledge,” writes Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson in Consilience, “we will understand who we are and why we are here.” But those who are given many talents must rise to the challenge of their gifts. For those who have knowledge—who have been educated into the ways and means of mountains and seas and the dark and bloody story of humanity’s slow progress, who know our institutions’ long histories of abuse and betrayal—to possess all that knowledge and still to have faith surely requires the greatest expenditure of talents—the greatest risk.

And this is why, against all reason, I aspire to faith. Reason explains the Magdalen’s grotto easily enough – the dripping ceiling suggests a spring, which suggests freezing and expanding in the winter cold, which leads to its own eminently logical conclusion. But I’d never have made the effort to reach this remote spot without the Magdalen in solitude to draw me on and especially without her seven daily transports. I want to be among the pilgrims, Ligurians and since, who have climbed to this sacred place not as a skeptic but as a person of faith.

The stairs leading to the Grotto at La Sainte Baume.
One view from the Grotto at La Sainte Baume.
Photo by Anders Harbo.

What’s important is not whether angels “really” transported the Magdalen seven times daily to the heavens, any more than what’s important in the Gospels is whether Jesus “really” rose from the dead or whether in, say, The Winter’s Tale the statue of Hermione “really” comes to life. What’s important is the capacity of the story or the church or the theater to provide models of faith in action. Shakespeare decries the old magic of the stars even as he builds his plays on coincidence and miracle, subscribing and illuminating a different kind of magic—the magic of the heart. We witness Hermione step down from the pedestal, or hear the story of Jesus’s resurrection, or visit the Magdalen’s cave and are awakened or reawakened to the power of our longing for life and love and so to the meaning and importance of faith.

The Buddha tells a parable of a man who, having used a boat to cross a river, leaves the boat on the shore for the next pilgrim and journeys on unencumbered. The stories are essential—they provide a ferry across the river of doubt, exercises to teach us how to have faith. Jesus’s resurrection, the Magdalen’s journey, Hermione’s return to life, and yes, the physicist’s elaboration of string theory are different means to the end but are not to be mistaken for the end itself. The stories enable us to learn and have faith: faith that the prosperous and privileged can learn to exercise mercy, a virtue by definition reserved to the powerful, toward the poor and powerless, including the plants and creatures whose habitats we have the power to destroy; faith that we can make the broken world whole.

Back at the bottom of the cliff I stop in the souvenir shop and strike up a conversation with the clerk, who tells me thatagainst all reason (contre toute raison), in the bitter cold and sometimes lousy weather of Christmas Eve, hundreds of pilgrims assemble at the hostelry,then walk by torchlight through the forest long sacred to the Ligurians to assist at the midnight mass celebrated by the friars in charge of the Magdalen’s grotto. This is the journey of the imagination, from the plain to the mountain, from the bustle of the crowd to the solitude of the cave, from a life lived by bread alone to the seven daily transports to the music of the spheres.



Fenton Johnson is the author of four books, most recently Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey among Christian and Buddhist Monks, and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. You may find more of his work at

Header image, St Maximin-sarcophage de saint Sidoine, by Rvalette, courtesy Wikipedia. is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.