National Geographic : 2012 Mar
"while it was still dark," and found that the stone covering it had been moved. She ran to nd the disciples, who returned with her and saw that the tomb was empty. " en the disciples went away again to their own homes," reads the scripture. "But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping." She stayed, as she had remained at the foot of the cross. When she peered again into the sepulchre, she saw two angels where the body of Christ had rested. "Woman, why are you weeping?" they asked her. "Because they have taken away my Lord," she said, "and I do not know where they have laid him." And then, the Gospel says, the risen Christ appeared to her. Such tenacity would have served her well if she did indeed spend three decades in the cold and damp of the Provence cave. " is is known as a place of penitence," Le Hégaret said. "In winter it's austere. Very few people come up to the cave. e road is frozen for weeks. ere is a great simplicity here." He chuckled. " ere is a proverb among the brothers of Provence: At Sainte-Baume either you go crazy, or you become a saint." With Christian Vacquié, the warden re- sponsible for the ancient forest at Sainte-Baume, I visited a much smaller cave in the same massif that had contained the remains of Neanderthals from 150,000 years ago. is cave and others nearby have a distinctly female-reproductive- organ shape, leading some to believe that they were fertility-cult sites in prehistoric times. One can imagine barren Neanderthals performing fertility rituals many tens of thousands of years before the arrival of Mary Magdalene. Protected by the state and cherished for its rich biological diversity, the forest itself has long been held sacred. " ere was once a priest at the grotto," Vacquié told me with a grin, "who said that while he was Mary Magdalene's majordomo, I was her gardener." e forest and local caves are still believed to have a strong connection to fecundity, and women have come here for mil- lennia to pray for children. To this day some women even rub their abdomens against the statues of Mary Magdalene as they pray. is physicality is not encouraged by the church, Le Hégaret told me, but it's di cult to prevent. On the walls of the cave are notes and plaques of gratitude in many languages. " ank you Saint Mary Magdalene for healing my daughter," reads one in French dated October 1860. Another reads simply, "Merci pour Marion." The Dominicans manage a hostel on the plain at the foot of the massif, the Hôtellerie de la Sainte-Baume, receiving pilgrims, students, scholars, and other travelers. ere I spoke with Marie-Ollivier Guillou, a novitiate and former sailor who served four years as a priest on French submarines, including Le Terrible, before being transferred here two years ago. "For me," he said, "Mary Magdalene is the saint of love. She was a very courageous woman. She was one of the few who stayed at the Cruci xion. Most of the others ran for their lives, but Mary Magdalene stayed at the foot of the cross, ready to die for Christ. In this sense she is the model for the religious life." Near the end of my time at Sainte-Baume I went back into the cave and climbed the short ight of steps to the rise of stone on which legend says Mary Magdalene slept; it's the only spot in the cave that remains dry. e last of the other visitors had left; fog rolled through the open doorway. Standing in the shadows, I reached through the grating and pressed my hand against the stone. e grotto was perfectly silent, save for the faintest occasional drip in the cistern, the same ancient spring that would have supplied the saint with fresh water. When I had suggested to omas Michelet that Mary Magdalene may never have come to Provence, he replied in a matter-of-fact tone, " ere was a priest who lived here at the cave for decades. He said that while it's impossible to know if Mary Magdalene truly came here in the rst century, that certainty was of less impor- tance. She's here now." j In Secret Lives of the Apostles National Geographic Channel traces the Apostles' journeys as they spread out from Jerusalem after Jesus' death. Check natgeotv.com for local listings.