I have come to the top of the mountain to a place we now call, St. Baume (Holy Balm) * to visit my patroness, St.Mary Magdalene. I am not in as good a shape as I used to be. Getting myself up this mountain was not that much fun for me, plus I’m very banged up.
But now that I am here, I feel refreshed by her smile when she comes out of the cave to meet me. She is on her way somewhere with a water jug, so I just follow her. She is watering what looks like a kitchen garden, with flowers planted in between the vegetables. She seems to smile at every plant.
Back at the mouth of her cave, she takes my backpack off my shoulders, dusts me off, invites me in.
I feel a lot better now, as she sets out bread and olives on a piece of clean, rough cloth, setting a wild flower in the middle.
My eyes adjust to the comparative darkness, and I look around me at her hermit’s cave. It is sparse, with only the necessary things for living. Knowing her, I am not surprised to see that she often brings in flowers from outside, set in little clay drinking cups in various places where she could balance one.
The only thing I didn’t expect was the art. The cave walls are full of simple, colorful murals. Jumping up to look more closely, I can see they are vignettes, that they tell a story. I am thrilled when I realize it is the Gospel story. I know the actual written Gospel was probably never seen by St. Mary Magdalene, but I also know she lived this story, and that some of it rests on her testimony.
Delighted, I ponder over several of these pictures.
She is grinning over my shoulder, reaching out to touch a figure of Jesus teaching with his arms wide. She guides me to other paintings, clearly hers, touching them, chuckling at some of them, because of memories of her own.
I wonder how she did these with the scant materials available to her. I think of the day of Pentecost, at which she was present, and reason that anyone given the power to speak languages previously unknown to her in order to preach the Gospel and praise God so that all can understand, probably has the ability to preach it in art in a mountain cave in some mysterious way.
I am surprised to find a picture of myself with Jesus. “Hey that’s me!” She smiles. Some scenes from my life are mixed in with the Gospel story as if I were part of it. Other depictions I recognize as my own life, the painting showing Jesus taking part. In places, it is hard to tell which story is which.
I reflect that the Gospel is not just a story that happened a long time ago; it is alive and happening every day, and we are each part of it.
“It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”
Turning back to where I had been sitting, I notice there is a stream running through the cave. It seems to come from somewhere within the mountain, and to flow out of the mouth of the cave, and down.
I have never seen anything like that before.
This is a good opportunity to change the bandages on my wound again. As I begin to remove the sweaty, stinging cloth from my chest wound, she watches with concern.
She has me kneel at the edge of the water. She brings a basket, setting it beside us. She dips a small pitcher into the stream and pours the water onto the wound. She pulls from her basket a broken alabaster jar I recognize, anointing the deep wound gently with fragrant ointment.
I feel a deep sense of peace, my breathing becoming easier as warmth spreads though my body.
I have had this wound such a long time, I had forgotten how painful it has been. It has never healed, only become deeper, more jagged, bleeding so I have to change the bandages on it several times a day.
The relief is tremendous.
Everywhere the water splashed on the rock floor, tiny white flowers have sprung up, like glittering little stars in the dim light of the cave. She picks one and hands it it to me.
The chest wound, I am surprised to see, is still there. Not only that, but it bleeds still, perhaps more, and the blood drizzles down mixed with water now.
I am surprised, I admit, that it is still there, given the sense of healing I feel.
She explains to me that this kind of wound, this wound of the heart I bear, is what she calls, a “royal wound,” because it is joined to the wound in the Heart of Jesus.
She encourages me to remember the wounds endured by the heart of Jesus: his betrayal, his agony, the abandonment of those who believed in him, the misunderstanding, the mockery and rejection, the torture he underwent, the vinegar to drink in his suffering, his dying cry to the Father from the cross, the last indignity of the lance to his broken heart. Didn’t I remember the blood and water that flowed out as a sign of grace and mercy for us and of the birth of the Church from his wounded side?
I had not thought the worst and latest injuries to my wound qualified. Maybe I thought that because the pain seemed so meaningless to me at the time; just a horrible thing I would never recover from.
I used to understand this lesson she is teaching me. At a certain point it had stopped making sense to me. I realize that does not make what she is saying any less true.
Whether a wound received is meaningless and cruel or if it is one sustained with love, and anointed with personal meaning; either way, Jesus transforms it into his own because we belong to him and we share his life.
He wants our wounded hearts to bleed clean and uninfected, to become, by his grace, life giving and effective, drawing his grace into them and out to the world.
The Magdalene and I sit quietly for a while, and I enjoy the calm I feel.
She squeezes my hand and tells me that with time and holy living, the blood and water I am seeing flow out of my heart now will become invisible, and the wound will be a quiet, hidden scar. I will feel a gentle ache from time to time, and I should let it serve to remind me of this day; of this love, of the heart of Jesus, and of my new chance at life.
Now she leads me along the stream, reaching back for my hand. We pick our way through more and more glittering flowers toward the heart of the mountain.
Suddenly there is space and light and thousands on thousands of people of all races and all times, singing and praying. I realize this is mass, Jesus himself is the priest at God’s alter, under which a river flows, the beginnings of the mountain stream.
We hear the word of God from him reverently. We go up for Holy Communion with all the people, filled with joy and awe. We receive Communion from his hand. Together we kiss his feet.
We pray with all the people for a long, happy time.
Then she leads me back to her cave where it is quiet, and a golden late afternoon sun lights the murals on her wall.
She dips my fingers into a small bowl of a deep red paste, takes my hand, and presses it to a blank spot next to her pictures of the Gospel.
I begin to paint.
- The legend of St. Mary Magdalene’s life after the recorded events of the Gospel is that she and her brother and sister ended up in what is now France, where they preached the Gospel. Eventually the Magdalene was said to have retired as a hermit to a mountain cave. Her remains are there and are venerated there to this day. Her feast is on July 22.