On Pilgrimage in France: Seeking the Mother Goddess

Recent ruminations on bones, posted previously on this blog, expanded further when I had the opportunity to contemplate the toothless, blackened skull of Mary Magdalene...

Visiting friends in Montpellier, on the Mediterranean coast of France, my companion and I went on pilgrimage for a day, traveling east along the sea toward a one-thousand-year-old Romanesque church in Saintes Maries de la Mer. There the mysterious, black-skinned patron saint of the gypsies, Sarah al Kali, resides in her underground stone crypt, whose walls are covered with plaques of gratitude and relics of miracles that have been granted through prayers to this recondite saint.

 Saint Sarah al Kali

Over the years I have gone many times to pay respects to Saint Sarah, the “Kali of the West.” Her story is as compelling as the presence that emanates from her icon. Who is she? And why is she linked with Kali, the dark Mother Goddess of India?

            There is a legend and tradition, pervasive in Provence, that a number of close disciples of Jesus—Mary Magdalene, her brother Lazarus and sister Martha, Maximinus, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Salome, Mary Jacobi, and a young “Egyptian” serving girl named Sarah—fled the Holy Land after the execution of St. James in Jerusalem. Crossing the salt waters in a boat without sails or rudders, they landed in France at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Saint Sarah, also known as Sara-la-Kali (“Sara the black”, Romani: Sara e Kali), is the mythic patron saint of the Roma (Gypsy) people.

Saint Sarah, also known as Sara-la-Kali (“Sara the black”, Romani: Sara e Kali), is the mythic patron saint of the Roma (Gypsy) people.

            Some of the companions—Mary Salome, Mary Jacobi, and the servant girl, Sarah—stayed in the village by the sea, while Mary Magdalene, Maximinus, Joseph of Arimathea and others traveled east to the town of Marseille, where Mary began to teach the local people.  For the last thirty years of her life Mary lived in a cave in the nearby mountanis of Sainte Baume. At her death, she was buried in an oratory built by Maximinus, in what eventually became the basilica in the town of Saint Maximin.

            Digging deeper into this story, apocryphal legends say that Sarah was the child of Jesus and Mary Magdalene: the literal “grail” of a holy bloodline. Because of political dangers, she traveled incognito as an Egyptian serving girl. Thus, Sarah was depicted symbolically with dark skin because she had to live underground, in secret, as the carrier of the blood of the royal House of David. From a mystical perspective, blood is as powerful as bones, but much more impermanent, here and then gone, easily drained away, prey to the inexorable powers of death and decay.

            Delving into Sarah’s mystery yields fruit (iconographic grapes, to be exact, their juice equated with royal blood) and is well worth the effort if you are interested in esoteric streams of spirituality. Saint Sarah leads further into the underground worship of another icon of the Mother Goddess, Mary Magdalene, which abounds in Provence and across the south of France.

 Mary of Magdala

Twenty-five years ago, when the call to pilgrimage first began to sound its sweet and bright notes, I had the chance to visit sacred sites related to Mary Magdalene in France. The trail quickly led me to Saint Maximin Basilique, where I discovered a massive medieval basilica, originally founded as an oratory by Maximinus, steward of the family of Mary Magdalene in Bethany and one of the Seventy Disciples of Jesus.

Saint Maximin Basilique

Saint Maximin Basilique

            Back in 1993, stumbling from the blaze of summer sun unique to Provence into the dark, cavernous interior, I saw a crumbling, half rotten sign affixed to the ancient walls of the huge, vaulted space. It told the story of Mary Magdalene’s arrival at Saintes Maries de la Mer, her seclusion for seven years in a cave at nearby Sainte Baume, her mystical union with Christ, and her ministry around the countryside to teach and heal, in which she often appeared in a body of light.

            At the time the crypt was closed, but my friend Regina and I stood at the gate, our faces pressed against the bars, straining to see the skull that was covered in gold behind glass. We were both mesmerized and deeply impacted by this relic. For years I wanted to return, hoping that the crypt would be open and I could walk into the shrine and stand close to the skull, imbibe something of its secrets.

            This time, I was satisfied. Leaving Saint Sarah and the Mediterranean, we drove north and further east to Saint Maximin la Sainte Baume. Entering the august stone structure of the basilica, I quickly discovered that the legend I had read twenty-five years ago had been replaced with a more orthodox, sanctioned version.

            We found the crypt open. Walking down the steps past a white marble sculpture of a reclining Mary Magdalene adorned with offerings of flowers both fresh and plastic, we descended further to enter the narrow sanctum. There, before us, behind bars and a protective barricade of thick glass ornately studded with bronze and gold leaf design, was the ancient skull of Mary Magdalene enclosed within a golden headdress, fashioned to represent her long flowing hair. Held up in the hands of two winged angels, she was exalted in adoration.

            We gazed in silent awe upon the strangely dark, almost black, toothless skull for as long as we wanted. It was the intensely feminine, surrendered yet determined set of the bones, the hollows of the eyes—as if attuned to heaven—that astounded me. Somehow, these bones exuded a great wisdom. Whether the skull is actually the historical Magdalene mattered very little to me, for, after centuries of worship, it transmits the Sacred—the sanctity of a life dedicated to the Divine, a holy woman, her eyes entirely focused on God. In the end, rational considerations of the mind were entirely supplanted by the heart, which spoke loudly, “It is she!”

            Pulling ourselves away from the magnetism of the relic, we visited the many shrines, the glorious main apse and sanctums of the great stone cathedral, under long-term renovations and filled with art—paintings, wood, marble, and stone sculpture, a great deal of gold leaf, and many different depictions of Mary Magdalene. Free to wander and visit the shrines, we spent an hour walking quietly over the worn paving stones of the church, then left to sit at a nearby café, where we could contemplate the basilica from a distance over tea and espresso.

            As serendipity would have it, we returned to Montpellier for dinner that night, and a guest at the table was born and grew up in Marseilles. Listening to our account of the pilgrimage, she said that she had been to the cave, Sainte Baume, at least twenty times, beginning at the tender age of ten, as well as to the basilica. Her smile was sweet, her smooth cheeks rosy and tanned by a lifetime in the southern sun. Her deep hazel eyes crinkled with pleasure as she continued, saying that local people venerate the cave of Mary Magdalene, and often go to the basilica to worship her relics.

            She shared a story from a friend, who worships Mary Magdalene as his chosen deity. This man said that Mary was known to travel around Provence in her ministry of teaching and healing, and she lived for a time in another cave, on a river in the Ardeche region. He had been to this cave on pilgrimage, and reported that it is shaped like a skull. An ancient monastery was once built on the ridge above the cave in her honor, some decades or centuries after she lived there, but it is long gone, or nothing more than the bare remains of a ruin. The cave, made from the bones of the earth, remains.


Bones of the Mother Goddess

Archetypes and symbols of the Mother Goddess take endless varieties of form and expression to commune with her children. Far to the west and north of Provence, four days earlier I had made a pilgrimage to Rocamadour to see the Black Virgin and Child enthroned there. Going south from Poitiers to Montpellier, we had driven through the mountains around the Dordogne River to Rocamadour—a rustic village perched on the side of a deep, majestic gorge, where the bones of the earth protrude and bear witness to vast eons of time on earth. Services were in progress so we could not sit quietly at her feet, but the trip was well worth the effort. After a picnic on the church grounds, where birds sang happily their springtime song, we continued on our way to Montpellier.

            The day after our pilgrimage to Saint Sarah and Saint Mary Magdalene, we made the return trip home, driving back north through Cahors, which lead us again toward Rocamadour. Leaving the autoroute, we took the scenic, “departmental” roads leading north from Cahors. Now, our pilgrimage took on an animistic, pagan flavor as the sacred world of Mother Nature’s beauty and sanctity opened before our eyes.

            Making our way down little more than a paved lane, the road led into a quaint valley of extraordinary beauty and charm as we followed La Vers, a ruisseau or creek of the clearest water I have seen in a very long time. Slowly gaining ground, the enchanting, narrow valley spread its fields and forests between high limestone cliffs and bluffs on low mountains, through gorgeous rambling villages and farms. I marveled at how the passage of time, working with the elements of water, earth, air, and sun had carved the enduring life of the rock into sacred forms.

            We followed the winding road beside La Vers, glimpsing many small waterfalls made by natural rock terraces in the riverbed. At one point we stopped and walked over a bridge to look down into the swift flow of crystalline water. Turning a curve, an old springhouse appeared on the right, nestled under the rock ledges and overhangs, with a tank of pure spring water that flowed under the road to emerge and meander on the other side toward La Vers. Intrigued by the magic of the spot, we parked and went to explore.

            Bubbling out from beneath the rock, la source was effervescent, cold, pellucid. We filled our water bottles, drank, partook of blessings so freely offered by the Devi of that place. All springs were sacred to the Celts who lived in this part of France two thousand years ago, and I contemplated the presence of the spring, no doubt an ancient place of worship, as we crossed the narrow road to walk down a little footpath that lead through woods toward La Vers and the bluffs, following the freshet of spring water on its joyous way to meet the creek.

            Soon we came to the place where the spring merged with La Vers. Moss in five colors, rushing terraced waterfalls, limpid pools, wildflowers, and water, water, water—we had stumbled upon a rare place, and we stopped to breathe and take in the healing power of the five elements: water, earth, sky, the fire of the sun, and space. The gentle path called us onward, and we trekked under bare trees with green growing things underfoot, tangled woods between us and the base of the boney white cliffs.

            We had received the kiss of the Mother Goddess in Her many forms, somehow all connected—the skull of Mary Magdalene, which has endured for two thousand years, and the bones of the earth, the cliffs and bluffs formed by a few million years of La Vers and the earthy pure springs that flow in the Midi-Pyrénées of France.

            Pondering these mysteries, we traveled north and finally turned west to watch the orange-red disc of the sun sink into an indigo horizon. It shone through a filigree of dark trees, their delicate arms and fingers slowly dissolving in the twilight shadows of oncoming night. Arriving well after dark, we were welcomed by the amber lights of the small sanctuary we call home. Fragrance wafted from thick clusters of purple hyacinths and soft spring grass cushioned my feet as I walked past the still-sleeping maple tree in the courtyard. Everything appeared as the Mother Goddess in one or another form, whispering sweet and strong words. For a moment, I remembered that She is always with me, Her bright effulgence pulsing in the marrow of my forever bones.