April 2, 2009
Lent is moving toward its object.
At a certain age, one realizes that each Lenten season is its own unique season. No two seasons should be the same, as — please God! — we are not the same.
This year I spent part of Lent in the Burgundian village of Vézelay. Where the basilica stands now, a church was first consecrated in 879. Tradition informs us that the relics of that arch penitent, St. Mary Magdalene, lie in this lovely basilica built in her honor. Whatever one believes about the identity of this biblical figure — Mark and Luke tell us that Jesus freed her from seven demons, but there is no direct evidence that this Mary was the woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair — she is, at the least, a symbol for true penitence. (I’m especially moved by Donatello’s riveting sculpture of Mary Magdalene as penitent.) Contrition is the right disposition as one approaches Easter, for it realigns our hearts such that we can shed whatever stands between us and All Love.
For some, it strains credulity to accept that the Magdalene landed on the shores of Roman Gaul at Provence some years after the Resurrection. The legend claims that a small band of Christians arrived by boat at St. Maximin around the year 42. These refugees from persecution (St. James was beheaded that same year by Herod) camped in nearby caves and began to evangelize pagan Gaul.
I accept the ancient legend of the saint and reject the Johnny-come-lately versions of Mary Magdalene that one finds in dissident accounts like the Woman with the Alabaster Jar — a book some say was part of the inspiration for the equally silly The Da Vinci Code. Mary of Magdala is an example that the modern world urgently needs, an example of true sorrow for sins. That her story has been appropriated by modern sexual libertines under the guise of “feminism” is all the more witness to her actual life of penance: Why else would the dissident gaggles work feverishly to rehabilitate the penitent in their image? It is because a penitent woman cannot be tolerated by modern feminist ideology.
The relics of St. Mary Magdalene in the crypt of the basilica in Vézelay are borne in a beautifully wrought reliquary. A papal bull, dated about 1050, links the church to Mary Magdalene. Some accounts claim that the relics (some? all? a single bone?) were brought north to Vézelay from the caves at St. Maximin in Baume. According to the legend, the “true” relics were discovered at Baume on the southern coast of France in the 1200s. Angry Huguenots are supposed to have burned the original relics at Vézelay during the 1600s. Finally, in the 1870s, the archbishop of Sens gave a relic of Mary Magdalene to the church in Vézelay, a portion of the relics that were given to Sens by Pope Martin IV in 1281.
It is no crucial matter which story is true — there may be portions of her true relics in both places. The witness of the relics is the point. That generations of Christians made pilgrimages to Vézelay, including Sts. Thomas Becket and Francis of Assisi, and that the village is one of the main points in France on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain is enough. For whatever reason, those in pursuit of personal holiness found solace here, in the presence of the Magdalene, and chose her basilica as the first step toward St. James in far away Spain. It is testimony that something calls out to souls in this place.
During the Middle Ages, one’s bishop might assign a pilgrimage as penance for a grave public offense. While no public penances remain (were I bishop, the things I would order for our Catholic politicians!), we would do well to make some act of real contrition for the good deeds left undone, for any undue grief we have caused, for failure to speak up when evil is tolerated or even legislated, for lack of gratitude for all that we have.
Taking stock once a year can give us a cleansing contrition, so that we might get on with life with a clearer view of what matters most.