My first post for FAR appeared on July 22, 2012, the feast day of Mary Magdalen. I like to dedicate my July posts to her and include an excerpt from The Maeve Chronicles, the novels I spent 20 years writing, which feature a feisty Celtic Magdalen who is no one’s disciple. This year’s excerpt is from Bright Dark Madonna, the third in the series, which follows her (mis)adventures from Pentecostal Jerusalem, to the wilds of Turkey’s Taurus Mountains, the port city of Ephesus, and finally to her legendary cave in France.
While doing research for the novel, I made a pilgrimage to Le Grotte de Marie Madeleine in Southern France. A forty-five minute climb, past a spring leads to a high cliff wall where a spacious cave has been made into a chapel to the saint. There were no other people at the site except my husband and daughter who kindly gave me time alone in the cave—alone with her. As I wrote in FAR’s pages a while back, I have a longing for hermitage that I haven’t allowed myself to fully inhabit. Maeve, on the other hand, goes all out, or rather, in. Here is what she has to say:
According to legend, I lived in the cave for thirty years as a penitent, naked and weeping. (Although in some versions I am wafted up to heaven three times a day for my meals. In the painting on display in the Basilica of Saint Maximin, I look as though I put on quite a bit of weight.)
Now picture this instead; I am dressed in a warm woolen tunic and cloak—as caves tend to keep the same temperature all year round. Let’s say it’s winter and a storm is raging outside. I have plenty of firewood gathered from the forest, and I’ve got a lentil stew simmering over my fire. I am drinking some delicious wine. On a ledge nearby, where I can see it by the firelight, sits the skull, wearing an evergreen wreath on its head in honor of Yule. Skulls figure heavily in my iconography. I am supposed to be contemplating mortality all the time. I know plenty about mortality and more than most about immortality and all the ambiguous states between. I don’t spend a lot of time contemplating it. My relationship with the skull is more companionable than anything else. Sometimes I talk to it, and I often sing. The acoustics in the cave encourage vocalization. If you think I am going mad with loneliness, you would be wrong.
I am, quite simply, happy.
It didn’t happen all at once, I will admit. At first I was tired. It was as if all the tiredness of all my life that had never exacted its due had been biding its time, and it hit me all at once, hard, heavy. As long as I resisted it, I felt sad or bored or anxious, I worried that I had made a mistake in retreating to the cave. Then I surrendered. I slept all I wanted, whenever I wanted. I thought: no need to worry how to get through the winter, I will just hibernate. Then one day, while it was still only late fall, I woke up and went outside; it was just before dawn; the sky still spiked with stars. I decided to find a place to wait for the sunrise. I went back into the wood and climbed higher on the mountain, above my cave to another ledge that opened to the east. Here I sat and watched the morning star rise above the pale line on the mountain horizon. When the rim of the sun cleared the earth, I saw it as flame, the source of all fire. The birds went wild at the first touch of light, and the sky came alive with wings.
And it came to me: this is all I have to do now. This is why I am here.
I spend my days exploring the mountain or just sitting on the ledge, watching the light and weather change, and the birds and animals and plants respond. Every day, I become more like them, more like the mountain, more like the cave. It is not that I never think about the past or the people I love. That is what the nights are for. I have intensely vivid dreams, and it may well be that I am traveling to different times and places. So I don’t miss people, exactly. They are not missing. All that time I spent losing and finding and losing my beloved again, and after him, my daughter—all the yearning, the relentless searching that has consumed most of my life, then I come to the cave and find that they are with me. Not just Jesus and Sarah, but everyone I have ever loved. They are with me, and I am with them. That saying of my beloved that always annoyed and comforted me: “I am always with you,” turns out to be the simple truth.
Wishing you all a joyous Feast of Mary Magdalen, whether you are sequestered in a cave or partying Temple Magdalen style. Lo, she is with you always.
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known for The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. She is currently at work on a series of mystery novels. Her third collection of poetry So Ecstasy Can Find You is forthcoming in September, 2015. Elizabeth is a fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute, an interfaith minister and a counselor in private practice. She lives in New York State’s Shawangunk Mountains.