Translation to English (2006) of the Life of Mary Magdalene by Henri Lacordaire, OP (1859)
The tomb of Mary Magdalene at St. Maximin is the third most important tomb in the world.It comes immediately after the tomb of our Lord at Jerusalem and that of St.Peter at Rome, because the very holy Virgin Mother of God has no tomb amongst men; scarcely touched by death, she was snatched out of his power by the triumph of her Assumption.No more has St.John, the well-beloved disciple, left for the veneration of Christians his bones or his tomb; he has been, by divine permission, removed from this glory, so as to remain as if buried in his own Gospel.There remain then on earth three great tombs:that of the Saviour, removed by barbarians from the free access of our homage, but retaining in servitude the empire of the world; that of the apostle St.Peter, presiding in Rome over the destinies of Christianity, and from the dust, hidden beneath indescribable splendours, seeing and hearing the passage of continuous prayer from one generation to the next; finally, that of Mary Magdalene, less elevated than St.Peter in the hierarchy, but closer to Jesus Christ by her heart, to whom none can dispute the third place amongst the great names of the evangelical age.
Here, perhaps, at the close of our work, one asks oneself why the divine Master of Souls has chosen as the one to love Him more than anyone else a poor sinner, and bequeathed her to us as the most moving example of holiness.The reason is not difficult to discover:innocence is a drop of water in the world, repentance is the ocean that envelops it and saves it.It was worthy of God’s bounty to elevate repentance as high as possible, and that is why, in the Old as in the New Testament, he has put before us a perfect model of the rehabilitation caused by penitence, David and Mary Magdalene.David, one would have thought, could not be surpassed, his character having been sketched with such tenderness and depth.Simple shepherd boy, keeping his flock on the hillsides of Bethlehem, he became a soldier in the face of an insult done to the God of his country, to Jehovah.His sling brought down the blasphemer, and, all radiant from his victory, he won in a day the people’s heart.But jealousy, the companion of heroism, did not delay in interposing between glory and his person.The King himself envied David’s youth, and, tormented by foreknowledge of David’s future greatness, brooded during fits of sinister melancholy over means of killing him.It was then that David, in order to appease him, stirred for the first time the chords of the harp that would sing all God’s mysteries and echo in the hearts of future generations.Poetry would blend with courage in his destiny, and friendship, misfortune and religion joining in, this young man mounted at last the throne that would forever be called the throne of David.There, at the peak of his good fortune, blessed by God more than were Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, predestined ancestor of Christ, he falls suddenly into adultery, betrayal and murder.Happy fall, because it made of the culprit the immortal king of peace, and has given to us all, sinners coming after him, tears for our faults and the tones of voice to carry our tears to the presence of God.Who amongst Christians has not wept with David? Who has not found in his poetry the unction for which his heart craved? Even the Gospels have not been able to efface the impress of the Psalms, and this king dishonoured by crime is at every moment the father of our virtues.
Such was in the Old Testament the model of repentance, and nobody, assuredly, could have foreseen what God would do in the New to put beside Jesus Christ another and more divine figure of penitence.He succeeded nevertheless in so doing.Mary Magdalene is a simple woman with no other history except that of her sinfulness; she has neither the sword, nor the sceptre, nor the harp, nor the eye of the prophet; she is a sinner like the rest.She spoke only once in the Gospels, at the tomb of the Master, and her words are without distinction.But first of all she is a woman, that is to say the being in whom the mark of defilement is the most irremediable, and this difference between the Old and New Testaments is in itself alone a sublime step forward in mercy.It is no longer the man who is redeemed by repentance, but the woman.No woman, marked by vice, had been rendered great before Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ alone has done it.And holding to his word, he has patiently followed the sinner through the ages, to safeguard her glory, resuscitate her and rejuvenate her for ever.David sang his repentance in unequalled lines of verse, and this poetry made him immortal.As for Mary Magdalene, she has only had her tears, but they fell on the feet of the Saviour; she only had a vase of perfume, but this perfume embalmed the body of the Son of God.The simplicity is even grander here, the tenderness more profound; it is no longer a man who weeps and who loves, it is a woman, a woman who has seen God, who has recognized Him, and who, comparing his infinite purity to the degradation to which she has descended, has not doubted that it is possible for her to be forgiven because of the depth of her love.Humble and hidden away after finding grace, she did not go far from those feet that purified her.She only makes use of her new acquaintance with Christ to follow and to serve him.She follows him all the way to the Cross and all the way to the tomb.Separated from the Master, the sole object of her life, she goes far from the places where she lived with him, and, looking for a shelter from the last vestiges of the world, she buries herself in an unknown cave, with her memories and her soul.Only the angels can discover her there, and they bring to her from above the invisible manna that causes ecstasy and the separation of the soul from the body.She dies finally of love, while receiving, from a bishop sent by God, the sacred body of the Son of God.
What is there left to say now? The places, so famous and so venerated, that I have described – this grotto, this tomb, this crypt, this basilica, this monastery, this whole collection of monuments that nature and grace, Time and princes have raised up to the glory of Mary Magdalene – all that is still standing, but poor, naked, desolate, covered with the scars of a century that delighted in ruin as others delighted in building up.One ascends to the Sainte-Baume only by steps of broken stone, between crumbling walls; the chamber of the kings of France has disappeared, and the humblest pilgrim finds barely a shelter to rest himself from his journey.Today, the hospice has only holes in the rocks where the beams of the structure once were supported; the convent, hastily restored, offers to the monks only cells separated by planks, and these that they share with the stranger.Between these two ruins opens up the grotto of penitence, itself empty of the ornaments bestowed on it by the secular piety of people and prince.The splendid lamps that once lit it shine only by the dazzling silence of which Tacitus speaks.Unremarkable marbles make up the chapel of the saint, and behind the altar, on the mysterious rock where her vigils and ecstasies took place, rests semi-recumbent a profane statue unworthy to the first degree of the majesty of the spot, over whose memories it casts a pall of sadness.
If from the heights and miseries of the Sainte-Baume we re-descend to St. Maximin, by the same route that the Saint followed to seek her tomb, we will rediscover the same contrast of indigence and splendor.The basilica is solemnly seated on its old ground; it there commands still the admiration of the artist and the homage of the Christian; but, unfinished from its portico onward, it leads us with regret towards the crypt where St.Maximin deposited in alabaster the body of St.Magdalene.The alabaster still exists; beside it are still ranged the burial places that fervent piety planned and constructed near this tomb; but what a state of abandon, what darkness, what sadness of heart in these walls!Happy the catacombs that have had no glory, and that sleep silently wrapped in a mystery that has never been troubled!Here, all recalls the knees that bent on the flagstones; everything is redolent of the antiquity of a veneration that has never been interrupted, and yet it is thought alone that renders it magnificent, and God does not appear there except in the light of the soul.A poor wooden reliquary, given by peasants, covers the head, where the brother of St.Louis, Charles I of Anjou, placed the royal crown of Sicily, and the feet of which Anne of Brittany, twice Queen of France, was sculpted on her knees and in gold.An episcopal hand, it is true, will cover these traces of an unhappy period, and give back to the forehead of Mary Magdalene a part of the splendor that man and the centuries once attached there.But what mournful vestiges there are to repair after that!What miseries to reclothe!What shades to transform!
Oh!wherever you may be, who read these pages, if ever you have known the tears of repentance, or those of love, do not refuse to Mary Magdalene who has wept so much and has loved so much, a drop of this perfume with which she anointed the feet of your Saviour.Do not neglect the grotto where the angels visited her; do not forget the tomb where Jesus Christ removed her from the insults of barbarians to present her to the homage of the Christian centuries; do not disdain this head that survived the rest because God himself touched it with his finger.Bring your tribute, however feeble it may be, to the renovation of one of the greatest and most loved monuments of Christianity; bring to it your faith, your vows, your needs, and let it not be said that France – to whom Jesus Christ wished to confide in Mary Magdalene the guardian of reparation and of love – has been unfaithful to this sacred mission.As for me, who have brought back to the mountain and the basilica, all unworthy though I am, the ancient militia charged by Providence to keep watch there day and night, may I write here my last line, and like Mary Magdalene two days before the Passion, break over the feet of Jesus Christ the frail but faithful vase containing my deepest wishes!