This site, buried deep in the forests of the Perigord region, is named for Mary Magdalene and is an astonishing layered monument of history. The bottom level of the site is comprised of Neolithic caves, repository of artifacts from the heights of the Cro Magnon civilization. The middle layer- shown here- was a troglodyte village which was inhabited until the high middle ages. The presence of weaver's workshop and the subsequent disappearance of the community in the 13th century lead me to believe that it was in fact a community of Cathars, as they were known for earning their living by weaving and spinning, and their fervent devotion to Mary Magdalene.
The chapel dates from the 9th century (though the site may have been a place of religious worship considerably earlier).
The cult of the Magdalene was revived here by the aristocracy who bought the land- they rededicated this chapel to Mary Magdalene in the 17th century and opened the tiny church to the community.
I dream of leading services here once again.
The back view. The chapel is to the right and the remains of the living quarters to the left. Down below is the Vezere river, meandering through lush green valleys of vineyards and woods.
One of the most beautiful statues I know of Mary Magdalene-utterly stunning in its simplicity.
The forest here was dedicated to the Greek goddess Artemis (protector of wild things, children and childbirth) for seven centuries before legend claims Mary Magdalene arrived here. It is a place saturated with silence and Presence.
The final staircase leads to a gate with the lineage of the monastery: Cassianite monks, Benedictines, Dominicans.
Beyond, the scene from the Gospel of John, with the Virgin Mary and John standing to the left and right, while Mary Magdalene weeps at the feet of Christ on the cross
Most Pietas (like Michelangelo's) show only the Virgin Mary holding her broken son in her lap. This one, however, like the statue at St, Sulpice in Paris, shows a trio of deep tenderness, with Mary Magdalene burying her face in the Virgin's lap in grief.
La tenebrae n'est pas tenebrae", goes the chant from Taize ." The darkness is not darkness ". The words from the psalms go on to say ," In Your sight, the deepest night is clear as the daylight". Those ancient words carry new meaning for me as I write this from Chartres. For the past decade, I have returned here as often as I can, like a swallow migrating back to my homeland. Year after year, I have felt a rush of anticipation as I step into the cool vestibule, a buffered luminal space between the happy chatter on the cobblestones streets of this quaint village and the dark embrace of the cathedral. Year after year I have been a spiritual mermaid, swimming in the blue light cast from the medieval windows above. The sanctuary has held me in its soft silence, like a loving mother cradling her newborn in gentle protection from the harsh glare of the world. I have felt like a child again here, had the sensation I used to experience when floating in the deep end of a swimming pool, hearing the sounds of the busy world from afar, cushioned as if I were still in the womb.
It is a different world this year. The cathedral has undertaken a massive renovation, and both the head and the feet of this magnificent Gothic Lady have been scourged, stripped, cleaned and painted. Restored, some say, to the splendor of centuries past. And the high altar, it is true, is dazzling: a kaleidoscope of colors at play, the windows streaming in golden light. It blinds and bewilders the eyes, and has its own breathtaking beauty.
But in one of those accidents that are no accident, the state ran out of money, and cannot finish its renovations. And so, the cathedral is poised in a terrible tension: half dark and old, worn and scarred, half bright and brilliant, with newly restored virginity. It is a yin and yang in stone.
This is fitting for a place that was one of the most celebrated alchemical schools of Europe: a place dedicated to spiritual and psychological transformation, and blessedly honest about the difficulties and pain of the world, just as it celebrated the possibilities of hope, joy, life and love.
In the Gospel of Philip, rediscovered in Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, it is written|
Light and Darkness
Life and Death
Right and Left
Are brothers of one another
They are inseparable
The Gnostics, Carl Jung believed, were the forefathers of both Alchemy and Depth Psychology. It is a lineage that surely includes the builders and teachers of Chartres Cathedral as well. As it has often been, the cathedral is a mirror of our times. Today, it reflects that we are living at the juncture of so many contradictions, poised in the climax of paradox. Can we hold two kinds of beauty, as Chartres does so achingly right now: the dark beauty of mystery, the bright beauty of revelation? In a further reflection of how mixed up everything is, I could only post the picture of this juxtaposition sideways at first. Perhaps there are no straight lines anymore. Perhaps I am called to look at life from a different angle, a new perspective- and to invite you do to the same
And are we called in someway to leave the womb, to take the deep, dark mysteries of the past some of us have have been blessed enough to experience, and bring them gently into the half light of day?
One of the biggest draws at Chartres Cathedral has long been Our Lady of the Pillar. One of the hundreds of Vierges Noires, or Black Madonnas, of France, she has been the object of veneration of countless millions of devotees. Every morning, businessman with their briefcases come to spend time with her before heading off for the office. Grandmothers bring her flowers, children shyly kiss the pillar and look for acorns carved under her skirts. One of my most surreal memories is of the year that I fell asleep for a nap, and awoke to find the entire town swarming with thousands of Indians, bedecked in colorful saris and sparkling jewels, chicken tikka and samosa carts wafting the tantalizing smell of curry throughout the crowded streets. It was the Tamil pilgrimage to the Black Madonna, and the priests were chanting in Sanskrit as the pilgrims carried a copy of her around the town in a flower covered palanquin.
So imagine my shock when I returned to the chapel of Our Lady of the Pillar and found this statue gazing back at me instead. Not the ebony Queen of Heaven, but a rosy cheeked, blue eyed blonde. I must confess that my first reactions were horror and disappointment . I felt that in their efforts to return the Cathedral to a 19th century vision, the state was betraying an older, deeper legacy.
But using the lens of alchemy, I can offer another perspective, one that is bit more hopeful.
In the Medieval world, psychospiritual development was understood to follow a fourfold path. The first step towards spiritual maturity is called the Negredo, or blackening. This is the place where everything falls apart. All is chaos and disintegration. Its symbols are darkness, the color black and even excrement. In our vernacular, we would say, this is the point where everything is simply shitty! The step out of this is called Albedo, the whitening. It is a time of deep emotions, a time of purification. The symbols are water, the moon, silver and tears. It is the time of the deep feminine, a time of profound healing and cleansing. The third stage, citrinitis, is symbolized by the color gold and the sun. It is a time of the dawning of new consciousness, and the awakened masculine. Finally at the end of the cycle is the rubedo, or reddening : the culmination of the spiritual journey where the tension of the opposites is transcended and the divine self is born.
I have studied on and lectured about this material for years. Knowing about the great tradition of alchemy from Pythagoras through Nicholas Flammel to Jung and the Gnostics, and even Mozart and The Wizard of Oz, has enabled me to hold what is happening at the cathedral in a symbolic, with a fragment of hope.
Perhaps we are collectively moving out of the stage of Negredo (spiritual darkness, emptiness , violence and despair) into a time of deep emotional catharsis. Maybe the whitening of the cathedral and the Madonna is not some governmental mechanism of controlling the populace and raping mystery (as I heard one irate pilgrim opine), but a symbol that we are heading towards the deep currents of what will nurture and heal our wounded hearts. Perhaps it will be a time of immersing ourselves in the purifying streams of beauty and tenderness. A time of slowing down, a time of dreaming by the light of the moon, a time of collectively washing ourselves clean of corruption, despair and cynicism to embrace- all of us- the feminine within that will eventually led to new awareness and rebirth. May it be so. It can't come too soon.
"Once the soul awakens, the search begins and you can never go back. From then on, you are inflamed with a special longing that will never again let you linger in the lowlands of complacency and partial fulfillment. The eternal makes you urgent"
-John O 'Donahue
Tomorrow morning, I set off on pilgrimage to France. For the past two months, I have been a quasi hermit as I almost finished the first draft of my dissertation. I say almost, because it has felt vitally necessary to leave a place in the final chapter for mystery. Part of the "mystery" will be what I learn as I travel to Chartres Cathedral to help facilitate a pilgrimage for Veriditas. I will be lecturing on Medieval Alchemy and Art and what it might mean for us pilgrims, psychologically and symbolically, today. Part of the mystery will emerge from the places that my dear friend Kathy and I will encounter in the Dordogne: Rocamadour, Beynac, La Madeleine, Les Eyzies de Tayac, the prehistoric caves of Le Peche Merle, all sites that have stirred the souls throughout history. I imagine many of the empty pages will be written from within the caves of La Baume, the legendary site of Mary Magdalene's last thirty years and a place of fervent devotion for at least 1600 years ( depicted in the fresco by Giotto above).
I confess that I set forth exhausted, in need of spiritual renewal, physical rest, and direction for where to head next in my life. I will light many a candle and chant many a prayer and above all, hope to still my mind enough to listen- really listen- in order to hear the still small voice within.