Translation to English (2006) of the Life of Mary Magdalene by Henri Lacordaire, OP (1859)
Preface - In Provence
As the traveler descends the declivity of the Rhone, at a particular moment, on the left, the mountains open up, the horizon expands, the sky becomes more pure, the earth more lush, and the air softer:he is in Provence.With its back to the Alps, Provence leaves them slowly through valleys which lose, bit by bit, the harshness of the high summits, and it advances like a promontory of Greece and of Italy towards this Sea that washes every famous seaboard.The Mediterranean gives Provence, after the Rhone and the Alps, her third belt, and a river, Provence's own, the Durance, hurls into her gorges and plains the force of a torrent that never lets up.It is not possible to look at this land without quickly recognizing a natural and historical affinity with the most renowned countries of the Ancient World.Greek colonies conveyed to her early on the breath of the East, and Rome, who gave Provence her name, left her ruins worthy of this power that refused to no-one a portion of her own greatness, because she had enough for the entire universe.When the Ancient World had withered, for a long time Provence, rich in memories, and yet richer in herself, retained in the general breakup of things her personality.She possessed her own tongue, her poetry, her customs, her nationality, her glory, all those gifts which, in certain circumstances, make of a small country a great land.Then, when modern empires had assumed their form and carved out their own territories, Provence, too weak to maintain her independence against her Fate, fell to France like a gift from God, and after having been for the Ancients the portal to the beauty of the West, she became for us the first port where in imagination we meet Italy, Greece, Asia, all those places that lend an enchantment to memory and all those names that touch the heart.
But if nature and history have done much for Provence, perhaps religion has done yet more.There are places blessed from the beginning of time which are lost in the mists of time.Egypt saw the birth of Moses; Arabia still burns with the lightning from Sinai, and the sand of its deserts has retained the footprints of the people of God, the Jordan divided before this same people and, from the cedars of Lebanon to the palm trees of Jericho, Palestine would hear and see things that would be the eternal preoccupation of humanity.The Son of God was born on these sea shores; there his Word instructed the entire world, and his blood flowed so as to save it.Rome, in its turn, Rome, the heir of everything, received into its walls the legacy of Christ, and its amazed Capitol lent itself to the chaste ceremonies of victorious love, after having for a long period served the bloody triumph of war.There, above all, are the places religion has consecrated, the holy places, those one could believe belonged to heaven rather than to earth.And yet a part was reserved to Provence in this distribution of divine graces attached to the earth, a unique part, and one like the last imprint of the life of Jesus Christ among us.
When one goes out of Marseilles in the direction of the Alps, one enters a valley alongside the Sea, which remains out of sight because a high mountain range conceals its waves; another mountain chain rears itself up on the opposite side, and, confined as it is between those two walls, the valley runs toward a steep amphitheatre which seems to block its further progress, while a river with trees alongside it glides effortlessly through the length of the plain and washes with its fecundity a thousand households.Its name is as obscure as its water.To a certain extent it guides the traveler and, after expanding into a much larger area of open countryside, halted in its tracks by the mountain, it turns suddenly to the left, squeezes itself into a narrow gorge, becomes a torrent, and, rising between a labyrinth of wooded treetops and of bare mountain summits, it finally finds its source near a peaceful plateau, crowned with a huge and solitary rock.Not so long ago one was in the heart of a rich and bustling town, one of the Queens of the Mediterranean; one could hear the sound of the waves or the sound of men; or could see arriving from all corners of the horizon ships propelled less by the wind than by the treasures they carried; now everything is still at the same time as everything is sparse, and, from the stillness as well from the barrenness of this desert, one would believe oneself conveyed by a mysterious passageway to the inaccessible retreat of the ancient Thebaid.Several crumbled walls can be seen in the middle of the plain, several houses standing at the end behind a summit, but the vestiges of human existence in no way diminish the solemnity of the spot.The heart senses it is in a solitude where God's presence is near at hand.
In the midst of these rows of elevated rocks, which resemble a stone curtain, the eye picks out a dwelling which seems as if suspended in the air, and at its feet a forest whose novelty strikes it.It is no longer the meager and odorous pine of Provence, nor the green oak, nor anything of the shadowy coverings the traveler has come across on his journey; one would say that by some miracle the North had flung down in that spot all the splendor of its vegetation.
It is the sun and the sky of the South with the planted woods of England.Close by, only a few feet away, on the side of the mountain, one rediscovers the true nature of the country; this particular spot is the one exception.And if one penetrates the forest, it immediately covers you with all its majesty, similar in its depths, its veils and its silences, to those sacred woods never profaned by the axes of the Ancients.There also only the centuries have access; they alone have exercised the right to cut down the old trunks and to renew their sap; only they have reigned and reign yet, instruments of a respect which comes from something higher than themselves, and which adds to the sudden emotion of sight that of thought.
Who then has passed by here? Who has marked this corner of the earth with so powerful a footprint? What is this mass of rock? What is this forest? What, finally, this place where everything seems greater than us?
O Marseilles! You witnessed the arrival of the guest who first inhabited this mountain.You saw alight from a bark the frail creature who brought you the second visit from the East.The first had given you your port, your walls, your name, your very existence; the second gave you something even better, it entrusted to you the living relics of the life of Jesus Christ, the souls which He had loved most tenderly on earth, and, so to speak, the supreme testament of the friendship of a God.It was from the summit of His cross that Jesus Christ had bequeathed His mother to John the Apostle; for you, it was from the summit of His resurrection, between those shadows, which had been drawn aside, of Death and the white light of eternal life that Jesus chose you to be the tested refuge of his dearest friends.Is it necessary to name them to you? Is it necessary to tell you who they are? No, your memory was always faithful to them, your story speaks to you of them, your walls have mingled the tradition with the memories of your first faith, and the sacred dawn of your Christianity is the very tomb where you venerate in your apostles the friends of Jesus.
They were Lazarus, the man brought back from the dead in Bethany; they were Martha, his sister, who had seen him emerge from the tomb, and who had believed in the power of the Son of Man before it was made manifest; it was another woman, the sister of both of them, more famous still, more loved, more worthy of being loved, she to whom it was said:"Many sins are forgiven her because she has loved much", she who was the first to see and touch Jesus on the morning of his resurrection, because she held pride of place in this heart wounded moreover by a love that encompassed every living soul right unto death.
It is about this woman I am writing.Praised in the entire universe by the Gospels, she has no need for a mortal hand to revive in the shadows of the 19th century her glory for all time.No name more than hers has resisted indifference, because sin itself opens paths to men's admiration, and because virtue carves for her another pathway amongst the generations of pure hearts.Mary Magdalene touches both sides of our life:the Sinner anoints us with her tears, the Saint with her tenderness, the one soothes our wounds at the feet of Christ, the other tries to exalt us to the ravishment of her ascension.But if Mary Magdalene has no need of being praised by any other mouth than that of God, we can take joy in doing what is of no use to her, and in offering her incense which comes back to our heart like a benediction.
This is our desire.Perhaps also the ruins of the Sainte-Baume will tremble at our voice, and Provence, moved by a neglect which points an accusing finger at her piety, will rediscover, for so great a cult, the love of its ancestors and the munificence of its princes.