A true story of grace and transformation, originally published in the Quaker journal, 'What Canst Thou Say.' I share it again on this Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, July 22. Painting: 'Mary Magdalene,' by Cassandra Barney.
In 1972, I was a pilgrim. Not to India, but to the Medieval shrines of Europe, seeking the heart of Christian prayer. I'd spent several years exploring the wisdom of India with my guru, Maharshi Mahesh. I told him that I longed to know the mystery of Christ. I was not a Hindu.
"Be a Christian," he said. "Take this meditation into the Church."
On my pilgrimage, I visited Vezeley in central France. In the crypt beneath the church is the pilgrimage shrine to the Magdalene: there I discovered that her tomb was nearby. I had no idea she was buried in France. For the first time in my life, I prayed through a saint. "O Mary, mother of devotion, guide me to the heart of Christ!" I wasn't even Catholic.
Much later, I learned her mythic story. After the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene boarded a ship bound for Britain with Joseph of Aramethia. On the coast of Provence, where now is the port of Marseilles, Mary disembarked while Joseph continued to Britain with the holy grail. Secluded in a cave in the hills of Provence, Mary became the first Christian mystic.
But as I wandered on, I forgot about my prayer to her. Several weeks later, in the pilgrim church of Conques, I met an old priest with whom I shared my quest. We did not discuss Mary Magdalene. We spoke of Gregorian Chant and the old traditions. I asked him if he knew of a monastery where the old way of Gregorian chant was still practiced. Mumbling about a tiny Benedictine priory in the south, he scribbled a note which said, "Bedouin, near Carpentras." I stuck it in my wallet.
A month later, bound for Italy, I got off the train in Marseilles by a sudden intuition. I took another train to Avignon, where I reached for the crumpled note in my wallet. "Bedouin, near Carpentras." Carpentras was a three-hour bus ride into Provence. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, "Be a wanderer." I had no idea where I was going. I had truly become a wanderer.
In Carpentras, I hitched a ride toward Bedouin, which was fifteen miles further into the countryside and not even on the map. No bus, no train stopped there, few cars. I had to walk the last few miles. The village dozed in golden light. Poppies and lavender danced in the fields. Granite hills shimmered in waves of noon-day heat. Everyone in Bedouin was napping: not a soul about town! Was there a priory near-by? A single old man I met didn't know. I started to hike.
Covered with dust and sweat, I walked for hours past meadows baking in the drone of crickets. I came upon a run-down farm where a young British couple leaped through the long grass with butterfly nets. They told me there was no priory near-by and they said that everyone in the region was as crazy as they were. By evening, I was back in Bedouin. With desperate faith, I tried one more country lane at the far end of the village. The sun was an orange candle on the purple hills. I ambled another mile, through apricot groves and a flock of goats without a herder. Then, around a bend, I saw a dome.
It was an ancient Romanesque dome of well-fitted stones, near a farm house and cinder-block dormitory, tidy gardens, no sign at the gate. From the domed chapel came a sound as timeless as the longing in my heart: Gregorian chant.
I knelt in gathering darkness where nine young monks chanted Vespers. An oil lamp flickered from a niche in the granite alter. Carved in relief upon that stone was a woman, wild and naked, long hair covering her breasts. She held the oil lamp in her stone hand and gazed at me.After Vespers, the monks greeted me in silence and beckoned me to supper: vegetables, cheese, lentil soup and bread without words. Then the prior, a young priest named Father Gerard, returned with me to the chapel, where we could whisper despite the rule of silence. In stumbling French I told Pere Gerard of my quest and he invited me to stay.
"I don't even know the name of this place," I said.
"C'est La Prieure de la Madeleine."
Pointing to the woman in the alter I asked, "Who is she?"
"La Madeleine." It was Mary, and this place was hers. Only then, after weeks of wandering, did I recall my prayer at her tomb. "Her cave was in these hills," said Gerard. "This shrine was built for her in the ninth century. She was the first Christian monk. And you are just in time."
"For what?" I asked.
A Catholic feast begins with Vespers at sundown. My saint had guided me to Magdalene Priory precisely at Vespers on July 21. The next day, July 22, was The Feast of St. Mary Magdalene. As Tolkein wrote, "Not every wanderer is lost."
For months I worked in the apricot groves, sang the daily Latin Hours, rose for Vigils at 3 AM. There was hard work in the gardens, but the real work was prayer. In that ancient dome, before the soft granite gaze of the Magdalene, I prayed for hours each day, using the meditation technique with which my guru had graced me. The stillness inside me grew boundless, then vibrant, then dazzling. I tasted the light at the center of the soul, where the tiny bud of "I" dissolves into the blossoming "Am" of God. Yet I still longed for a personal connection to the Infinite.
Suddenly, doubt shattered my devotion. Can I unite with Christ through a meditation practice from India? Impossible, impure, even adulterous! I vowed to give up meditation and adopt the Jesus Prayer. I would only use the name of Jesus as my mantra. I tried several forms of Christian practice, but none united me with Christ like my guru's subtle sadhana.
Then came the breakthrough. With a single breath I sighed into realization. I saw that the conflict was not about East vs. West, but intellect vs. experience. God cannot be thought, for God is. I must surrender my intellect, and plunge into a darkness without concepts, a silence without thoughts. From this emptiness, love is born: light from darkness, Christ from Mary's womb.
Meditation deepened and softened, softened and deepened, until my longing was fulfilled. I realized that my bija mantra, the subtle Sanskrit sound heard in meditation, was really an echo of the one divine Word, the Logos "through whom all things are made" (John 1). This Word vibrates through every ancient language of prayer: Sanskrit, Hebrew, Latin, Arabic. The Logos is the resonant energy of silence. It is pure consciousness, vibrating as the seed syllable at the root of all language, before sound condenses into matter. As all material creatures are born of one Spirit-Breath, so all languages are born of one Logos, and all prayers return to one God.
Those who meditate with faith in the divine Name, in whatsoever religious tradition they are born, enter through one eternal Word into the boundless silence of God.
Gazing into the abysmal intimacy at the heart of creation, I gazed into the face of Christ. I saw no form, for his features are dissolved in light, and that light is the fruit of darkness. When two kiss, they are one. They no longer see: yet the beloved is nearer than the lover's own heartbeat. One, yet two.
I understood the Song of Songs, "For your lips are sweeter than wine, and your name is perfume poured out!" I tasted a vintage beyond lips, sweetness beyond naming. The person of Christ was essentialized in the sapphire radiance at the center of my soul.
"Taste and see that the Lord is good!" cries the Psalmist. O seeker, trust in the authority of your own experience. For we are led by the heart to understanding, not by understanding to the heart.
LINK: 'Kenosis: Entering Loss'