I found myself strangely moved as I mediated this morning in a Church here in the medieval town of Vezelay, France. A town full of art galleries and writers in the heart of a huge Nature Park houses the Basilica de Santa Magdalena, an old romanesque and medieval church with later gothic additions. It was built in the late 800s to honor the relics of Mary Magdalena that found their way here. In the next few hundred years it was expanded and became a major draw for pilgrims and nobles alike. Crusades were launched from here and Thomas Becket denounced King Henry in a trial held in this church. It continues to function as a local church, with monastery, today.
The building itself is designed as a spiritual invitation to walk into the light. The entrance to the church is dark, the main center section is lined with rhythmic roman columns, and the final soaring gothic altar area is built in light stone with twice as many windows. It becomes a walk from darkness into radiant and glorious light. The church is also designed to be specifically lit mornings and evenings, and by the sun at noon on both the Summer and Winter Solstices. It’s as if the architects used light as one of their building materials.
Mary Magdalena could be any one of three women in the Bible, and continues to be portrayed by the Church as a prostitute who was uplifted and restored to the light. There is little evidence that this is actually the case, and recent research, outside the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church, all agree that Mary was more likely to have been one of Jesus’s most beloved and closest disciples, and there is much speculation that she may have been his wife. Why, then, the persistence of this story about her?
My meditation contemplated the idea that this was simply another version of the prodigal son story, only this time the prodigal daughter. In addition, I wondered if I found the Basilica less bloody and tainted because it is dedicated to a woman. Perhaps that’s simply the result of my own expectation? I was most moved and resonated the most with the draw to the light. No showy stained glass windows, just pure light shining in. Whatever the case, I found my meditation much more peaceful and light-filled than in the two other cathedrals in which I’ve spent time so far. – Rev Dr Petra Weldes