Could the relics of a medieval saint, currently on tour in the U.S., save the Catholic Church from irrelevance and apostasy in these worldly times? It's not as preposterous as you might think.
The relic in question is believed to be a small piece of Mary Magdalene's tibia or shin—the bone she knelt upon when the newly risen Christ appeared before her. Its permanent home, the Sainte-Baume Grotto, is a mountaintop cave in Provence where Mary Magdalene, according to local tradition, lived for 30 years. Until the French Revolution, this relic was part of a larger collection, watched over by the region's Dominican friars. Anti-church violence and local subterfuge reduced the collection considerably, but the relics have always been endangered.
I was shocked to learn that the Bishop of Frejus-Toulon had permitted one of the few remaining relics to leave his diocese, but it might be a sign that the church has staying power and the ability (like this particular saint) to keep evolving.
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Today's multitasking, sexually experienced woman can relate more easily to Mary Magdalene than to Mother Mary or, for that matter, Mother Teresa, who is on the fast track to canonization. Which makes Mary Magdalene's first visit to America perfectly timed. For two weeks, the relic has been touring the parishes of the Deep South, including New Orleans, where thousands lined up to catch a glimpse.
At every stage of my life, not only when I worked as a call girl, Mary Magdalene, the patron saint of prostitutes, has been present. Raised without sexual guilt, I was never drawn to the idea of Mary Magdalene as a penitent sinner. It was her evangelizing that brought us closer. When I got involved with sex workers' rights, being a spokesperson for prostitutes was not easy or popular; it was often terrifying.
As a teenager, I envisioned an international movement of prostitutes fighting injustice and resisting police brutality, but I often feared the police, and other prostitutes thought my political idealism was bonkers. Mary Magdalene's second career as a persuasive preacher gave me courage. After sailing to Provence, she converted an entire region of nonbelievers. She also had become a powerful icon, inspiring a medieval cult within Christianity—and not by being a martyr or a virgin, but by being a leader. She was right to keep pushing me. The movement I was crazy enough to believe in is now so active and global that I can't always keep track of it. Then again, I sometimes think our movement has sold out and become too mainstream. Mary Magdalene reminds me that she has days when she feels this way about Christianity, but still she doesn’t regret it.
In 2006, I traveled to France to visit the Sainte-Baume Grotto. Near the foot of the mountain, I stopped at the Maison Marie-Madeleine, a library-cum-gift shop run by Philippe Devoucoux du Buysson, a Dominican priest who was the guardian of her cave for 15 years. “When I lived on the mountain, we spoke every day,” Brother Philippe told me. Had the patron saint of repenting harlots seduced him into some sort of cohabitation? “They chased me away,” he added. “Les Dominicains!” I wanted to tell him that I, too, had been viewed as a crank by my own colleagues, but I held back. “Are you married?” he asked. I exchanged a look with the man who had accompanied me to Provence. “Ah!” Brother Philippe beamed at us. “Concubinage.” I was glad to learn that Mary Magdalene's penitent side was not the main attraction here.
My relationship with the Magdalene is slightly more secular and goes back to childhood, when I heard the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar. As I had never seen a painting or statue of the saint, this first impression of Mary Magdalene was a defining moment. Her signature tune on the concept album, “I Don't Know How to Love Him,” spoke to my half-formed ambitions and yearnings. The problems of a prostitute were reconciling independence and attachment; choosing between work and love. The Mary Magdalene of my childhood was a commitment-phobic career woman “running every show,” trying to convince herself that this particular man was “just one more” of the many she'd known, and then totally losing her cool.
I don’t agree with feminists who want to clean up the Magdalene’s past. These women feel that a trash-talking medieval pope besmirched Mary Magdalene by calling her a harlot, but this reaction betrays a Victorian hangover.
So the first of her many lessons wasn't about spreading the political gospel, it was about romantic love. When I became a sex worker, I found it heroic to be in a profession so at odds with my romantic needs. Mary Magdalene's message, the one I had absorbed as a kid, was that you might have to be a “player” to appreciate the real thing—and that players, when they do find true love, fall harder and deeper than respectable people. Running every show makes you, in the long run, more susceptible. No matter how much of an expert I became, my ability to treat some men like objects did not make me infallible.
Her warnings and lessons weren't about sin as I understood it, but she did want me to think about the price I might pay for my vanity and pride, and for my temporary pleasures.
Images of Mary Magdalene were hard to ignore when I began traveling to Provence, where medieval beliefs coexist with modern ones. When I heard about the rituals surrounding Mary Magdalene's feast day, the seed for a future novel was planted and I knew I would return.
I've always been attracted to medieval Europe, and I identify with the medievals who worshipped Mary Magdalene at the height of her cult. I don't agree with feminists who want to clean up the Magdalene's past. These women feel that a trash-talking medieval pope besmirched Mary Magdalene by calling her a harlot, but this reaction betrays a Victorian hangover. The saint's racy past enhanced her popularity with medieval women, and I can see why.
As the first witness to Christ's resurrection, an apostle to a dozen male apostles, she was pretty daunting. Being a sexual sinner made her one of the girls. Yes, I appreciate Mary Magdalene's leadership qualities, but I'm turned off by female leaders who aren't feminine.
For medievals, sexual sin was very feminine. The female sex drive was openly discussed (if officially frowned upon) and medieval women knew they were sexual creatures. Mary Magdalene “before and after” was a constant theme, with the church promoting her as a penitent shopaholic who had given up luxury, dance, and fine clothes. Her female fans weren't so convinced. There are historical records of 13th-century nuns receiving official reprimands for dancing, wearing “vain curls,” and dressing like harlots on Mary Magdalene's feast day.
As I climbed the Sainte-Baume mountain wearing a combination of sensible shoes and “vain curls,” I felt an uncanny connection to those dolled-up medieval nuns. My way of relating to the Magdalene isn't the officially correct one, either. I wondered if the Dominican priests who had replaced Brother Philippe at the top of the mountain would reprimand me for that.
The cave, fashioned into a church, was dark, peaceful—and occasionally kitschy. Yet it was wonderful to see the engraved slabs and other offerings brought by fans in recent times and to know that we were all, in different ways, keeping a centuries-old tradition alive.
Mary Magdalene's first day in the U.S. brought her to Manhattan's Upper East Side for one night, before she set off for the Deep South. When I arrived at the Church of Saint Vincent Ferrer, the pews were half-empty. I wondered if my fondness for these relics was an obscure taste. The Magdalene's heyday was the 14th century, after all. But, as 7:30 approached, the room grew full—soon there were a hundred—and after the service, latecomers streamed in. A special reliquary or glass case, designed for world travel, made the bone fragment visible from all sides.
Seeing the Sainte-Baume relic three years later was like seeing a dear friend. I allowed myself to question and believe at the same time, as I would with any close friend. Were these really the bones of Mary Magdalene? Did she really live in Provence during the first century? Or is it simply the case that she lives there now?
Uncertainty, I decided, isn't the weakness my atheist friends or fundamentalist enemies imagine it to be. The power of these relics in my life is actually the power of doubt, and religion stripped of doubt holds no appeal for me.
Father Thomas Michelet, having accompanied the reliquary from Sainte-Baume to New York, was surprised by the turnout. “In France,” he told me, “there isn't as much interest in the veneration of relics.” In the U.S., relics have the ability to mobilize devout Catholics and the potential to attract secular Catholics—like me—though I don't think I would visit just any saint's relics.
Three winters ago, during my pilgrimage to Sainte-Baume, I crossed an ocean to visit these relics in their permanent home. It never occurred to me that a reverse voyage was possible. The relics seem fragile, and I will be slightly uneasy until they are safely returned.
Mary Magdalene's U.S. Visit Nov. 10 - 17, the Magdalene relics will revisit the New York metro area. The full itinerary through Nov. 30 includes Pennsylvania, Florida, and Georgia, with key stops in Miami and Atlanta. For more information, visit the John Paul II Training Center.
Tracy Quan's latest novel is Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl, set in Provence and praised in The Nation as a "deft account of occupational rigors and anxieties before the crash." Tracy's debut, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, and the sequel, Diary of a Married Call Girl, are international bestsellers. A regular columnist for The Guardian, she has written for many publications including Cosmopolitan, The Financial Times, and The New York Times.