Updated: Sep 5, 2020
A true story.
Last summer, I was in Florence, Italy for a conference. I had a couple of extra days, and decided on a whim to go to the south of France to visit the cave where Mary Magdalene -- one of Jesus's disciples -- supposedly lived for the last 30 years of her life. At the time, I didn’t really know why I was doing this. I was raised Unitarian and don't know much about Christian history, but I am a student of human tyranny, and am awed by how Jesus’s messages of love, forgiveness, and compassion were co-opted for power by church leaders early on. I was curious to learn more about this woman, Mary Magdalene, who was one of Jesus’s most loyal disciples and spent the rest of her life after he died carrying on his legacy of teaching love, compassion, healing the sick, and feeding the poor.
She was also demonized as a sinner and a whore, though it turns out that there is no Biblical or historical record of this. Indeed recent scholarship suggests that the prostitute of the Bible was an altogether different Mary. In fact, the Magdalene's Gospel of Mary, one of the so-called “gnostic gospels,” emphasized the idea that we can directly commune with the divine. No priests or other intermediaries necessary.
I was excited to make the pilgrimage through an ancient enchanted forest to the site of this demonized divine feminine and recover her for myself: My own rite of passage.
After flying to Marseilles and taking a too-expensive cab up to Plan d’Aupes, I pull up to the Hostellerie de la Sainte Baume, a massive 14th-century monastery right out of Game of Thrones, on a quiet highway deep in the Provençal countryside.
The woman at the front office checks me in and shows me my spartan quarters: There are two twin beds, and a light gray plastic crucifix hanging on the plaster wall between them. A tall wood-framed window is propped open, and the blistering late-afternoon sun fills the room. I am dizzy with heat and exhaustion. I drop my suitcase, bid “merci et à bientôt,” plop on the bed, and fall fast asleep.
The next morning, I rise early and head to the trailhead with a few pieces of baguette, a water bottle, and several layers -- I was told that the grotto is very cold inside. I consult my map: There are three miles until a fork in the road. To the right, the grotto will be my first stop. If I am still feeling adventurous (read: if my body is up for it) I will head back and to the left another three miles to the Pilon chapel which is on top of the Sainte Baum mountain ridge.
I put on my sunglasses and head off.
The Chenin de Roys or “Road of Kings” is a gravel trail through the ancient Sainte Baume forest that starts flat, gradually rising, before becoming a crazy vertical ascent with several switchbacks hugging the side of a cliff some 800 meters up to the grotto. It’s early, but the oppressive heat clings to me like a yoke, and my pack is a bulging counterweight I must compensate for as I hike. It doesn't take long to realize that I am woefully out of shape and ill-prepared, and I start to spin out.
There is way too much stuff in this pack.
You are completely out of shape.
Why did you schlep all these stupid layers?
How are you ever going to make an 8-mile hike on a couple of pieces of bread?
Ugh, your water is already warm.
This was a colossally stupid idea.
You don’t even know what you’re doing here.
You spent too much money on this.
You should have just stayed in Florence.
You are not even Catholic, or Christian for that matter!
WT actual F were you THINKING???
I am only about 10 minutes in but it's clear: This is just not going to work. I plop down on a rock and consider whether I should fly back to Florence or just spend the day working on my book in the hostellerie. Then, I have a flash of a memory of an old Russian psychology professor I once had who described negative self-talk as “the yammer-yammer” except with her accent it came out as “da yamma-yamma” which my friend Craig and I shortened to “da yamma.” Here, at the trailhead on the Road of Kings, I get a glimpse of self-awareness that puts things in focus: I am deep in the clutches of da yamma.
I stop and breathe to shut out da yamma by playing a little trick on myself. Another way to look at this crazyass situation, I reason, is that I took a huge risk, and risk-taking is awesome. I set it up so I could come to a beautiful place, which is also awesome, and visit a mystical cave which is supremely awesome. Now, I am positioned to miss all of it because I am lost in da yamma. Not so awesome.
I still feel like crap.
Another breath, an invitation to let go of the judgement -- awesome or not -- and just sense where I am. I blink and notice for the first time the golden dappled light on an ancient oak tree to my right. There are beech trees, tall pines, and maples, not to mention twisted brambles of holly. There are butterflies everywhere. The birds are bursting in song, and I am blown away that I haven’t heard this until now. Their joy is nearly deafening.
I am reminded of a Radiolab episode I heard recently that describes the exquisite interconnectedness of various species in the forest — how fungi mycelium are in a symbiotic relationship with tree roots: The former provides a steady stream of minerals to trees, and trees supply sugars to the mycelium which keeps the forest in a deeply connected, symbiotic dance. I take a moment to ground, focusing on nothing but my breath. The energy of the interconnected roots and trees begins to pulse through me as I merge into the symbiotic dance with the rhythm of my breath and footsteps.
With da yamma mercifully at bay, I am now in the moment, at one with the thrum of the forest, taking in the rich sensory depths of the light, the gentle breeze, the pounding heat, and the thousands of tiny butterflies flittering in the wildflowers. Nobody is around, and I start to sing. What the hell -- it feels good.
One step in front of the other, heavy pack and warm water, I inch up the steep switchbacks, past the headwaters of the Nans River, when I finally approach the crumbled staircase of the grotto. As I ascend, I begin to sob uncontrollably, and I don’t know why. I wonder if Mary’s pain is locked up in those rocks, or if it’s the pain of all women who have ever had ambition, or unconditional love, or piercing insights into universal truth that nobody else can see. Maybe it’s the pain of one specific woman who loved a man who became a prophet and died at the hands of bitter and small men who were invested in nothing more than control. Maybe she is just heartbroken at how very lost we are today?
When I reach the top of the stairs, there is an old man ringing a church bell -- it’s time for mass. I stand outside the cave for a moment. I know I am an outsider here, I say to spirit. I’m here to learn and experience an authentic connection to you by way of this ancient and revered tradition. I know there is much I don’t understand, and there is much that is not open to me. I come in peace, and curiosity, and openness of heart. I am not sure what I expected to hear, but spirit says nothing, so I put on my layers, and head in.
As a non-Catholic, I am ridiculously unprepared for all the interactivity of this mass. I watch several people make the sign of the cross as they enter and sit down and in my own way, I make a similarly reverent gesture — an anjali mudra, as I realize I don’t have any visceral connection to either the Armenian Orthodox or Russian Jewish practices of my own ancestors, but I do have a long-standing and devotional yoga practice — before sitting down in the furthest back pew. The interior is rough-hewn, we’re in a real cave, with 20-foot ceilings and stone walls. There is a life-sized sculpture of Mary Magdalene surrounded by two angels and a large wooden altar in the front. Two Dominican friars are standing before the small congregation, and begin the mass in French. I have resigned to not understanding a word; I am just there for the energy and the grace of it. A young woman whom I had met at dinner begins to sing a gorgeous plainchant, and the brothers join in goosebump-inducing harmonies. In these cavernous acoustics my entire body resonates.
After a few minutes, I am jolted with fear: What are you going to do about communion??? You have not been baptized, so this is a trip to straight to Hell, no?
I rack my memory for the ramifications.
Even if you do decide to take communion, what are you supposed to do? Do you open your eyes or close them? Look at the priest or look away? Crap, and you have an international flight tomorrow, and the last thing you need is get someone’s germs from the chalice.
Aaand there it is: I careen headlong back into da yammer.
I am wrestling to feel sensations, to get back to myself. And then, oh shit, it’s finally time. As everyone is standing up and approaching the altar, I take a moment to ask the Catholic God for forgiveness, hoping He will understand that I mean no harm, that I am here as a traveler, hoping to understand and appreciate the Catholic experience of transubstantiation. God says nothing.
The last person is getting up and into the line and I feel myself disassociating with anxiety. Suddenly, I hear a voice in my head that I totally recognize but cannot place. It’s not da yamma. It’s a man, loud and clear as day, a bit nasal, and full of attitude:
“You didn’t come all the way out here to sit this out, Ray. Get that butt off this pew and make it happen.”
In shock, I let out a squeaky high-pitched, “baha!” which echoes like crazy in this cave, and am immediately ashamed so I pretend it’s a sneeze. I fake-sneeze again, in case anyone doubted the veracity of the first one.
The time is now. I am hearing voices, and clearly I must get this butt off that pew.
I stand up and eek my way to the line. When it’s my turn, the priest says in English, “the body of Christ.” I shut my eyes and he places the wafer on my tongue. Thank god (and God) there is no wine.
I walk back to my back-row pew, my stomach a bramble of triumph, shame, and grace. As the wafer melts in my mouth, I feel the blessing trickle in through my salivary glands, my tongue, and the roof of my mouth, down my esophagus and into my knotted stomach. What power there is in blessing food! In taking in something that has been infused with divine love! I make a mental note to honor the blessing of food more often.
The Dominican friars and the young woman are chanting again, and I sit back in my pew, feeling the spark of light coursing through my veins, down my arms and legs and throughout my entire being.
I don’t want to leave once mass is over. But eventually the tourists filter in with their flash phone cameras and break the spell, so I head outside. A guy is speaking loudly on his cell phone in French, despite the myriad “no talking on your cell phone” signs all over the place. I am so grateful that he is not American — I’ve had enough shame on this trip. Nonetheless, I struggle to block out his conversation and hold the feelings from this experience.
I snap a few photos of the expansive view -- mountains in the distance and a forest below -- and begin to descend down a long flight of stone stairs back to the trail. As I exit through the gate down the crumbling stairs, I pass an older gentleman coming up the trail who says something in French. He has a wide grin. I smile and say the one thing I can say confidently, “Je ne parle pas francais, parlez-vous angles?” and he says “You! You are Mary Magdalene!” I laugh and attempt to say, “Ah, non. Tant pis pour moi, mais je vous adorez!” which with my poor accent I am sure comes out meaning something like, “Have you seen my armadillo?” But his comment has made my heart soar, and he laughs, too.
By the time I return to the fork in the road, I am hella tired. A good 80% of me wants to head straight back to my small hot quarters and sleep, but the small but mighty part of me is feeling empowered, so I decide to push up the side of the mountain another few miles to the Chapel Pilon. I’ve not done any research on this place either, but so far that hasn’t seemed to matter much.
I’m feeling hungry and tired but wide open as I hike to the summit of the Sainte-Baume when I hear that warm nasal, mumbly, and somewhat self-satisfied voice again.
“Feels pretty good, doesn’t it?”
I turn around to see who is talking to me, but the trail is empty. I feel like I might be going crazy but I’m pretty sure this is the same voice that told me to get off my butt and take communion. I lean up against a rock and drink some awful tepid water.
“I’m right here. In your head.”
Rubbing my forehead with my sleeve, I try to look nonchalant. There is nobody around, and the voice sounds like...Robert Downey Jr? I am starting to fear for my sanity.
“No really. I’m in your head,” he says. “You did come out here for a revelation, didn’t you?”
“So I am revealing myself to you. Hi!”
I am now literally hearing voices and I am far too self-conscious to start talking out loud TO NOBODY, so I start formulating my thoughts in words.
“The fuck? You sound like Robert Downey Jr. Is this for real?”
“Depends on how you define real, doesn’t it? Is ‘da yamma’ real? Given the power it has over you, I would say that ‘da yamma’ is most definitely real.”
“Yeah, but ‘da yamma’ is part of me. You’re a movie star celebrity dude. This is kind of embarrassing. And how do you know about ‘da yamma?’”
“Da yamma is a destructive part of you that takes you so SO far off your game and is a big fuckin time-waster. Or put it this way: I am like ‘da yamma’ but I actually give a shit about your life and I want to help you make better decisions.”
“But I have secretly had a crush on you for years. Isn’t this all a little creepy?”
“Has it occurred to you that your crush on me has nothing to do with me at all? That I represent something within yourself that you haven’t claimed for your own yet? See, there’s this thing called 'projection.' We project onto others aspects of ourselves that we can’t or don’t know how to integrate.”
“Oh please,” I say indignantly. “You don’t have to mansplain projection to me. I’m the one who just finished a Masters in psychology, and…”
“Oh, OK,” RDJ laughs.
“Sorry, I’m part of you. I couldn’t fuck off even if I wanted to.”
I’m annoyed and blurt, “This is stupid. I’m going home.”
“Nope, we're going to check out that chapel. You are the one with the legs, so you have to do this for both of us.”
We walk in silence for a while but with no other humans for miles, I figure I can go all-in and before I know it, I am literally speaking out loud in two voices -- mine and some channeled form of Robert Downey Jr’s, as we climb up to the top of the rocky ridge. I notice that there are crumbed signs indicating the Chapelle du St Pilon is up ahead. The sun is streaming from behind thick white clouds, and I can see for miles -- the ancient forest and Hostellerie in the valley below to the right, and several distant mountain ranges stretching out to the Mediterranean Sea to the left.
It doesn’t take long for me to realize that RDJ, that asshole, is right.
According to Carl Jung, projection is a psychological defense mechanism where the human ego defends itself against psychological impulses, both positive and negative, by denying their existence in ourselves and attributing them to others.
It occurs to me that I’ve been projecting aspects of myself -- specifically a sense of authentic power that comes from being vulnerable -- onto partners, friends, co-workers, and now RDJ for my whole life. I have been afraid to let this part of myself become expressed, so I find it and appreciate it in others. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, it is time for me to take back this projection.
“Does this mean we should get married?” I ask shyly.
“That’s why you came all the way out here, isn’t it?”
“I came out here to learn about Mary Magdalene.”
“And you found me, a loudmouth smartass. We make plans and god laughs.”
Of course he is right again. But I’m uneasy.
“I guess. But if we get married, does that mean you’ll leave? I mean...won’t you no longer be you if you’re part of me? Cause I really appreciate your wisdom, and you’re fucking hilarious. I’m all serious and self-critical and overthinky and blah blah blah.”
“Oh hell no. The whole point is that you will have more access to your own inner RDJ. All of it is yours.”
“Okay, then. Let’s do it.”
The ceremony is short and sweet, and could not have been more magical, there atop the rocky windswept Mt. Ste Baume in the tiny Chapelle du Saint-Pilon, with a carving of Mary Magdalene and her two angels as our witness. Having never married a projection before, there are some awkward logistical moments, but we were blessed with great weather and enough privacy that I didn’t feel like a total dork in front of random travelers.
As I descend the mountain and head back into the forest in search of food and water, I have to laugh at the utter ridiculousness of it all, as well as the grace and good fortune that I have discovered and committed to a psychic ally who is fun and funny and an asshole, who has lived through the horror and has emerged with a deep sense of humility and outsize confidence squarely intact.
Tomorrow, I will have a giant hassle at the airport and RDJ will help me save thousands of dollars and several hours in travel time. But for now, as I take in the gorgeous dappled light and the thrum of the birds and flowers, I remember what peace there may be in silence.