Mary Magdalene, Dominicans, and Fruit Tarts

What do these things have in common? More than you might think. Yesterday, July 22nd, was the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, or rather it would have been, had it not been superseded by the solemnity of Sunday. In any case, as Mary Magdalene was so dear to our Lord and, in fact, was the first person recorded in the Gospels to see him after his resurrection, it seems appropriate to remember St. Mary Magdalene anyway.

St. Mary Magdalene has always fascinated me. Reputed as a great sinner, she was delivered and forgiven by Jesus.  She is seen at the feet of Jesus, a place for students of rabbis (generally not women), which upset her sister, Martha, who was in the kitchen trying to prepare a meal for a houseful! But when Martha complained to Jesus about Mary not helping her, Jesus gently rebuked Martha and told her, “Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.”  She is also often depicted with an alabaster jar as the woman who annointed Jesus in Bethany.

We see Mary Magdalene again at her brother, Lazarus’ death and raising to life…and then we see her at the foot of the cross and later at Jesus’ tomb, having come to care for his body after the Sabbath. When she discovered him gone, she remained and wept; when Jesus appeared, she was the first to see him and the first to exclaim, “He is risen!” to Jesus’ disciples, giving her the title, “Apostle to the Apostles.”

Church tradition holds that some time after Jesus’ ascension, when the early Christians were being persecuted by the Jews, she, along with Martha and Lazarus, were set out to sea in a boat with no oars or rudder. It came to rest on the shores of Gaul, which we now know as France, where she eventually climbed into the mountains and lived her remaining years in a cave as a contemplative. After her death, her remains were carefully buried and guarded. When the Saracens invaded Provence and were destroying all Christian holy sites and relics, on December 6, 710, monks transferred her remains to a secret location to avoid their desecration. For five centuries, the location of her body remained unknown.

From the beginning of the Dominican Order, it has been linked to St. Mary Magdalene. When St. Dominic went to pray what he should do with the women who had come to him asking for his guidance, it was on the feast of St. Mary Magdalene the Seignadou first appeared to him. In 1297, the Dominican General Chapter declared her to be Protectress of the Order. St. Catherine of Siena had a great devotion to St. Mary Magdalene and in a vision Our Blessed Mother gave St. Mary Magdalene to St. Catherine as a second mother.

Back in France, Charles II of Anjou, King of Naples, had founded the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene in the town of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume and strongly promoted the cult of the saint. Pope Boniface VIII put the basilica under the jurisdiction of the Dominican Order. In 1297, relics believed to be those of Mary Magdalene were discovered in the town’s Church of St. Maximin. To this day, the Dominicans guard and keep the relics of St. Mary Magdalene in the mountains in the south of France.

St. Mary Magdalene’s example of conversion, humility and penance is inspiring. The love and devotion she had for Jesus is simply beautiful. And the fact that a woman graced to see Jesus and be the first to proclaim the good news of his resurrection would then be called to live out her remaining years in solitude, contemplation, and penance is beyond human understanding.

So where does the fruit tart fit into all this? In my family, as with most, food is part of celebration. And what better way to celebrate St. Mary Magdalene and her history in the land that would become France than by making something French-inspired? I actually needed to make a dessert to share with some family friends, and, providentially had fruit which needed to be used up (a popular refrain in the monastery, and consequently one that resonates more in my everyday life is, “nothing goes to waste”). So, cherries, plums, and nectarines became two fruit tarts! Happy feast!

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