News from Jo in Rome to her traveler friends around the world

Parish of Saintes MariesParish of Saintes Maries

And so, a little news of my sojourn in “la Provence”!  My bones like this area of southern, France very much as it is a dry heat in the summer in contrast to the humid heat of Rome!  

After visiting the Tubet a family home for the Little sisters my first major stop was “Les Saintes Maries”, a small town on the Mediterranean which is both a summer vacation spot and the site of many pilgrimages where we have had a community among gypsies and travellers almost since the days of the foundation!  I was invited and I said “Yes”!  I stayed for about 10 days and met up with several sisters who had been with us in Vargas circus in USA as well as Maria Pia who at 80 is still traveling with gypsies in the south of France.

I enjoyed discovering les Saintes Maries, its church, its traditions, and walking on the beach (just 2 blocks from our door) in the early morning before the summer crowds woke up.  Shortly after Jesus’ resurrction, around 45 A.D., persecutions broke out in the Holy Land and tradition has it that Jesus’ close friends Mary Magdelene, Martha, Lazarus, and the two Marys (“Mary Salome” who was the mother of James and John and “Mary Jacobea” who was the mother of the other James and of Jude) who were close relatives of Jesus and who had been at the Cross and then at the tomb as first witnesses of the resurrection, were all exiled from Palestine and were put to sea in a bark with neither sail nor oars, consigned to a certain death.  But instead they landed in the Camargue (the name of this area of France), which at the time was part of the Roman Empire known as Gaul, with the seat of the government in nearby Arles.   

Les Saintes MariesLes Saintes Maries

This sanctuary was one of the first sites of pilgrimage in Provence and was especially frequented by the Tsiganes people, called “gypsies” or “travelers”, who come to venerate St Sara, their patron saint who was always considered as the companion of the two Marys.  The Church is stark and simple inside, such a lovely rest for eyes coming from Rome where things tend to be more ornate.  I have to say I was quite touched by the traditions, perhaps because of the happenings going on right now in the Middle East with all those fleeing, with the growing number of refugees everywhere, and with our worry for our little sisters and their families who are there and in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon as well.  According to this tradition this would have been the first place the Good News had been heard on western shores, and these women, the first evangelizers!

The Camargue area is made up of wetlands and marshes and known for its wild horses!  Seeing them gave me a sense of something fresh and innocent and gave me nostalgia for our wilderness areas back home.  Europe is rich in history but wilderness areas are few and far between.  

    “The Camargue horse is an ancient breed of horse indigenous to the Camargue area in southern France.  Its origins remain relatively unknown, although it is generally considered one of the oldest breeds of horses in the world.  For centuries, possibly thousands of years, these small horses have lived wild in the harsh environment of the Camargue marshes and wetlands of the Rhône delta.  There they developed the stamina, hardiness and agility for which they are known today.  Traditionally, they live in semi-feral conditions in the marshy land of the region.  The Camargue horse is the traditional mount of the gardians, the Camargue "cowboys" who herd the black Camargue bulls used in bullfighting in southern France.  Camargue horses galloping through water is a popular and romantic image of the region.”

The bullfights are different from those in Spain as some guys dressed in white just try to cut some strings between the bulls horns.  The bull isn’t harmed and sometimes wins.

I just happened to arrive in Les Saintes Maries the week of the festival of the horse!  One night we went to a really nice performance in the small outdoor arena and among the performers was Lucien Gruss who is quite famous in the European circus world.  Each evening the horses were paraded at liberty through the streets, guided by the “gardians” with the help of cowbells.  Another evening, with a beautiful sunset as backdrop over the marshes, there was another show outdoors with the horses running through the marshes.  And another evening there was a gypsy concert in the Church.

My next major stop was “Mallemort” to the northeast of Les Saintes but still in Provence, where I spent a good week in one of our old wooden caravans used by the first gypsy little sisters and now transformed into hermitages.

Marie Salome, who traveled with us in the USA for 5 months on Carson & Barnes, lives at our place in Mallemort now and it was lovely to see her again!  The first day of my retreat there was a tiny little circus in town and it warmed my heart to begin my retreat with some nice little acts and some popcorn!  As Maurice Zundel used to say, “the liturgy of the people”!

Here’s a photo of the hermitage I stayed in and the chapel inside.

My last day in Provence, Marie Salome made the mistake of asking me if there was something I really wanted to do and I quickly said “yes”!  I had never been to the “Sainte Baume” and had been dreaming of going for years.  It is a cave where tradition says that Mary Magdelene lived out the last 33 years of her life.  La Sainte BaumeLa Sainte Baume It, too, is a place of pilgrimage and our foundress, whose name is Magdeleine, was fond of going there as was Br Charles who was the inspiration behind our community and that of the little brothers.  On one visit in 1946, when the community was only 7 years old, on her way back down from the grotto, Little sister Magdeleine had the strong intuition that her little community founded for the nomads of the Sahara was meant to be for the whole world!  Of course, that was a significant decision that has quite definitely transformed my life and that of the other little sisters from around 60 different countries throughout the world!  It was quite a climb up to the cave and we went on afterward to the very top of the hill where we picnicked looking out towards the sea.

1965 L Sister Magdeleine at Saintes Maries de la Mer1965 L Sister Magdeleine at Saintes Maries de la Mer

I knew Little sister Magdeleine here in Rome when I was a novice and various other times.  Every summer she went with a couple other little sisters to what was then the Iron Curtain countries, traveling in a small van turned motor home.  She used to say that she herself was a nomad by “accident and by essence”.  She used to say, too, that she was never as close to God as when she was on the road!  During my retreat I read an account of some of those trips and I was struck how often she went to visit circuses she found on her way.  The little sister writing the account said Little sister Magdeleine never missed an opportunity to get to know another circus!  It was she who had had the idea that we travel with circuses (carnivals and gypsies, too, as well as with desert nomads).  I wish you all could have known her.

And so my few weeks sojourn warmed my nomad heart and made me “vibe” with those of you on the road.  I keep in mind what someone wrote me before I left to come to Rome, “may the Lord of the Road help you to deepen the roads within yourself, even if exterior roads are no longer possible.  To be “nomad” is first of all in one’s psyche, one’s spirit.  May the pilgrim of Emmaus guide you on these inner roads.”