Magdalene in the Desert

By Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle

Translated by Brandon P. Otto


It is an ancient legend in France that, after the Resurrection, the “Three Maries” — Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacob (the mother of James and John), and Mary Salome — traveled to France, along with a host of Jesus’ other disciples (such as Martha, Mary, and Lazarus). The latter two Maries — with their Egyptian servant Sarah, typically venerated as “Sarah the Black” — stayed where their boat touched shore, at a village now helpfully named Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (“Holy Maries of the Sea”), in Provence. Mary Magdalene, though, called by Jesus, left the others, and went out into the wilderness, to the deserted mountain ridge of Sainte-Baume, and there she lived the rest of her life in penitence and devotion.

This legend of Magdalene inspired great devotion in France; St. John Cassian established a monastery near Sainte-Baume, and the grotto where Magdalene lived is still a popular pilgrimage site. Magdalene’s life there even inspired an epic poem in the 1600s: the Magdaléïde by Pierre de Saint-Louis, a Carmelite.

Why, though, was Magdalene alone called into the desert? Why did she live a life of penitence and exile for thirty years when she had already been forgiven, for she had loved much? Why could she not immediately enjoy the reward of her love, eternal life with Jesus? This is a question tackled by Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle, in his work entitled — in the prolix fashion of his day — Elevation to Jesus Christ Our Lord Regarding the Conduct of His Spirit and of His Grace Towards Mary Magdalene.

Bérulle (1575–1629) was a French priest and statesman. In his political life, he served as an advisor and ambassador for King Louis XIII, often coming into conflict with a better-known advisor, Cardinal Richelieu. In his religious life, he aided his cousin Bl. Marie of the Incarnation in establishing the Discalced Carmelites in France, and he himself established the Oratory of Jesus, inspired by St. Philip Neri’s Oratory of Divine Love. His theology and spirituality — embedded in the Oratory and in his writings, particularly his masterpiece, the Discourses on the States and on the Grandeurs of Jesus — originated what is known as the French School of Spirituality, whose most famous disciples are St. John Eudes and St. Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort. Near the end of his life, he was made a cardinal by Pope Urban VIII, one of the rare examples of a cardinal who was never ordained bishop.

In the text below — excerpted from Chapters XI–XV of the Elevation Regarding Mary Magdalene1Bérulle explains the concept of Magdalene’s thirty years in the desert by relating it to the thirty years of Jesus’ hidden life, before His public ministry. (It should be remembered that “desert” here means “uninhabited wilderness,” and not a specific type of terrain or climate, as it usually does today.) He also describes it as a life of separation, of privation, for, instead of entering heaven to enjoy the presence of her Beloved, she was instead forced to be exiled on earth for thirty more years, to make her more conformed to her Beloved through her own “crucifixion.” Much of this discussion could be applied, not only to Magdalene, but to all souls advanced in the spiritual life, those who suffer from the various “nights” explained by St. John of the Cross, or to any Christ-loving soul that remains exiled in this “vale of tears,” separated from Christ.


Jesus, Who is life, has many kinds of life, and the course of His life is divided in two: the state of a life hidden and unknown to the world, for the space of thirty years, which were reserved for the knowledge and enjoyment of His holy Mother alone, and the state of His public life, which was exposed to the world and to sinners for the space of three or four years, or thereabouts. Before, Jesus lived in the world, but the world did not know Jesus. His life was known to the eternal Father and to His angels, but it was unknown to the world, which did not know the treasure it had, containing it without knowing it. Now, each moment of this hidden and unknown life is precious, divine, and adorable, and so it was adored by the angels. It is the life of a Man-God, and of a God made man for men, and yet it was unknown to men.

This hidden and uncommunicated treasure, then, will, hereafter, be communicated to Magdalene. This life, beloved by the eternal Father, adored by the angels, unknown to men, will be communicated to this angelic and divine soul; she will have an interior and spiritual part in these thirty years of the life of the Son of God, living, at that time, more in heaven than on earth, living more in the sight of the angels who adored it than in the sight of the men who did not merit to know it, living a kind of life that we ought to adore, that we cannot express, an interior life, a sublime life, a divine life, a life uniquely occupied with the eternal Father or with His most holy Mother . . .

Jesus, Who had given her so good a part in the last years of His life, Jesus, Who had drawn her into the greatest secrets of His love, wills to draw her, too, into the secrets of His life, and to make her enter into the secret participation of the thirty years of His preceding life, and, conforming Magdalene to Himself in His life upon earth, He wills that the years of Magdalene in grace measure up to the years of His life in His passible humanity . . . He wills that this state, a state of so long a duration, a state of such admirable privation in a divine Person, be also honored and accompanied by the state, exile, and privation that a soul so rare and eminent in His love, so conjoined to Him through so many favors and privileges, and yet so separated from Him through a greater love, would bear. In which she honors and accompanies the life of Jesus, unknown and deprived of the dignity due to His Person, through a life unknown and deprived of the enjoyment due to her love. To this effect, Jesus draws her to a place separated from all human relations, and guides her to a most profound solitude.

This is the desert of Magdalene; she enters it through homage to Jesus and to the hidden life of Jesus; she enters it through divine ordinance, which wants her to retire to that place in order to speak to her heart; she enters it through the secret instinct of an excellent love, which draws and guides her to it more than the instinct of penitence does. Without diminishing the honor due to such a penitence, may I be permitted to say that this blessed penitence is no more than love; so much has love taken power over and possession of her, and it changes all that she has and all that she is into love! Her penitence is love, her desert is love, her life is love, her solitude is love, her cross is love, her suffering is love, and her death is love. I see naught but love in Magdalene, I see naught but Jesus in her love, I see naught but Jesus and love in her desert, and she is more living and hidden in Jesus, in the unknown life of Jesus and in the secret proofs of Jesus’ love, than she is living and hidden in this desert where she dwells. O desert! O Magdalene! O Jesus! . . .

So the thread of this discourse has guided us to your desert, O Magdalene! But it cannot guide and raise us to the knowledge of your love. This is a secret reserved for the angel whom God has given you, and not to man, an angel blessed to be assisting such a soul and such a love. This is a secret that heaven will reveal to us and which earth ought not to know. In waiting for the lights of heaven to make us see this secret, one day, we must content ourselves with saying that you live in a desert, but a more blessed and more delightful desert than the paradise of the first Adam. There, you live an angelic life in a human spirit, a heavenly life on earth, a seraphic life in a mortal body; there, you live and die through love; there, you do not live and suffer except by love and by heavenly love; there Jesus is your object, your love, your life; there, you honor and participate in His thirty years through your thirty years, in His unknown life through your unknown state, in His exile through your exile, in His privations through your privations, in His Cross through your interior and divine crosses, and in His glory through your sufferings, awaiting your partaking of this glory through glory and through enjoyment.2 There, you live (am I permitted to think and say this?), you live on earth with the life of Jesus, as the saints live in heaven with the life of God Himself; there, you bear the impression and the operation of His heart in your heart, of His spirit in your spirit, of His life in your life. And as the sun imprints its clarity, its splendor, and its living and shining image on polished crystal, so Jesus, the living sun of the Cross and of justice,3 imprints His light, His light, His spirit upon you, and you are naught but a pure capacity for Him, filled with Him, and filled with His grace, with His love, and with His glory.

But this sun is in heaven, and you are on earth, and your love cannot suffer this separation, and it makes a new kind of life, of love, of cross in your life. For you must live, and live so many years, in this separation. You must live in dying, in suffering, in languishing, since Jesus is in heaven, and you in this desert. O sojourn! O greatly different states! He is in heaven, and you on earth; He is in enjoyment, and you in suffering; He is in possession, and you in privation; He is at the right hand of the Father, and you at the right hand of the Cross; He is in a state conformed to the grandeur of His Person, and you are in a state conformed the grandeur of your love, but a separating love, a depriving love, a love consummating spirit and body through living suffering, and suffering which renders you living and dying altogether. For Jesus is the love and the delight of heaven and earth, and He is your love, O Magdalene! And He separates you from Himself, and He makes you feel the bitterness of this separation, and makes your feel it in proportion to the excess of love which you have for Him. And thus you live through His love, for His love is life, and you die through His love, for this love separates you from Him, Who is your love and your life. O life! O Cross! O sufferings! O love!

But I still discover another kind of love which torments you in this desert, and a love proceeding from Jesus. Jesus in heaven and on earth is a living source of grace and of love, but of different love. In heaven, He is the source of a love of enjoyment, and, on earth, He is the source of a love of suffering. But in the love of suffering, there are also many kinds of love. There is a separating love, and a part of your life in this desert is spent in the school and exercise of this love. There is a crucifying love, for Jesus, in honor of His life, of His death, of His sufferings on the Cross, is the source of a new kind of love which places the soul in torment, and, as Jesus imprints His glory in heaven, He imprints His Cross on earth, and the spirit bears an interior and spiritual cross in honor and imitation of Jesus crucified. And this kind of love is reserved for the most excellent souls, as in His Cross has appeared the greatest honor and the most excellent love of Jesus towards the eternal Father.

Magdalene, then, chosen among the most chosen, excellent among the most excellent, holds an eminent part and a very principality in this earth of love. This is your life, O Magdalene, in this desert. This is your love, and this kind of love is one of the principal exercises of your soul. For Jesus is your love, and Jesus is crucified; your love, then, is crucified, and you are crucified too. And this Jesus, Who is your love, is a divine character4 that is applied to you, and is imprinted upon you, not as glorified, but as crucified, and upon you He imprints His wounds, which He has reserved in heaven. These wounds, in truth, are now glorious, but once they were sorrowful; they are living now, and a principle of life in Jesus Himself; for these wounds, which made Him die on the Cross, make Him live in heaven, and, through an admirable secret, they are one of the causes of His life, as they were once one of the causes of His death. Mortal and immortal wounds in Jesus, according to the different states. Living wounds, and a cause of life and of joy for the blessed spirits in heaven, but bloody and a cause of sorrow for the souls who participate in them on earth.

Thus these wounds give life and joy to Jesus in heaven, but, on this earth, they give sorrow to Magdalene. For He applies them to her, not as glorious, but as dolorous, and He imprints Himself upon you, O holy and suffering soul, to draw you to a greater suffering, and He also imprints Himself upon you as Himself suffering, and full of sorrow, just as His prophet depicts Him to us when he calls Him, the man of sorrows (Is 53:3). And He makes you bear a part of the interior, spiritual, and divine cross which His divine soul bore on the Cross for your salvation, and for the glory of His Father. Remember that you were at the foot of this Cross, O Magdalene! There, everything was Cross in Jesus: His body, His soul, His quality, all is on the Cross, and all bears the mark of the Cross. There, He was proclaimed king, and, in this quality, He was crowned, but crowned with thorns, and His title and His Person were attached to the Cross, and, too, His ordinances are ordinances of crosses. On the Cross, then, in the quality of king, and of king of your soul (for His title says that He is King of the Jews), as king, then, of your soul, through His title on the Cross, and through your love, Him being on His throne, and you at His feet, He pronounces an ordinance regarding your soul, and an ordinance of a cross, but of a rare, high, and singular cross, which the Jews cannot execute,5 and the angels revere and admire, and which He wants to execute Himself, in His time, so holy and divine is it. He performs it now, Himself, and you bear, in this desert, the execution of this holy ordinance. Jesus, operating in you (with proportion) what the Father operated in Him on the Cross, and you communicating in a part of the sorrowful feelings, of the holy impressions, which were engraved, at that time, in His spirit, through the spirit of His Father.

At that time, the eternal Father performed exterior miracles in bodily nature, in heaven and on earth, in the sun and in the moon, in the veil of the temple and in the stones. Miracles of sorrow, but in inanimate nature; miracles to honor the bodily sorrows and exterior sufferings of His Son. He also performed interior miracles, miracles of sorrow visible to the angels, and invisible to men, miracles to honor the interior sorrows and secret and divine sufferings of the soul of His Son. This was the state and the exercise of the soul of the Virgin, and of yours, too, at the foot of the Cross, seeing your love and your life suffer and die, but, at that time, you did naught but taste that chalice. The full drink was reserved for you for another time. And this is what occurs in your spirit now, in the desert; this is one of the principal states and exercises which Jesus gives your soul in this holy solitude, so that you have as much of a part in Jesus glorified in heaven, as you had of Jesus crucified on earth.

O soul, blessed to live so, to die so, to suffer so in this desert! O desert, blessed to have and possess such a soul for so long a time! This desert is a school of love and a school of many kinds of love for Magdalene. I see here a separating love, for Jesus is in heaven, and Magdalene on earth; I see here a crucifying love, for Jesus unites Himself to her, but as crucified, and, what is worse still, He unites Himself to her as crucifying; for it is proper to the spirit and love of Jesus to crucify, and thus to crucify His dearest souls. And Magdalene receives Him in this double quality, that is to say, both as crucified and as crucifying, and she embraces Him with all the powers of her soul, as if she were more loving than that soul in the Canticle, when, for a lesser reason, she delays in receiving her beloved.6 But I also see in this desert a third kind of love, an incomparable love, a love that exceeds and crowns the two preceding loves: a love that ends her desert and her life. This is a love that ravishes through the sight of Jesus, no longer crucified, but glorified; a love that consumes her, that ravishes her, and that draws her from the desert to heaven, and from the Cross to glory. O soul! O desert! O life! O Cross! O love! O glory!

  1. The original text can be found in Œuvres complètes de de Bérulle, ed. Jean-Paul Migne (Paris: J.-P. Migne, 1856), 575–582. As the ellipses indicate, I have not translated the entirety of chapters; in particular, only the first paragraph of Chapter XV is included. For ease of reading, I have removed the chapter headings.
  2. “Enjoyment” here (jouissance) has the sense finally partaking of something; for instance, one could possess a book, but it is not enjoyed until it is read. It has a connotation of “consummation.” Another angle to understanding it is St. Augustine’s distinction between “using” (uti) and “enjoying” (frui) something: “For to use is to assume something into the faculty of the will, but to enjoy is to use something with joy, no longer in hope, but now in the thing itself” (On the Trinity X.X.17; PL 42:982). Though Augustine’s goal in this distinction is not our topic — he aims to explain how to make use of worldly things while remaining detached, without enjoyment — his definition can still be helpful, especially in the concept that enjoyment partakes of the thing itself, not simply a future hope for a thing.
  3. The phrase “Sun of Justice” (or “Sun of Righteousness”) is from Mal 4:2.
  4. “Character,” in its Greek origin, means “stamp” or “die,” as in “die-cast,” hence the terminology Bérulle uses here.
  5. The entire imagery of this passage is that of an ordinance, a command; the “ordinance of the Cross” is the order for one to be crucified. In Bérulle’s view, the Jews executed, or performed, the ordinance of the Cross with regard to Jesus, but they cannot do so with regard to Magdalene’s soul (or any soul). The Jews fulfilled the command by crucifying Jesus bodily; Jesus fulfills the command for Magdalene by crucifying her spiritually.
  6. The reference is to Sgs 3:1-4, where the Bride goes out to meet her Bridegroom yet fails to find him, and she is forced to wander the streets for a time before meeting him. This matches Magdalene’s experience, in that the delay in meeting her beloved is not due to any fault in her actions, but rather to the beloved’s absence. (The “lesser reason” mentioned by Bérulle is that the Bridegroom is simply in an unexpected place on earth, rather than, like Jesus, being away in Heaven.) As a contrast, another example of delay in the Song (Sgs 5:2-6) seems to imply the Bride’s fault in being late to open the door to her Bridegroom; see especially Sgs 5:3: “I had put off my garment, how could I put it on? I had bathed my feet, how could I soil them?” The reference to the Song of Songs (or Canticle of Canticles, in an older name) also connects to the language of ravishing at the end of this paragraph; see, for instance, Sgs 4:9: “You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace.” (The translation used here is the RSV, Second Catholic Edition.)
Brandon P. Otto About Brandon P. Otto

Brandon P. Otto is an independent scholar, author, translator, and homemaker. He has two books of translations of saints’ writings forthcoming with TAN Books, and he has recently self-published a translation of Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle’s Elevation Regarding Saint Mary Magdalene, portions of which previously appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review.


  1. Avatar P Thomas McGuire says:

    The text reads like glossolalia full of ecstatic experience of love and suffering. As I read it I wonder, How does the experience described relate to Mathew 25 which was the Gospel of today, Feb 27, 2023?