This story appears in the March 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.
In the town of Parur, India, in the southern state of Kerala, the polished stone floor of the old church of Kottakkavu gleams so brightly that it mirrors the crimson, pine green, and gold-upon-gold altarpiece like a reflecting pool.
Around the altarpiece, painted clouds hover in a blue sky. Small statues stand in niches backlit with brilliant aqua. On a rug near the church wall a woman in a blue sari with a purple veil covering her hair kneels motionless, elbows at her sides, hands upraised. In a larger, newer church adjacent, a shard of pale bone no bigger than a thumbnail lies in a golden reliquary. A label in English identifies the relic as belonging to St. Thomas. On this site, tradition says, Thomas founded the first Christian church in India, in A.D. 52.
In Parur and elsewhere in Kerala exotic animals and vines and mythic figures are woven into church facades and interiors: Elephants, boars, peacocks, frogs, and lions that resemble dragons—or perhaps they are dragons that resemble lions—demonstrate the rich and decidedly non-Western flavor of these Christian places. Brightly painted icons are everywhere, of Thomas and the Virgin Mary and Jesus and St. George. Even Hindus pray to St. George, the dragon slayer, believing he may offer their children protection from cobras. At Diamper Church in Thripunithura a painted white statue of the pietà—the Virgin Mary holding the dead Jesus—is backed by a pink metal sun radiating rectangular blades of light.
Kerala's Thomas Christians—like Christians elsewhere in Asia and in Africa and Latin America—have made the faith uniquely their own, incorporating traditional art, architecture, and natural symbolism. And so a statue depicting Mary flanked by two elephants shading her head with a bower seems at home among the palms of southern India.
Thomas, or Doubting Thomas as he is commonly known, was one of the Twelve Apostles, disciples sent out after Christ's Crucifixion to spread the newborn faith. He was joined by Peter, Andrew, James the Greater, James the Lesser, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thaddaeus, Simon—and Matthias, who replaced the former disciple and alleged traitor, Judas Iscariot. In time the terms "apostle" and "apostolic" (derived from the Greek apostolos, or messenger) were applied to others who spread the word. In the case of Paul, he claimed the title of apostle for himself, believing he had seen the Lord and received a spiritual commission from him. Mary Magdalene is known as the apostle to the Apostles for her role of announcing the resurrection to them. Although only two of the four Evangelists—Matthew and John—were among the original Apostles, Mark and Luke are considered apostolic because of the importance of their work in writing the New Testament Gospels.
In the first years after the Crucifixion, Christianity was only the seed of a new religion, lacking a developed liturgy, a method of worship, and a name—the earliest followers called it simply "the way." It was not even a formal sect of Judaism. Peter was the movement's first champion; in the Acts of the Apostles we hear of his mass conversions and miraclemaking—healing the lame, raising the dead—and in an un-Christian flourish, calling down a supernatural death upon one couple who held back a portion of their donation to the community.
In its earliest days the movement was too insignificant to attract wide-scale persecution, and Christians, as they came to be called, had more friction with neighboring Jewish sects than with the Roman Empire. The faith's first martyr, according to the Bible, was St. Stephen, a young Christian leader who enraged a Jewish community by suggesting that Christ would return and destroy the Temple of Jerusalem. After he was tried for blasphemy, around the year 35, his accusers dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death while he prayed for them. The young Saul—who would soon become Paul in his celebrated conversion on the road to Damascus— observed Stephen's execution, minding the cloaks of those who stoned him.
In the year 44 King Herod Agrippa I imprisoned and beheaded James the Greater, the first of the Apostles to die. In 64, when a great fire in Rome destroyed 10 of the city's 14 quarters, Emperor Nero, accused by detractors of setting the fire himself, pinned the catastrophe on the growing Christian movement and committed scores of believers to death in his private arena. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote: "An immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind … Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired." In the year 110 Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, was arrested by the Romans under Trajan, shipped to Rome, and condemned to death ad bestias—by beasts—at the public games. Bloody episodes like this would recur sporadically for the next two centuries.
Tradition holds that 11 of the Twelve Apostles were martyred. Peter, Andrew, and Philip were crucified; James the Greater and Thaddaeus fell to the sword; James the Lesser was beaten to death while praying for his attackers; Bartholomew was flayed alive and then crucified; Thomas and Matthew were speared; Matthias was stoned to death; and Simon was either crucified or sawed in half. John—the last survivor of the Twelve—likely died peaceably, possibly in Ephesus, around the year 100.
In the early days, Columba Stewart, a Benedictine monk and historian at Saint John's Abbey in Minnesota, told me, "the organizational structure, the great institution of the church—signified for Roman Catholics today by the Vatican and its complex hierarchy—simply wasn't there. There was an apostolic band of followers. There were missionary efforts in major centers, first in Jerusalem, then Antioch, then Rome, but certainly no sense of a headquarters. Instead you had this tiny, vulnerable, poor, often persecuted group of people who were on fire with something."
The Apostles were the movement's cutting edge, spreading the message across the vast trade network of the ancient world and leaving small Christian communities in their paths. "To study the lives of the Apostles," Stewart said, "is a bit like what we've been doing with the Hubble telescope—getting as close as we can to seeing these earliest galaxies. This was the big bang moment for Christianity, with the Apostles blasting out of Jerusalem and scattering across the known world."
Thomas the Apostle went east, through what is now Syria and Iran and, historians believe, on down to southern India. He traveled farther than even the indefatigable Paul, whose journeys encompassed much of the Mediterranean. Of all the Apostles, Thomas represents most profoundly the missionary zeal associated with the rise of Christianity—the drive to travel to the ends of the known world to preach a new creed.
Mark the Evangelist too spread the word, bringing Christ's message to Egypt and founding the Coptic faith. But for some Catholics, Mark represents most emphatically the saint as political symbol, powerfully linked with the identity of Venice. Although a figure from the ancient past, he retains a stronger grip on the consciousness of modern-day Venetians than Washington or Lincoln holds on most Americans.
If Thomas is the iconic missionary and Mark a political cornerstone, Mary Magdalene epitomizes the mystical saint, closely associated with grace and divine intercession. Other saints, including Thérèse of Lisieux and Teresa of Ávila, play a similar role among Catholics, but none has exerted a stronger pull on the imagination, or created more controversy, than Mary Magdalene. Once maligned as a reformed courtesan, venerated today by millions worldwide, she was a significant presence in Christ's inner circle.
Although one tradition holds that she died in Ephesus, others maintain that she traveled from the Middle East to southern France. But establishing with scientific certainty that Mary Magdalene came to the hills of Provence, or that Thomas died in India, is likely to remain outside our grasp. Scientific analysis of relics is invariably inadequate, often confirming only that the bones are of the right gender and period. Advances in testing and archaeology, together with the discovery of yet unknown manuscripts, will continue to refine our historical knowledge of the saints. But much will remain inconclusive. How best, then, to understand these individuals if the reach of science is limited? As with most of the earliest Christians, we must rely largely on legend and historical accounts, acknowledging the power these mythic figures still exert today, some 2,000 years after their deaths.
THE GREAT MISSIONARY
Many historians believe that Thomas landed on the palm-lined coast of Kerala at a site now called Cranganore. He is reported to have established seven churches in Kerala and to have been martyred 20 years later on the other side of the country, in Mylapore, now a neighborhood in Chennai. At Palayur Church in Guruvayur, Thomas is said to have raised the first cross in India and performed one of his earliest miracles: When he encountered a group of Brahmans throwing water into the air as part of a ritual, he asked why the water fell back to Earth if it was pleasing to their deity. My God, Thomas said, would accept such an offering. He then flung a great spray into the air, and the droplets hung there in the form of glistening white blossoms. Most onlookers converted on the spot; the rest fled.
My guides in Kerala were Columba Stewart and Ignatius Payyappilly, a priest from Kochi in Kerala whose connection to Thomas is personal. He and his mother nearly died during his birth, but his grandmother and mother, the latter slipping in and out of consciousness, prayed fervently to St. Thomas. "And we were spared," Payyappilly told me.
Stewart is the executive director of his abbey's Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, which has been preserving religious manuscripts around the world since 1965. Payyappilly and his small staff spearhead the effort in Kerala, digitizing and preserving thousands of inscribed palm leaves and other manuscripts. Theirs is a race against a humid climate, which destroys manuscripts if they're not properly cared for. Since 2006 the team has accumulated 12 terabytes of digitized data—one million images of manuscripts. The oldest document in their possession, a collection of ecclesiastical laws, dates to 1291. These extraordinary documents are important to Thomas Christians, linking them to the founder of their faith.
In India, Thomas is revered as a bold missionary. In the West, he represents the believer who wrestles with uncertainty. "The classic portrayal of Thomas," Stewart said, "is the doubting Thomas. That's a little inaccurate, because it's not so much that he doubted the resurrection but that he needed a personal encounter with Jesus to make the resurrection real. So you might think of him as the pragmatic Thomas or the forensic Thomas. The guy who's so experiential that he said, 'I need to put my finger in the wounds in his hands and in his side.' And this experience gave him the fuel he needed to do amazing things."
Thomas's moment of incredulity has proved a two-edged sword in the history of Christian thought. On the one hand, some theologians are quick to point out that his doubt is only natural, echoing the uncertainty, if not the deep skepticism, felt by millions in regard to metaphysical matters. How can we know? That Thomas challenged the risen Christ, probed the wounds, and then believed, some say, lends deeper significance to his subsequent faith. On the other hand, his crisis of doubt, shared by none of the other Apostles, is seen by many as a spiritual failure, as a need to know something literally that one simply cannot know. In the Gospel of John, 20:29, Christ himself chastises Thomas, saying, "Thomas, because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
His skepticism notwithstanding, St. Thomas still stands as the direct link between his converts in Kerala and the founding Christian story on the shores of the Mediterranean, clear across the known world of the first century. Unlike later Christian groups in Asia who were converted by missionaries, Thomas Christians believe their church was founded by one of Christ's closest followers, and this is central to their spiritual identity. "They are an apostolic church," Stewart said, "and that's the ultimate seal of approval for a Christian group."
THE SOUL OF VENICE
Mark the Evangelist is indelibly associated with pride in place: No historical figure is more clearly linked with Venice than her patron saint. His square is the heart of Venice, his basilica the center of its ancient faith. Mark's symbol—the winged lion, its paw upon the open Gospel—is as ubiquitous in Venice as the gondola. For the Venetians of the ninth century and after, "Viva San Marco!" was the battle cry, and legends of St. Mark are entwined with the earliest roots of the Venetian Republic. And yet, tradition tells us, Mark died a martyr in Alexandria, Egypt. How did he gain such importance in a Western city-state?
In the delicate balance of political one-upmanship in ninth-century Italy, a young power bound for greatness required theistic no less than military legitimacy. As its patron, the city needed not the third-string dragon slayer it had, St. Theodore, but a titan among saints. And so was born a masterstroke of shadow politics unrivaled in medieval history: In 828, presumably on the orders of the doge, two Venetian merchants named Bono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello stole the remains of St. Mark from his tomb in Alexandria or, some say, conned it from the possession of local priests. Returning to their ship, the conspirators put the saint's remains in a basket, covering them with pork to discourage official entanglements. When Muslim port authorities stopped the thieves and peered into the basket, they recoiled in disgust, crying "Kanzir! Kanzir!"—"pig" in Arabic—and commanded the Venetians to hurry along. On the voyage home, legend tells us, a tempest blew up off the Greek coast. St. Mark, his remains lashed to the mast, quieted the storm, saving the vessel. However embroidered by legend, this brazen theft of the Evangelist's relics gave the fledgling republic a spiritual cachet matched in all of Latin Christendom only by that of St. Peter's Rome. This extraordinary coup set in motion brilliant successes that brought forth a Venetian superpower.
From the earliest days of the Republic, "St. Mark was the flag of Venice," Gherardo Ortalli, a medievalist at the University of Venice and a leading expert on St. Mark, told me. "I don't think there are other examples of saints who were so important politically. Wherever Venice left her imprint, you find Mark's lion—in Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Alexandria. On the old Venetian gold coin, the ducato, St. Mark offers the flag of Venice to the doge."
And what of the saint's relics? Are the remains entombed in the sarcophagus in St. Mark's Basilica in Venice really his? What of the skull in Alexandria that the Coptic Church claims belongs to the saint? What of the relic, possibly a bone fragment, said to be Mark's, given to Egypt by the Vatican in 1968, in effect as an apology for the ninth-century theft? Are any of these relics, including that tiny piece of bone in the church in Kerala attributed to Thomas, genuine?
"It's not important if they have the real bones or not," Ortalli said, "because in the Middle Ages they had a very different mentality. You could have 50 fingers of a saint. It wasn't a problem."
For scientists, nonbelievers, many believers, and perhaps for the forensic Thomas, 50 fingers of the same saint is a problem. Even the Catholic Church calls in pathologists to examine, date, and preserve relics in the church's possession. Based in Genoa, Ezio Fulcheri is a devout Catholic and trained pathologist who has worked on church relics for decades. He has studied and preserved the remains of many saints, including John of the Cross and Clare of Assisi, a friend of St. Francis's. "Whenever we can find a relic that is clearly not authentic," Fulcheri said, "we acknowledge that. The church does not want false relics to be venerated." But what of those relics, like St. Mark's, that have yet to be tested? Scholars, scientists, and even clerics within the Catholic Church have called, without success, for scientific testing of the remains in Mark's sarcophagus. Clearly the church has little to gain, and quite a bit to lose, by testing bones of such critical importance. In the case of St. Mark, perhaps it's safer not to know—at least for now.
Not all scientists are eager to press too hard on holy relics. Giorgio Filippi, an archaeologist employed by the Vatican, told me he had opposed the recent analysis and dating of Paul's relics in Rome, announced by the pope in 2009. "Curiosity does not justify the research. If the sarcophagus was empty or if you found two men or a woman, what would you hypothesize? Why do you want to open St. Paul's tomb? I didn't want to be present in this operation." The subsequent investigation, through a finger-size hole drilled in the sarcophagus, produced a bone fragment the size of a lentil, grains of red incense, a piece of purple linen with gold sequins, and threads of blue fabric. Independent laboratory analysis, the church claimed, revealed that they dated to the first or second century. Not conclusive, but better news for the faithful than if they had hailed from the fourth century. The first-century date would mean the bones could be those of St. Paul. Until science advances to the point that testing can reveal fine details such as that the person was short, bald, and from Tarsus—Paul's presumed birthplace on the Turkish coast—we're not likely to get much closer to the truth.
Mark's bones aside, I asked Ortalli if the pious of Venice pray to their patron saint.
"It's better to pray to the Virgin or to Christ," he said. "St. Mark is more complicated. Apart from the basilica, it is difficult to find a place to light a candle to St. Mark. He is many things, but you don't go to St. Mark with a candle." In Catholic and Orthodox churches believers often light candles to accompany prayers to the saints, mounting them before favored icons or statues. "St. Mark is part of [a Venetian's] identity," Ortalli continued. "It's something in your bones—you have two feet, and you have St. Mark. When older people are drunk on the street late at night, they often sing, 'Viva Venezia, viva San Marco, viva le glorie del nostro leon.' Venice was constructed with a soul in which St. Mark is the center."
When the Venetian Republic was finally dissolved under Napoleon, the cry of mourning and defiance on the streets was not "Viva la libertà" or "Viva la repubblica" but "Viva San Marco."
THE PASSIONATE MYSTIC
East of Aix-en-Provence, in the face of a broad, forested massif overlooking a high plain, lies the cave of Sainte-Baume. Here, according to Roman Catholic tradition, Mary Magdalene spent the last 30 years of her life. From the parking lot, a steep hike through the forest brings you to the cave and a small, adjoining monastery. On a clear June morning the cave's interior was noticeably colder than the air outside. In the candlelight a stone altar glowed in the center of the grotto, and statues of Mary Magdalene were visible in the cave's irregular corners. Two relics of the saint—a lock of hair and the presumed end of a tibia, dark with age, lay in a gilded reliquary.
I later spoke with Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and Christian origins at the University of Notre Dame. Moss has a particular interest in early martyrs; I asked if work had been done on the psychology of relics. "People have looked at relics as part of a grieving process," she said. "When my mother died, they offered each of us a piece of her hair to keep, and we all did. So I think anyone who has ever mourned would understand why you would fixate on things associated with someone you loved. Even more so in small Christian communities. The appeal was of a person in your midst, with whom you could have direct contact after his or her death."
In the cave of Sainte-Baume I sat in a rear pew during Mass, joined by a handful of pilgrims and a large group of cheerful French middle schoolers, arms crossed against the cold. Later, Fathers Thomas Michelet and François Le Hégaret led vespers. Sitting near me was Angela Rinaldi, a former pilgrim and a resident of the area since 2001. Rinaldi first came to the site with her companion at that time, a modern shaman drawn to Sainte-Baume not for its Catholic significance but for its reputation among shamans and New Age practitioners. Local tradition holds that the cave long ago served as a shrine for pagan fertility rites and endures as a pilgrimage site for those seeking feminine spirituality. The Catholic faith of Rinaldi's childhood eventually reasserted itself, and she began to help out at the small bookshop.
I asked how her perception of Mary had shifted while she'd been at Sainte-Baume. "In the beginning," she said, "I compared myself a lot to her … My life before was a constant seeking for something different, for something else. For a great love—not just love coming from another person but a love which can only come, I believe, from a spiritual dimension.
"There is some sort of force everywhere in this forest—not just in the cave. It has nothing to do with the representation of Mary Magdalene in the Gospel. It's an energy which makes you stand up afterward." She paused. "I don't know how to explain it," she said, laughing. "There is a silence in the cave which is full of life."
The cave has been cared for by the Dominican Order since 1295. Earlier in the day I visited with Michelet and Le Hégaret over lunch in the monastery's simple, beautifully antique dining room. Through its open leaded windows, from the monastery's great height upon the cliff face, the forest and the plain below could be seen for miles during breaks in the fog.
"After the Virgin Mary," Michelet said, "Mary Magdalene is the most important woman in the New Testament. And yet we speak of her very little. It's too bad, as many could be touched by this woman, who was a sinner and who was chosen by Christ as the first witness of his resurrection. He didn't choose an Apostle or the Virgin Mary. He chose Mary Magdalene. Why? Perhaps because she was the first to ask forgiveness. It was not yet the hour of Peter," he said, referring to Peter's rise to fame as a miracle worker and the founder of the Catholic Church. "It was the hour of Mary Magdalene."
The significance of this moment in the New Testament when she first witnessed the risen Christ has been debated for centuries. In the Gospel of John, three days after Christ's burial Mary Magdalene went first to the sepulchre, "while it was still dark," and found that the stone covering it had been moved. She ran to find the disciples, who returned with her and saw that the tomb was empty. "Then the disciples went away again to their own homes," reads the scripture. "But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping." She stayed, as she had remained at the foot of the cross. When she peered again into the sepulchre, she saw two angels where the body of Christ had rested. "Woman, why are you weeping?" they asked her. "Because they have taken away my Lord," she said, "and I do not know where they have laid him." And then, the Gospel says, the risen Christ appeared to her.
Such tenacity would have served her well if she did indeed spend three decades in the cold and damp of the Provence cave. "This is known as a place of penitence," Le Hégaret said. "In winter it's austere. Very few people come up to the cave. The road is frozen for weeks. There is a great simplicity here." He chuckled. "There is a proverb among the brothers of Provence: At Sainte-Baume either you go crazy, or you become a saint." With Christian Vacquié, the warden responsible for the ancient forest at Sainte-Baume, I visited a much smaller cave in the same massif that had contained the remains of Neanderthals from 150,000 years ago. This cave and others nearby have a distinctly female-reproductive organ shape, leading some to believe that they were fertility-cult sites in prehistoric times. One can imagine barren Neanderthals performing fertility rituals many tens of thousands of years before the arrival of Mary Magdalene.
Protected by the state and cherished for its rich biological diversity, the forest itself has long been held sacred. "There was once a priest at the grotto," Vacquié told me with a grin, "who said that while he was Mary Magdalene's majordomo, I was her gardener." The forest and local caves are still believed to have a strong connection to fecundity, and women have come here for millennia to pray for children. To this day some women even rub their abdomens against the statues of Mary Magdalene as they pray. This physicality is not encouraged by the church, Le Hégaret told me, but it's difficult to prevent. On the walls of the cave are notes and plaques of gratitude in many languages. "Thank you Saint Mary Magdalene for healing my daughter," reads one in French dated October 1860. Another reads simply, "Merci pour Marion."
The Dominicans manage a hostel on the plain at the foot of the massif, the Hôtellerie de la Sainte-Baume, receiving pilgrims, students, scholars, and other travelers. There I spoke with Marie-Ollivier Guillou, a novitiate and former sailor who served four years as a priest on French submarines, including Le Terrible, before being transferred here two years ago. "For me," he said, "Mary Magdalene is the saint of love. She was a very courageous woman. She was one of the few who stayed at the Crucifixion. Most of the others ran for their lives, but Mary Magdalene stayed at the foot of the cross, ready to die for Christ. In this sense she is the model for the religious life."
Near the end of my time at Sainte-Baume I went back into the cave and climbed the short flight of steps to the rise of stone on which legend says Mary Magdalene slept; it's the only spot in the cave that remains dry. The last of the other visitors had left; fog rolled through the open doorway. Standing in the shadows, I reached through the grating and pressed my hand against the stone. The grotto was perfectly silent, save for the faintest occasional drip in the cistern, the same ancient spring that would have supplied the saint with fresh water.
When I had suggested to Thomas Michelet that Mary Magdalene may never have come to Provence, he replied in a matter-of-fact tone, "There was a priest who lived here at the cave for decades. He said that while it's impossible to know if Mary Magdalene truly came here in the first century, that certainty was of less importance. She's here now."