Reflections on Lourdes
The village of Lourdes shelters in the foothills of the glorious Pyreness mountains in France. It is a place of appealing natural beauty. Casual observers tend, however, to be appalled by what they see there, and by what the town appears to represent. This however, is the view from the outside. Like many judgements based solely on external appearances, it is quite misleading. From deep inside the heart of Lourdes, the view is very different.
Though more than one hundred years have gone by since the Virgin appeared to Bernadette, the changing times and the ever-growing numbers of pilgrims have completely altered the Lourdes Bernadette knew. Hardly any of the original buildings are left and those that are still standing have been wholly or partially transformed. The little rural hamlet of 150 years ago has been transformed by religious fervour into a huge tourist centre. It has more hotels than any place in France, other than Paris. It seems to have more tacky souvenir shops than any other place on earth, most selling the same horrible array of plastic icons and statues, mixed with T-shirts, caps and garish rosary beads. Even worse is the distressing sight of thousands of sick, disabled, infirm, deformed and dying people. Their wheelchairs stretch for blocks and clog the streets, churches and squares. It is an avalanche of human suffering and pain, almost unbearable to observe.
I went there together with friends from my Parish and the most blessed Marion priest, Father Gregory O'Brien of St Attractra's in Dublin. Thankfully, we were a "well" group, travelling to Lourdes to find something other than physical healing. There were only a few of us who were on a "maiden voyage". The rest were all returning to Lourdes, some for the ninth, tenth and some as much as twenty times. Each person spoke as if he or she were going to an extraordinarily special place, a place quite unlike any other.
In the beginning, I wasn't sure why I was going. All I knew was, I needed to make the journey and I needed to take all the anger, grief and pain I had struggled with for most of my life, and which at times, threatened to overwhelm me. Most people couldn't understand how I could expect to find peace in a place full of strangers, many of them sick and in pain as well as expecting to struggle in processions with thousands of swarming tourists. But I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. I had heard of Lourdes all my life. I had an inexplicable urge to go there and try to find out what motivated so many other people to travel there. Why were they going? What did they hope to find?
My group flew from Luton Airport in Bedfordshire, but many, many of the pilgrims arrive by a special train which includes ambulance cars containing as many as 120 beds. They are filled with the sick and disabled patients, some seriously ill, some dying. There are always doctors and nurses aboard the train, all volunteers paying to go to Lourdes to work flat out all week for no financial remuneration.
There are also wonderful helpers, most of them young people who also pay for the privilege of spending time voluntarily helping the ill, the disabled, the infirm. These volunteers do anything and everything - lugging hundreds of suitcases and heavy boxes of medical equipment, pushing wheelchairs, tending the sick, entertaining children and babysitting. It is this combination of several hundred volunteer helpers joining several hundred sick, disabled and frail elderly travellers, that helps to elevate a pilgrimage to Lourdes far above any ordinary organised tour.
But why do the sick and disabled make this arduous journey? Partly, the answer may lie in the fact that Lourdes has a deserved reputation of remarkable cures and miraculous recoveries. Beyond this, however, Lourdes helps to make sense of pain and suffering. The sick and disabled are revered as the most precious of God's children, treated with a kindness and generosity of spirit that makes them feel extraordinarily valued and worthwhile. Anyone in a wheelchair or on a stretcher enjoys absolute priority.
Seen and experienced in this light, Lourdes ceases to be a place of tacky shops and human misery and instead becomes a place of shining goodness, idealism and joy. The shops, cafes, bars and hotels outside the walls of the shrine area, a vast sanctuary known as the Domaine - disappear. They are there, but they are peripheral, unimportant. Inside the Domaine is everything that really matters and there, people behave quite differently form the way they tend to in normal everyday life. Though it is crowded throughout, it is wondrously hushed and subdued. People gather quietly at the various churches, at the taps dispensing Lourdes water and most of all, at the grotto. A sense of spirituality is here as nowhere else, for it is here that Bernadette experienced the apparitions.
The Virgin Mary appeared to the destitute and sickly little girl on eighteen separate occasions between February and July 1858 in the Grotto of Massabielle. Now, the rock is blackened from the candles that burn day and night. Above and to the right is an oval shaped recess where on 4th March 1864, was placed and blessed, a statue in white marble with the words "I am the Immaculate Conception", the words said to Bernadette during the 18th apparition. In the centre is an altar where, every day, Mass is celebrated in many languages. In a never ending stream at every hour of the day and night, people queue in absolute silence to walk around the grotto's semi-circular rock wall. The rock, though rough to the touch outside the grotto, is smooth as marble within, polished by the millions of hands that have run along its surface over the past 140 years. Hundreds of people sit or kneel outside, deeply absorbed in thought and prayer.
Our Lady asked Bernadette for processions. It is the Pilgrims' Way, in unity to God and to our salvation. Each pilgrim brings to the Grotto his own private way of making penitence, just as Bernadette did at the Virgin's request. There are two daily processions at the grotto from Easter to October; the Blessed Sacrament and the Torchlight Processions. The Blessed Sacrament Procession leaves from the Grotto at 1640hrs and slowly wends its way along the pathway to end to finish in front of the Rosary Basilica for the Benediction. The Torchlight Procession begins at the Grotto at 2045hrs with the singing of the Salve Regina, the saying of the Rosary and the singing of the Ave Maria.
Pilgrims wait patiently to enter the grotto or the nearby baths where they immerse themselves in the spring water uncovered by Bernadette during one of the apparitions. But as soon as a sick or disabled person approaches in a wheelchair, the crowds part willingly and volunteer helpers urge that person to the very front. When I spoke to others about what Lourdes had meant to them, I was profoundly moved by each and everyone's compassion and thoughtfulness.
In few churches anywhere I have travelled, have I seen such forms representing man's spiritual thrust towards God as they do here. The towers soar upward as if to carry the hearts of the earthbound into the reaches of heaven, while the curving entrance ramps seemingly gather the pilgrims, bodies and souls, inside their gentle welcoming embrace.
As you leave the Rosary Basilica, you can see the entrance to the Basilica of Saint Pius X, an underground Basilica with a surface area of 1200 sq. metres. One of its entrances is just to the right of the Crowned Virgin. During the pilgrimage season, there is an international Mass held every Sunday and Wednesday. More than just a formal liturgy, it is the expression of the universal nature of Faith in Lourdes. During the 9th vision, the Virgin told Bernadette to enter the Grotto and drink from the water that would spout from it. The water, which from muddy turned progressively clearer and clearer, gave rise to the every-renewing miracle of the blessed waters of Lourdes. Many theories have been advanced and many analyses performed for the purpose of scientifically discovering what makes the water so special. These studies have revealed nothing that would warrant considering it anything but "ordinary water". Yet the scientifically inexplicable healings are a fact. The rite of drinking and bathing in the water is widely practiced. Pilgrims may partake of the miraculous waters from the twenty taps on the wall just beyond the Grotto placed here especially for that purpose. Inside the Grotto, the spring, protected by glass spouts from the living rock. I brought back water with me and it has stayed as clean and clear as the day I bottled it.The Virgin said to Bernadette "Prayer and penitence - may pilgrims come here in great numbers." Her wish has been fulfilled. Lourdes is a place of continuous prayers and uninterrupted pilgrimage. It is a place where the atmosphere of peace and prayers that seeps into the hearts of the ailing and fit alike is conducive to the spiritual healing of each and every pilgrim whose spiritual communion with his fellows is total, whatever their homeland or skin colour. These people receive an inner peace which enables them to cope with either their own disabilities or that of loved ones.
That is the miracle of Lourdes. Intangible because it is an intimate, spiritual realisation, an enlightenment to those that believe, a realisation that can have no meaning to clinical registers and those who scoff.