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Forty-Four Hours in Lourdes | Stephen Sparrow
Frantic is the only word to describe morning rush hour at Gare Montparnasse
in Paris. While studying the bulletin board to determine which platform
the Lourdes train was standing at I tried to maintain some sense of sang-froid
and so hopefully persuade the resident pickpockets that I wasnt
worth the trouble. Well, I got things sussed and was soon comfortably
seated and gliding swiftly and silently through rural France. Four hours
later the well-defined valleys and high wooded foothills of the Pyrenees
came into view and on either side of the carriage were picturesque small
farms, and villages with gardens splashed in the bright colours of canna
and oleander. Another hour passed and the train pulled in to Lourdes where
I shouldered my pack and trudged down the hill and into the town.
My small hotel was half way along the absurdly narrow Boulevard de la
Grotte, which appears to be the towns main street and is jammed
its whole length with shops specializing in religious paraphernalia. Statues
of Our Lady in every conceivable style and size fill display windows along
with oodles of crucifixes, rosaries and holy pictures. Some shops also
stock flick knives and swords. Pilgrims and tourists jostle for space
on the narrow footpaths and tour buses constantly try to squeeze through
without either scraping parked cars or demolishing shop verandas.
I had to admit to some cynicism over Lourdes, my view coloured I think
by people critical of the towns crass commercialism and after an
encounter in the local cell phone shop I was inclined to agree with them:
so no, I wasnt going to get too involved in things. It was curiosity
that took me there and I had no intention of leaving with any religious
souvenirs or joining in anything overtly religious such as candle lit
Lourdes is set in a mountain basin with the River Gave du Pau hurrying
through its middle. The river acts as a sort of natural barrier separating
the Shrine area from the mass of the towns shops and hotels. So
great in fact is the contrast that entering the Sanctuary at St Michaels
Gate Bridge is like breaking into a different country. On the left is
the huge underground Basilica of St Pius X lying beneath its gently raised
grassy dome while straight ahead, extensive tree lined lawns, flower beds
and asphalt paths lead to the large and beautiful statue of the Crowned
Virgin standing in front of the Basilica of The Immaculate Conception.
The right hand side of the basilica wall merges down into the rock grotto
beside the river, where on February 11th 1858, Our Lady first appeared
to fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous.
The day after my arrival was Saturday and in the morning I visited the
colourful Lourdes market. While waiting in a fast food queue a young Sicilian
struck up a conversation. Introductory pleasantries over he asked whether
I was in Lourdes for a religious reason and when I answered in the affirmative
he said, "oh, I just love her", and from his pocket produced
a wallet which when open was a veritable Marian mini-museum filled with
prayer cards, medals and a crucifix. Stephen was there for six weeks working
as a hospitaller; a volunteer looking after sick and infirm visitors and
when I said we each had parents with impeccable taste in names; the penny
dropped and he beamed and gave me a big hug.
A few hours in Lourdes are all thats needed to notice the multiplicity
of skin colours and eye shapes among pilgrims. They really are a rich
mix with ordinary people definitely the norm. None of your Paris fashion
plates parading here and no beach bunnies either. I marveled at the skill
of three Nigerian women in national costume who serenely threaded the
densely crowded footpath, each with a five litre plastic container of
Lourdes water balanced on her head.
After lunch at the market, I headed back to the crowded Shrine area and
wandered around and took a few photographs. There was a continual trickle
of invalids in wheel chairs being moved between their accommodation block
and the bath area. I had a good look inside the Basilica and coming out
watched almost in disbelief as a boy about nine, ran from his family to
lean over the stone parapet and carefully spit on the crowd swirling thirty
metres below. I doubt they knew what happened but Ive no doubt the
boy felt secretly pleased as he ran back to join his unaware family. That
single innocent gesture of rebellion rendering an explicit
example of the profane that co-exists everywhere with the sacred and my
mind went back to the shops selling flick knives alongside images of the
I walked down the Basilica steps and joined the crowd waiting to enter
the grotto. Eighteen months earlier I had had complicated surgery to remove
a spinal cord tumour. The surgeons left a sliver untouched, it being too
risky to remove. Well, I knew a lot of sensational cures have happened
at Lourdes and who was I to pass up such an opportunity so after shuffling
along in the queue, I entered that sacred hollow in the rock face where
Our Lady over several months repeatedly met with Bernadette, and after
briefly praying, I went and waited at one of the many spigots dispensing
water from the spring and when my turn came I bent down and thoroughly
soused my neck and head with fresh running Lourdes water.
Speaking of miracles, the Lourdes guidebooks and museums contain numerous
accounts of astonishing and often instantaneous unexplained healings and
all vetted by a special interfaith panel of experts known as the Lourdes
Medical Bureau. But the miracles that happen arent necessarily the
ones that baffle the experts. My England based daughter told me how a
couple of years earlier her health worker flatmate who had been treating
a child with cerebral palsy, was informed on one visit by the childs
mother that they were off to Lourdes and she doubted it would be necessary
to make a further appointment. Well the child wasnt cured but the
entire family returned with changed attitudes, having accepted the little
girls condition. Now that was a miracle!
Late in the afternoon I left the Sanctuary and again walked around the
shops before finding somewhere to eat. Lourdes was beginning to grow on
me but there was no way I was going to buy any religious souvenirs and
neither was I going to be part of that daily procession in the Sanctuary.
By 7.00 p.m. the crowded streets became more so, as people anticipating
the event gathered and purchased wind-shielded candles before heading
toward the Sanctuary. A large group of exuberant Brazilians holding their
Parish Banner high, chanted as they walked down the middle of the Boulevard
seemingly oblivious to a bus trying to get through, but no, I was still
resolutely opposed to joining in.
However Im confident readers will understand what occurred that
caused me to one hour later impulsively buy a candle and hurry off to
join the crowd in the Sanctuary. A Freudian cynic would probably say it
was just the herd instinct kicking in: so what. Anyway, when I arrived,
the light was fading fast and an enormous crowd of maybe thirty thousand
was being organized for the procession. I lit my candle from a brazier
at the foot of the Crowned Virgin statue and waited.
Three middle aged women pushed through the crowd toward me and by signs
asked if I could help them get their wind shielded candles lit. I obliged
and one of them in faltering English told me they were from Spain. In
the twilight I tried to explain where New Zealand was but gave up. The
Spanish ladies moved away but ten minutes later I felt a touch on my arm.
One of them had returned and holding out a small package she said, "a
gift for you." I tried to decline but she was insistent and kept
saying, "a gift for you. Please accept." So I did, and she disappeared
back into the crowd.
The procession started in earnest and continued for more than an hour.
Pilgrim groups from all over Europe as well as Brazil and the Philippines
went past and wedged among them were rafts of the infirm in wheelchairs
all being pushed along in the cool night air. I listened as the rosary
was recited in a variety of languages from warm Dublin accented English
through Dutch, German, French, Portuguese and others, and in between decades
came the singing of familiar hymns. It was an amazing demonstration of
the universality of Catholicism.
When the procession ended, I realized that Our Lady had made sure I wouldnt
be leaving Lourdes empty handed. Inside my gift package was a six-inch
plain wood crucifix with a cast metal corpus. Isnt Marys role
always to point to her son? Well, I couldnt possibly leave Lourdes
now without having it blessed. In the dark I spotted a short figure in
a black soutane. The elderly priest couldnt speak English but knowing
what I wanted he unwrapped the crucifix, blessed it, kissed it reverently
and rewrapped it before handing it back and then he grinned broadly, reached
up and patted my cheek. The crowd was now quickly dispersing as I walked
in darkness back to my hotel.
The next morning I rose early to catch the train for Arles. The streets
that the previous evening had been filled with litter were now clean and
as I walked up the hill to the train station, collared doves called from
rooftops and the morning air was cool and sweet. At that early hour there
was only one other traveler waiting and he was a Danish pilgrim complete
with staff and a clamshell pinned to his pack and heading for Santiago
The train rattled in on time and next thing I was moving swiftly away
from Lourdes. In the distance, the hazy blue outline of the Pyrenees reminded
me of home where the Southern Alps form a backdrop to the Canterbury Plains.
Suddenly close at hand two fallow deer broke cover and bounced their way
across an open field toward the shelter of a stand of maize. Truly, a
magic note on which to end any visit to Lourdes.
[© Stephen Sparrow, who visited Lourdes in August 2004. This article
originally written on November 30, 2004.]
Related Links and Articles:
of Holiness | Patricia A. McEachern, Ph.D. | The Introduction to A
Holy Life: St. Bernadette of Lourdes
Press page for "The Passion of Bernadette"
Sydney Penny, star of the movie, "Bernadette"
Visions" | An article about Dr. McEachern and A Holy Life
on the Drury University website.
in the premiere of "The Passion of Bernadette"
Path to Rome | Stephen Sparrow
of Lisieux: Patron Saint of Common Sense | Stephen Sparrow
Sparrow writes from New Zealand. He is semi-retired and reads (and writes)
for enjoyment, with a particular interest in the work of Catholic authors
Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Sigrid Undset, Dante Alighieri and St Therese
of Lisieux. His secondary school education was undertaken by Society of
Mary priests at St. Bedes College and after leaving school in 1960 he joined
a family wood working business, retiring from it in 2001. He is married
with five adult children. His other interests include fishing, hiking, photography
and natural history, especially New Zealand botany and ornithology.
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