Forty-Four Hours in Lourdes | Stephen Sparrow | IgnatiusInsight.com
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 rosary processions.
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 Immaculate Conception.
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 de Compostella.
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.]
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Stephen 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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