05 March 2010

The healing waters of Lourdes

Be forewarned, this entry is long.  Scroll down for photos if reading about my spiritual wanderings isn't your thing!

Sprezza-tour had come to a close. After bidding Genna farewell in Hungary, I set off for the south of France for my three day pilgrimage to Lourdes. In my prayers, I had promised to go to Lourdes in honor of my grandfather's devotion to Our Lady if granted the opportunity to teach in France. Well, Our Lady held up her end of the bargain, so it was my turn to come through. 

After a sleepless overnight train from Paris, I arrived in Lourdes at 6am. Since check-in wouldn't be until the afternoon, I propped myself on my suitcase and slept in the train station until daylight. Stepping outside, I was amazed by the contrast of palm trees against the
 backdrop of the snow-capped Pyrénées Mountains. I also had to pause to remove my coat on the downhill trek to my hotel. After two frozen weeks in central and eastern Europe, the warmth of southern France was a most welcome change of pace.

After getting settled in my hotel, I set off for the Sanctuary of Lourdes, only a few hundred meters away. What amazed me was the tranquility and natural beauty of the place, and how badly I really needed to be there. Fresh from a tour of Europe and from receiving news that I needed to vacate the apartment upon my arrival back in Metz, my brain and soul were overwhelmed with noise. I had nearly cancelled the Lourdes portion of my trip so I could head back to Metz and deal with the situation with Hélène, but thank God I had a change of heart and continued on. I have never felt such an instant wave of peace wash over me like this. Something in the breeze seemed to whisper "You belong here."

I entered the crypt and spent some time before the Blessed Sacrament, to clear my head of the anguish I was going through. I tried to pray, but instead fell asleep sitting in the pew. The non-stop tourism-mode had caught up with me, and obviously the tranquility of Lourdes was a much needed "vacation from a vacation." I woke up, hoping no one had noticed my "sacred snooze," resumed my prayer only to feel my eyelids drooping yet again. Perhaps this place was too welcoming, too serene for an exhausted soul like myself.

I opted to wake myself up by going to confession (funny how the thought caused me to snap awake!) The priest was a lovely English-speaking South African, and he was so delighted by my presence, even telling me it was "a privilege." He told me he could tell I was a worrier and to stop trying so hard, lest I miss the message of Lourdes. He also advised that my most important time would be spent at the Grotto, and to spend a lot of time there. He also invited me to the English Mass he would be celebrating the next day.

Per his advice, I headed straight to the Grotto, where Bernadette Soubirous witnessed 18 apparitions of the Virgin in 1858. Because of the visions of an impoverished young girl, a tiny town with a current population of 15,000 now accommodates 5,000,000 pilgrims a year. As I approached the Grotto, I heard the trickling water as it echoed in the natural rock formation, and trembled in anticipation as I walked the path. I passed the faucets from which flow the water from the miraculous spring.  Several pilgrims were washing their hands, drinking the water, and filling vessels with the precious liquid.  I continued along the patch.  Instinctively I ran my hand along the wet stone, polished smooth by 150 years of pilgrims praying for a miracle. The stone seems to bleed water, and I could not detect where it was coming from, there were no holes. Around me, many were doing the same, touching the rock, exploring its every curve with their hands, leaning their heads against it, even kissing it. All in silence. As I rounded the corner, the rock formation opened into a cavern, and there was the hole in the ground where Bernadette had discovered the miraculous source of the spring. A few steps more, and I was gazing up at the niche in the rock, where the Virgin had stood. From the crevices above, cool water dripped down, and many held up their hands to catch a few drops.

I stared up at the sculpture in the niche for a long time, before sitting down on the benches set up in rows before the grotto. From this perspective, I could see the entire rock formation, and gazing up, the massive church built on top. Close behind me flowed the Gave river, and in the distance, the Pyrénées mountains. Such a beautiful, natural place. I was satiated with joy. Presently, microphones were brought out and a priest conducted the daily rosary radio broadcast. By the end, my French prayers were pretty solidly memorized. At the rosary's conclusion, I noticed that the gray skies had been replaced with radiant blue, the bluest sky I had ever seen. This was the first hint of color I'd seen after months of winter in Northern France. The color of the sky seemed to confirm that I was indeed in the right place and I was filled with indescribable elation.

I channeled my newfound energy toward climbing the mountain to see the high Stations of the Cross. Up the mountain, life-sized sculptures illustrated the story of Christ's passion. I quickly became winded and began to bemoan the steep incline of the path... until I saw some older people ahead of me, exhibiting no signs of complaint as they continued the path... on their knees.

The following morning at the English speaking Mass, Father Horowitz recognized me from the day before, and greeted me warmly. It was lovely to attend an English Mass that even had familiar songs, making me much more at ease than at French Masses.  I approached the baths of Lourdes with excitement and trepedation, having always been mystified by the thousands of miraculous healings attributed to the spring water. I suffered no malady, but still felt compelled to participate in the ritual.  I waited on a bench with a few dozen other women, not knowing what to expect. Presently, a grandmotherly Swiss woman next to me invited me to do a rosary together, and when she noticed I was rather slow when praying in French, she switched to English without skipping a beat. Apparently she had noticed me in adoration the day before, and that my youthful presence had touched her. I was afraid to ask if she had seen me dozing off! She told me she had something to give me after the baths and to wait for her afterward.

Suddenly, it was my turn to enter the baths. I was summoned into a blue tent, where a women held up a cloth and instructed me to remove all my clothing. Another women swooped in with a blue robe to wrap around myself, and led me to a small pool in the ground. As I stepped into the icy water, they pulled back the robe, and I gasped audibly at the shocking temperature. I then proceeded to immerse myself in the water as instructed, emerging sputtering and teeth chattering, but strangely invigorated. Throughout, my two attendants recited a prayer. I was whisked away once more to the tent, where the women covered my modesty as I dressed, while others prepared the women after me. Such efficiency and grace, I marveled. These women are all volunteers.

I waited for Hedwig as requested, and she proceeded to give me a medal of Saint Michael and tell me all about her conversion at the age of 28 at Lourdes, and her own tales of physical healing (oral and vision problems) throughout the years. Speaking to her was remarkably easy, and I soon found myself confiding in her about my current living situation disaster, and how I would be homeless upon my return to Metz.  Our rapport was almost instant, and she seemed so protective of me upon hearing my story. She took it upon herself to show me Lourdes, walking me to the bookstore, where she recommended several books, and le Cachot, the abandoned prison where Saint Bernadette's family had sought shelter for a number of impoverished years.  Hedwig paused here to ask me to reflect about my own housing situation. I never would have thought of that without her presence.  I stood there in silence, humbled yet again.

It was simply lovely walking and talking with her.  She left me at the parish church where Bernadette had been baptized, saying she hoped we'd meet again, and that I would be in her prayers.  She also urged me to reflect at the Grotto and to pray.

"It was not par hazard that I met you," she assured me.  "It was Our Lady, of this I'm certain."  

The rest of my time in Lourdes was a mixture of reflection and exploration. I spent a lot of time at the Grotto, but also traveled the Chemin du Jubile, or Footsteps of Saint Bernadette.  Marked by a blue painted path that snakes its way throughout the city of Lourdes, the Chemin du Jubile stops at l'Eglise Paroissiale (Parish church where Bernadette was baptized), Le Cachot (the abandoned prison where her family was forced to reside), La Grotte (the Grotto where the Virgin appeared in 18 apparitions to Bernadette), and l'Hospice (the Hospital where Bernadette received her first communion and attended school.)  In 2008, Pope Benedict attached a plenary indulgence to anyone who traveled this path in conjunction with communion, confession, prayer and charitable acts. On this path, I fell into step with several pilgrims from all over the world, all of whom wished me a blessed pilgrimage and I have never experienced this amount of warmth in France before. 

I also opted to take a free French guided tour of the Sanctuary, but when I showed up, I was the only one! The guide was very gracious and nevertheless walked around with me for nearly two hours, narrating the story of Bernadette, was we walked her very footsteps.  She spoke slowly at first, having noted my accent, but eventually sped up considerably, but I found myself understanding quite well.

We ended our walk at the welcome center for disabled or handicapped visitors, where another woman showed me around the facilities and showed me artwork by various handicapped visitors... The common theme was bright colors and hope. The two women then chatted with me for awhile, and I almost felt guilty for having such a personalized, in-depth experience for free.  But such is the nature of Lourdes. 

In Lourdes, the handicapped, the elderly, and sick receive celebrity treatment.  Particularly in the high season, trams and wheelchairs are pushed by volunteers.  The disabled are brought to the front of lines at the baths and permitted more time in the Grotto (which becomes insanely crowded in warmer months.)  There are entire blocks of seating reserved for them, and fellow pilgrims assist as much as they can as an unspoken rule. I would love to return to see this vision of Lourdes, the candlelit processions at night, the crowds, the magic.  As I was there in the off season, I had the luxury of ample time at each attraction, light traffic, and virtually no lines.  But to hear the fellow pilgrims speak, there is also a certain something missing.  To be present among the throngs of faithful is to experience Lourdes at her most beautiful.

After my tour, the light in the sky was waning.  I had a 10pm train back to Paris to catch, so I opted to spend my last precious hours at the Grotto.  I reenacted my first time in the Grotto, running my hand along the slick, smooth surface of the rock, gazing up at the niche in the stone formation, silently locking every detail into my memory.  I paused at the hole in the ground, and felt compelled to kneel.  There was already a woman there, and as I stared at the hole in the ground, I felt her eyes on me.  Finally I turned to address her, and found myself face to face with Hedwig!  She smiled softly as if to caution me not to speak in the Grotto, but to wait until we exited.

As we wandered away from the Grotto together, I was so overjoyed to see her again, as I had truly regretted not taking her information the day before.  She invited me to one last rosary at the monastery of cloistered Dominicans before spending nearly an hour talking to me in the street.  She lovingly tightened my scarf around my neck and hugged me goodbye.  This time, I insisted on getting her address, so that I could send her a postcard to thank her.  She again assured me everything would be alright with my living arrangement troubles. 

"As I said, we did not meet by accident. I know in my heart Our Lady wanted us to meet," she said, suddenly grinning as she noticed that directly over our heads where we had stopped to talk on the street was a sculpture of the Virgin.  

I headed for the train station, the bells chiming Ave Maria and the gurgling Grotto waters still echoing in my head.  I felt prepared, armed to handle the dreaded situation waiting for me in Metz.  I felt at peace.  The noise in my head was gone.  

Whether or not the waters of Lourdes can indeed cause miracle cures, of one thing I'm sure: A visitor to Lourdes, whether religious or not, is sure to find healing of spirit.  The key to surviving the turmoils of this world is to carry a piece of Lourdes inside you wherever you go, so that you can retreat there, if only in your mind.  I intend to do just that, for the rest of my life.

My first glimpse of Lourdes, exiting the train station

Le château fort, (the castle fort)

Le château fort, (the castle fort) in happier skies

The Rosary Basilica

The Rosary Basilica across the Gave River

The Grotto

The niche where the apparition occurred

A pilgrim kissing the rock of the Grotto

The actual spot where Bernadette scratched at
the earth to reveal the miraculous spring

Rosary in the Grotto

Ancien Presbytère
Where Bernadette relayed the Virgin's message to skeptical church authorites

Font where Bernadette was baptized

The Rosary Basilica

Mosaic depicting the Agony in the Garden

Life-sized stations of the cross on the mountainside

The Pyrénées Mountains

In the Sanctuary

It's like he's saying "Behold, the amazing blue sky!"

Bernadette's birthplace and childhood home

Le Cachot: The abandoned prison where Bernadette and
her impoverished family sought refuge

Inside Bernadette's parish church

1 comment:

  1. Simply Beautiful!!

    I agree with Hedwig.




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