We spent a couple of days in Lourdes last September.
(Side note: it was five months ago today (the 11th) we landed in Europe for That Trip. Hard to believe!)
(For more on the practicalities of our stay in Lourdes – go to Booked. )
Lourdes is a complex, fascinating place. On the surface, the Lourdes of 2013 may seem far removed from the Lourdes of 1858, where an impoverished, sickly peasant girl met the Virgin in a spring well outside of town.
For now there’s an enormous church built above the grotto, the spot where the Virgin said, Build me a chapel…
…and the town is busy with pilgrims and commerce.
It’s manicured and contained.
I said, “seems.”
Because, really, the closer you get, well…the closer you get.
Lourdes wasn’t what I expected. I had heard it referred to as “Catholic Disneyland” because of all of the souvenir shops, and yes, there are streets full of those, all selling identical goods, which always puzzles me. You’d think someone would try to strike out and peddle something different.
But that’s all no different than the area around St. Peter’s in Rome or, to a lesser extent, around the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua or Assisi. People go to those places, they want to buy rosaries and holy cards and holy water containers. So what? It’s not as if the stuff was exorbitantly priced or anyone was being gouged.
So as far as that goes, I braced myself to have my sensibilities offended, but they weren’t. It was super-tacky. It was just normal Catholics R Us, magnified and multiplied. What did surprise me was that Lourdes was more “modern” than I had thought. It’s a normal mid-sized French town, only with about a thousand times more hotels than your normal mid-sized French town. There’s no charming, old-school centre ville with cobblestones or arcades. It’s just… a town – and for that reason, maybe, outside the Shrine and the castle, less interesting than others. But then, people come to Lourdes for a reason, and this is that reason:
I pointed out to the boys the presence of the sick and the pride of place given them. For every Mass, every procession, every prayer service, the sick are brought in first by the volunteer attendants. On the walkways, there are specially marked lanes for wheelchairs. One night, we saw an older man in a wheelchair (being pushed by a young man) get so frustrated with an unaware pedestrian strolling along in the marked lane, he almost poked him with a cane, and would have if the walker hadn’t been alerted Monsieur, pour les malades by someone (er…me).
When I mentioned the place of les malades to the boys, they asked me, “Why?” I was startled that I had to explain – well, I said, besides being simply polite and compassionate, it’s also a response to the presence of Jesus in those in need, it’s honoring that presence and obeying his command to see him there. It’s a living expression of what Jesus said: the last shall be first – the sick and weak – like Bernadette herself – being the last in the world’s eyes.
The closer you get, the closer you get.
They are first to the waters, first to the light, first to the Body because in their physical condition, we can see them, we Christ, and we can even see ourselves. For we are all the sick, we are all weak, crippled, deaf, paralyzed, suffering, in pain, we are all dying and every one of us yearn to be whole.
And so every night at Lourdes, the darkness illuminated by our thousands of tiny lights, we walk, shuffle, stride, limp and are pushed toward that water. We go on, just as we have always done across time, everywhere led by the One who bound Himself to this weak, suffering Flesh, awash in the womb of a mother