Today, of course is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Two and a half years ago, we spent a few days at Lourdes, as part of our 2012 Grand Tour.
We had just spent a few days at a gite near Montignac and the next stop would be another rental in the Pyrenees.
I didn’t know what to expect, since much of what I had read treated Lourdes with a dismissive air, describing it as “Catholic Disneyland.”
It’s amazing to realize that Lourdes has been a pilgrimage site for a century and a half. If you ever get a chance, read a good history of the apparition and its consequences and uses by various parties within France and the Church. It’s really one of the most fascinating events of modern Catholicism in which every aspect of this crazy, mysterious life on God’s earth comes to bear: God’s unexpected grace and movement among us; God’s power; our receptivity; our temptation to manipulate and distort; our fears; our hopes – answered in God’s grace. Full circle.
(Also, if you have time and the inclination, peruse Zola’s Lourdes. Yes, he has his point of view, but as an account of what 19th century pilgrimage to Lourdes was like, it’s fascinating.)
Anyway, the town of Lourdes isn’t that bad. Yes, close to the shrine, the religious souvenir shops selling the exact same goods (always a mystery to me) are crammed in shoulder to shoulder – but that’s what you find at Assisi and Rome around St. Peter’s as well. No different, just more concentrated here. The town, as I told someone going the next year, isn’t at all picturesque – if that’s what you’re expecting, forget it. It’s a busy, ordinary modern mid-sized French town, not a picture-book charming village tucked in the mountains.
But then the shrine.
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.
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
I bought the picture below at a shop well off the beaten path. The artist made pictures like this and hand-crafted rosaries. She said to me, “Now you can say that you bought