A Place of Violent Contrast
My first impression of Lourdes was that it is a place of dramatic contrast, born of violence and extremes. I found it unexpectedly dramatic. The rocky foothills of the Pyrenees are filled with abrupt cliffs, mysterious caves and scraggly brush. The River Gave rapidly flows with violent intensity. While praying at the Grotto, it was not uncommon to feel sudden gusts of strong winds that added to the sense that something different and important was happening there. The intensely hot sun of the July summer day contrasted with the chilly night mountain air.
This contrast is above all present at the Grotto. The Grotto lies inside a huge rock hill near the river. I had always thought the Grotto was separate from the basilica church. However, the huge Gothic sanctuary sits right on top of this massive rock and its stone foundations dig like talons into the rock, dominating and forcing itself upon the wild landscape. However, the Grotto still retains that exuberant wildness that it must have had at the time of the apparitions. The outside of the Grotto is covered with that untamed scrub brush and wild grass that tenaciously clings to fissures in the rock.
Almost as dramatic as the landscape is the violent contrast of the pilgrims. They come from all over the world and speak in many languages. But the most notable contrast is the extreme cultural clashes that one sees between genuine signs of devotion and faith and the most glaring signs of our fragmented postmodernity found in the modern fashions and cultural rock and other icons that are found on the Che-Guevara type shirts and caps of the pilgrims. You cannot help but feel it is the affliction caused by this internal cultural war inside souls that brings many of the pilgrims to Lourdes.
All of this is a fitting stage for the drama that takes place inside souls at Lourdes. You pray in the context of this dramatic setting.
The Heart of Lourdes
The heart of Lourdes is the Grotto. All over the city, the signs point to la Grotte as it is the city's point of reference. In front of the Grotto, I spent hours praying in front of a life-sized statue of Our Lady that stands some fifteen feet above in a large cavity inside the Grotto.
The activities around the Grotto are impressive. It is the site of Masses, adorations and recitations of the rosary. There are times when you can kneel very close to the statue of Our Lady. There are other times when you must stand back because of the crowds. At night, a tree of large candles illuminates the area and creates an atmosphere of recollection and devotion.
There is a constant flow of people who enter the Grotto and pass by its walls. Deep inside there is the spring of water from which so many cures and benefits have flowed. All enter the Grotto touching the walls of the cavern, now worn smooth by so much touching. Pilgrims touch the walls, bless themselves with the small streamlets of water that flow from little fissures. They put their foreheads on the rock walls. They leave prayer requests, candles and flowers. They ask, pray and beseech Our Lady's help. Some leave emotional; others merely curious. However, I noticed that everyone leaves the Grotto serious - no one is joking.
Lourdes belongs to broken humanity. It is full of the sick and troubled who go there with their impossible cases.
It is especially the physically sick and handicapped that can be seen everywhere in an impressive display of human ailments of all kinds. The most impossible cases are especially represented and they are cared for with touching solicitude. Tens of thousands of volunteers look after their every need and one sees legions of volunteer ladies who assume temporary white habits or other garb to help these "least of our brothers."
Here the handicapped are given charity wholeheartedly. Here, they accept this charity with all humility and gratitude. They are sick and they show no shame in their weak condition which will, in the final analysis, be that of all men. Parades of antique three-wheeled wheelchairs can be seen at all events - rosary processions, Eucharistic adorations and Grotto visits. Many have received cures at Lourdes; others have simply received the means to deal with their sufferings. All receive special care.
There are, of course, the others who go with maladies of a different kind. These are those with spiritual sufferings. Each brings his own crosses and miseries. And I count myself as one of these pilgrims. One is not necessarily relieved of one's miseries, but you feel as if a balm has been applied that makes it so much more bearable. You leave less broken.
The Nightly Rosary Procession
The rosary procession is the climax of the day. Every night at nine o'clock, the faithful gather around the basilica for the simple ceremony of praying the rosary. However, this is no ordinary procession. I witnessed what I estimated to be ninety thousand pilgrims on the central plaza at the Saturday night procession I attended.
Every night as you proceed to the shrine, you notice the shopkeepers have put out the procession candles with their paper lantern shades. For a pittance, you buy a candle and head for the procession. There is an atmosphere of exaltation and even triumph that I think comes from a joy in being Catholic - a true unity amid diversity. Although the Hail Marys are said in various languages, all the other prayers are said or sung in the universal Latin - without any problem or confusion.
A large life-size statue of Our Lady of Lourdes is majestically carried on a litter down the central plaza and the procession begins. Thousands and thousands of Catholics join in. Hundreds of sick in wheelchairs are pushed and pulled by volunteers along the procession route - the special guests of the affair. As night descends, the candlelight lanterns create a marvelous and prayerful ambience.
The procession covers the length of the entire central avenue of the sanctuary. After each decade, a Marian hymn is sung. "Immaculate Mary" is a favorite hymn since it is sung in so many languages. During the refrain, all in the crowd raise their candle lanterns in triumph and praise of the Blessed Mother, a practice which they repeat in the final "Salve Regina." The basilica has two large esplanades that are like arms enclosing the grand plaza. During the procession these arms are also full of people praying and singing creating the impression of a huge amphitheater of unity. Finally the procession is over, and gradually the huge crowd disperses into the night.
A Lady of Passionate Solicitude
And what is to be said of the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes? How does she express and communicate herself to the faithful? Such opinions by necessity are subjective since Our Lady speaks to souls in different ways. I can only report what I sensed at the Grotto
The statue of Our Lady of Lourdes is in my opinion very French. She does not have the Latin exuberance of Spanish or Italian Madonnas. She stands in the Grotto, discretely looking upward and measuring her gestures. However, this does not prevent her from giving impressions of great mercy and goodness. Her goodness reminded me of the French merchants and pedestrians I approached with my broken French in the village. They would address you with a very courteous "Bonjour Monsieur" and then go out of their way to help you with your problem.
Our Lady's goodness at Lourdes has something of that same polite and intense goodness full of respect for the person despite his weaknesses. I felt dignified by my dialogue with Our Lady. Inside this enormous respect, she exhibited for me a kind of passionate and maternal solicitude that I had never experienced before.
It was with great sadness that I left Lourdes and the Grotto on that Sunday morning to catch my train. I bid my farewell and slowly left, turning back several times until that last glimpse and final au revoir, a scene that remains in my mind's eye.As I sat down in the train for the final leg of my trip to Lourdes, I could not help but reflect that this was a trip repeated so many times by tens of millions of pilgrims from all over the world over the last 150 years. They had made this same trip. They have embarked with similar expectations. Upon writing down my impressions, I was tempted to think that my account would be of little value, since my story has already been told so many times before.
However, although it is the same story, I have no doubt each trip is different. Part of the allure of Lourdes lies exactly in the fact that each experiences it differently. Lourdes draws each one to go on the pilgrim's route. Everyone takes different problems and misery and is filled with different expectations.
Mine was a simple four-day pilgrimage-retreat without Internet, cell phone, camera or even air-conditioning. My expectations were also simple. I sought peace of soul in a world that so aggressively disrupts that peace. I sought time to reflect and recollect. I expected to be cleansed of so much. I just wanted time to pray to Our Lady and ask her for all that I need.
A Change and a Promise
On the train back, I reflected a bit on the pilgrimage. Indeed, it was so like the millions of others that traveled the same route. However, it confirmed my idea that each pilgrimage is different and that this is the allure of Lourdes.
Did I find what I sought? I received no great miracle but then again, I did not ask for one. However, I found at the Grotto a maternal gaze, a place where one can go to be heard. I found a place that violently clashes with our modern revolutionary world. Our Lady makes no compromises with the sins of our days but she calls the poor faithful as they are, and beckons them to return to the practice of the Faith.
I returned changed in ways hard to define. I definitely felt peace in my soul. Lourdes puts your soul in order. It has a cleansing effect upon you. I sensed a promise not on the part of Our Lady to me, but rather she elicited from me a promise to return.
My sentiments are those expressed by an antiphon from the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary that is sung at Vespers that says: Trahe nos Virgo immaculata, post te curremus in odorem unguentuorum tuorum. In English the prayer reads: Draw us, O Immaculate Virgin, we will run after thee because of the savour of thy good ointments.