Noilly Prattle: Lourdes. . .

Friday, August 29, 2014

Lourdes. . .

. . . should be a bummer, but isn't!

Wheelchairs being pulled by assistants in a long procession - Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Lourdes
Candlelight Procession in Lourdes, France

     What can you say about a seemingly endless parade of wheelchairs? A sight that you might expect to be profoundly depressing is not so. That, at least, was my experience in visiting the town of Lourdes in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains of Southwestern France.

the Immaculate Conception
(as she is said to have appeared to Bernadette)

the grotto of St. Bernadette
     Lourdes was one of our stops on a driving tour of France. We arrived around 2 o'clock in the afternoon and checked into our hotel and decided to have some lunch and walk to town and the place that Lourdes is famous for—the grotto of Saint Bernadette.

people come by the thousands, many hoping
for a miraculous cure from devotion and the waters
         Bernadette Soubirous experienced mystical visions in a grotto near her home of a woman dressed in blue and white clothing typical of imagery of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the iconography of the Catholic Church. She experienced 18 of these visions over a five month period in 1858. The woman in the visions identified herself as the “Immaculate Conception”, identifying herself definitively as Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Investigation by the Vatican concluded that a mystical experience had, in fact, taken place and Bernadette was eventually canonized as a Saint in the Catholic Church. The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is built over the grotto and attracts over 5,000,000 pilgrims a year, many of whom are crippled and come seeking respite from their afflictions. Miraculous cures are said to have occurred at the shrine, or, at least, cures that can not be explained medically by qualified physicians.

just one of the handicapped -
well, a little anyway
our own bottle of holy water
     People with handicaps can bathe in the spring waters during daylights hours. Any visitors can fill containers with water that is said to come from a spring near the grotto that is blessed because of Bernadette's encounter with the Virgin Mary. This hope of healing is one of the main attractions of a pilgrimage to the Grotto of St. Bernadette. We were happy to join the crowds and fill a PET bottle with the holy water. I couldn't resist a joke about “drinking the cool-aid”.

     We returned to out hotel to rest up and take a hot bath to relax before returning the Basilica for the evening candlelight procession.

a little fun and dance in the downtown area of Lourdes,
a very commercial district full of hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops


sunset at Lourdes - Basilica of the Immaculate Conception

leading the candlelight procession
     The atmosphere of the candlelight procession (see link above) has to be experienced and felt to be understood. It is hard to imagine not being moved by the sight of this candlelight vigil and procession of hundreds, if not thousands, of people walking and in wheelchairs, carrying candles protected from the wind by paper lanterns, praying and singing the various prayers and chants of Catholic liturgy. It reminded me of Hindu and Buddhist mantras. This candlelight procession is enacted night after night from April to October every year. Road buddy, who is not a Christian, but felt moved to tears by the experience, described it as a kind of rave, the ambience was that hypnotic. It sent shivers down your spine and made your eyes sting and blink a lot. And why not, the candlelight procession at Lourdes is a bonding experience of belonging to something larger than oneself. Like at a rave, you lose for a while your identity as a single being and become a part of a larger being, being-ness itself, perhaps.

vision of thousands of people chanting Ave Maria and holding candles

     What a pilgrimage to Lourdes, or any pilgrimage for that matter, be it Mecca, or Santiago de Compostella, or Woodstock, or Jerusalem, for example, offers is community. Something our world is sadly in need of in this topsy-turvy 21st Century.  

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