Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My Pilgrimage to Lourdes, Part I



(Parts of this essay originally appeared in the Feb-March 2007 edition of Canticle Magazine.)


There are seasons of grace accorded to every life in which the wounds of the past are anointed with healing balm, and while failures cannot be entirely reversed, one is confronted with the overwhelming truth that all things are possible with God. One such season was granted to me in 1994 when I was recovering from various disappointments, including an attempt at religious life. I had flung myself with gusto into all the rigors of a monastic community, to be told in the end that I had no vocation to be a cloistered nun, but had “gifts” which were meant to be used in the world. St Teresa of Avila had said to her nuns, “You have come to Carmel to die for Christ.” I had willingly embraced the material austerities, but the “death” of having to give up my vocation seemed too much to bear. 

I remembered the words of my mother before I first entered the Carmelite monastery. “Well, what I’m worried about is what will happen if it doesn’t work out. What if you are there for several years, but have to leave? What if you have to come back out into the world and you are in your thirties, with no job, with nothing? What will you do then?”

“I’ll just have to trust in God, Mom,” I had said, little imagining that such difficult circumstances would indeed come to pass. The disorientation of being suddenly catapulted from the silence of the cloister, where the sixteenth century constitutions of St Teresa of Avila were observed, into the noise, the fashions, the situations of the waning twentieth century, was almost paralyzing. Stumbling around in the home town where I had become a stranger, I often found myself saying to God, “Why?”

After departing the cloister, I worked in the capacity of live-in tutor to a home schooling family in an antebellum house in the heart of the Maryland countryside. The house was said to be haunted by the Confederate and Union soldiers buried in the front yard. It was an old house with attics upon attics, and a cottage which had once been inhabited by slaves. It had served as the headquarters for General Lew Wallace, author of Ben Hur, during the Battle of the Monocacy. But that is another story altogether. An intriguing experience it was, living in an historic edifice and tutoring the daughter of the family. I knew that I must eventually be moving on, and discover a way to express the “gifts” for which I had been sent back to The World. 

A fellow Carmelite tertiary approached me after Mass one day, saying, “I have information on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Why don’t you go?” I renewed my passport, and signed up. I had always loved The Song of Bernadette, both the book by Franz Werfel and the film with Jennifer Jones. One special place in both childhood and adulthood was the shrine in Emmitsburg, Maryland, behind Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary, dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. Like the real Lourdes, there was a spring reputed to be miraculous. Once we took my mother there after she had dropped a motor bike on her foot. She limped up to the grotto; we poured water on her foot and prayed. While walking back to the car, she declared all the pain had vanished. Afterwards, we went there often, my mother and I, and it was one of the experiences that contributed to her conversion to Catholicism. She thought the trip to France and to the original Lourdes would be good for me. She helped me to get my passport and arrange for the trip.

The only other people on the pilgrimage were a family from Minnesota, whose daughter had been seriously injured in a car accident. She had already been brought out of her coma by the sprinkling of Lourdes water, and her parents were going to Lourdes with her, praying for a complete healing of the remaining injuries. They had never before been out of the USA, and had heard every rumor in the world about the rudeness of the French. I had been to France, but never to Lourdes. The French people were much more gracious than I had remembered, but nothing could prepare me for the splendor of the Pyrenees.

It was April and Paschaltide; the spring rains and bright sun had both drenched the snow-tipped mountains, bringing them to life. Flowers were blooming in the town and in the courtyard of the castle on the hill; the grotto of Massabielle was cleansed from the winter, renewed and ready for a new influx of pilgrims from all over the world. I had been warned about the numerous souvenir shops, which many people find cheap and tawdry. Yes, there were some gaudy, plastic statues and glow-in-the dark devotional items, but there were also wonderful things, such as embroidered Pyrenean linens and lace, vintage holy cards, and rare books. There were wine shops and open markets. A local farmer was selling lavender essential oils from his cart, more pungent than anything one could buy in a shop in the states. I was intrigued by the number of cafes and hotels which lined the narrow cobblestone streets, and the sturdy, dark natives of the Bigorre who operated the vast shrine year in and year out.

My first view of the grotto was at high noon. Most of the pilgrims were at dinner; only a handful of people prayed at Massabielle in the shade of the massive gray cliffs, above which rested the gothic majesty of the double basilica. I knelt on the tile which marked the spot where St. Bernadette was when she first beheld the Blessed Virgin Mary. There is a brand of awe that can only be experienced when visiting a spot where an extraordinary event occurred, which is why, I suppose, the Church has always considered pilgrimages to be a useful spiritual exercise. The reality of Bernadette’s story hit me hard, a story of wonder and suffering culminating in thousands of healings in the waters of the spring she had dug beneath the Virgin’s feet.

It was pouring rain when I first climbed the hill that had the life size golden-plated Stations of the Cross. Wearing an old trench coat and a black beret, I was utterly drenched. Such was the sense of devotion that permeates Lourdes, I did not care. Climbing that rocky slope in the downpour, meditating upon the Sacred Passion, brings one in touch with the reality of Our Lord’s sufferings and the sufferings of the world. As I reached the peak of the mountain, the sun broke through the rain.

At the foot of the hill were some Croatian pilgrims pondering the replica of the empty tomb. “Resurrexit, sicut dixit,” their priest was saying, and I thought of all the fighting and atrocities that were then going on in the Balkans. Many of the Croatian pilgrims were weeping.

There is a rhythm of life at Lourdes, where hours are counted by the chiming of the many bells in the various churches and chapels. The days were busy, with Mass, visits to the grotto and the holy baths, leisurely French meals, the daily processions. When I first plunged into the icy waters of Massabielle on April 25, Saint Mark’s day, it was as if a burden had been lifted. The next day we visited the cachot, the hovel which had served as a dwelling for Saint Bernadette’s destitute family. A Christian marriage lived out in dire circumstances had brought forth a saint. It was poignant to contemplate. 

The week sped by. The family from Minnesota discovered late in the week that their young daughter, whose vocal cords had been damaged in the accident, had regained her full voice. It happened after she went in the holy baths; we were at supper and her mother kept telling her to stop talking so loud. It was several minutes before it dawned on us that only a few hours ago the poor girl had hardly been able to speak above a whisper. The mother burst into tears saying, “She has her voice back- and her happiness!”

The week was too short and I hated to leave Lourdes. I was determined to come back as soon as possible; I did not know how or when, but I felt Our Lady was calling me to linger there. Through a series of events that can be given no other name but providential, everything quickly fell into place for my return to Lourdes. I had few possessions, and hardly any clothes, having given away most belongings when entering Carmel. When a friend’s grandmother died that spring, I was given many of her old clothes, including vintage garments from the 1950’s and Ferragamo pumps, as well as a yard and a half long mantilla from Rome, once worn by Grandmother to a papal audience. Thus attired, I made my second pilgrimage to Lourdes, on my own, without at tour group or guide. 

“You have never in your life caused me as much anxiety as you are now,“ my mother told me as I was packing for my summer abroad.

“Why?” I asked.

“Traveling to Europe, all by yourself. Anything could happen to you, and it is so far away,” she explained.

“Oh, I will be alright. Our Lady will take care of me.”

“Just watch out for those Frenchmen,” she advised.

(To be continued....)

Novena Prayer

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