A pilgrimage is a journey toward the Lord with a purpose. It is not a destination, but a process. It is not the visitation of a place, but a deep experience felt in the internal kingdom of God, the soul. It is not tourism, but purposeful exploration. Although, in my case, the purpose at the time was somewhat unclear. As I wrote before, I felt called to the grotto by the Blessed Mother, and I answered, somewhat unsure of what I would find. In many ways, the pilgrimage that started at Lourdes is still underway—a journey, with the ultimate destination being God, where all our journeys begin and end!
When I think of my pilgrimage to Lourdes—the trip which inspired this year of prayer—it is difficult to think of just one thing to write about. Each moment was meaningful, whether it was praying the Rosary during the Candlelight procession surrounded by pilgrims speaking Italian, French, Spanish, Dutch, German, English and countless other languages, embracing the profound silence despite the masses of people at the sacred grotto, or being moved by the tireless service of the young and old volunteers pushing, wheeling, and carrying the sick, disabled, or infirm around the Sanctuary. For at Lourdes, the sick have priority, are the “royalty” of visitors—they who are often treated as last by society, are made first.
And that may be the center of Lourdes—the springs of water. Spigots line the walkway near the bank of the river, pilgrims filling their canteens and water bottles, drinking the pure and restorative water. And pilgrims queue for hours, awaiting their chance to bathe in the spring as the Blessed Mother instructed—
“Go and drink from the spring and bathe in it.”
And that may be because if they are like me, the process was anxiety provoking. I was nervous. The act of bathing was unsettling for the obvious reasons that in the process one strips away their physical representations of protection, defenses, and privacy—namely one’s clothing. But on a deeper level, the bathing was the stripping away of those things that prevent us from remaining open to God, a moment of complete vulnerability and nakedness in the eyes of the Lord where all sins are laid bare, a re-commitment to the baptism to Christ that we may have experienced as infants long before we were cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually ready to make that commitment for ourselves.
And then it was my turn. I was called into the curtained off room, where five other men sat on plastic chairs, waiting to be called through another curtain—behind which could be heard prayer and water. An attendant greeted me, showed me to “my chair” and helped me disrobe and hang up my clothing on the hooks behind me. It should be noted that these greeters, and those that assist in the baths, spend their days cold and wet, selflessly praying with and physically lowering and lifting pilgrims into and out of the marble basins of spring water. It is back-breaking and uncomfortable work, and without exception, they smile and have the joy of serving the Lord visible on their faces. But it’s also the small things that stay with you at Lourdes. For example, my greeter, probably over sixty years old, gestured for me to sit. Not speaking English, and me not al all proficient in French, he promptly knelt in the cold pooled water, and unlaced and removed my shoes for me, both a surprising and moving moment, this man’s heart of service filling the enclosure. As I sat and waited to be called through the next curtain, surrounded by individuals seemingly as nervous as I, each in quiet prayer, this man continued to help and reassure them.
When it was finally my turn, I was called into the bathing area, disrobed completely, had a wet (freezing!) towel wrapped around my waist, and was physically lowered into the marble basin filled with fresh spring water which is approximately 50 degrees. Together, the attendants prayed with me, despite language barriers, and then dunked me into the water, praying over me (“Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us. Saint Bernadette pray for us. Blessed Virgin, pray for those who have recourse to thee.”) After venerating a small statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, I was pulled from the basin, and it was over. Strangely, my anxiety was completely gone, and instead, replaced with a calm and sense of renewal. My time in the water was probably 30 seconds, maybe a minute… but upon getting out, I felt clean. And grateful to the Lord. And changed in some way, as if my heart had been opened and refined.
The water of Lourdes is so cold that no towels are necessary. Within minutes of stepping out of the baths, pilgrims are perfectly dry, given the difference in body temperature versus the water. You return to the previous chamber, redress with assistance (yes, my shoes were replaced and tied for me), and then you’re back in the Sanctuary, surrounded by pilgrims, but somehow changed.
A prayer for the baths at Lourdes
O Lord, you know how nervous I have become and how anxious I am about being moved or carried by others.
Take away my fear, and let me remember that I am in the hands of those who have great experience, and who their task with your loving care.
Let my bathing in the water be a sign of my faith in you.
Ease my pain, Lord: help me to trust, and give me the joy of feeling you near.
O God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the outpouring of your Holy Sprit, that every thought and word of ours may begin from you, and in you be perfectly completed, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Lourdes Pilgrim: A Prayerbook and Guide by Oliver Todd)
Why pray the Rosary every day for a year?
Each time the Blessed Virgin has appeared-- whether it be to Saint Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes; to Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco at Fatima; or to Mariette Beco at Banneux-- she has asserted the importance, saving grace, and power of praying the Holy Rosary on a daily basis. Based upon her words, the Rosary is penance and conversion for sinners, a pathway to peace, an end to war, and a powerful act of faith in Jesus Christ. Pope Paul VI presented the Rosary as a powerful means to reach Christ "not merely with Mary but indeed, insofar as this is possible to us, in the same way as Mary, who is certainly the one who thought about Him more than anyone else has ever done."
To show us how this is done, perhaps no one has been more eloquent than the great Cardinal Newman, who wrote: "The great power of the Rosary consists in the fact that it translates the Creed into Prayer. Of course, the Creed is already in a certain sense a prayer and a great act of homage towards God, but the Rosary brings us to meditate again on the great truth of His life and death, and brings this truth close to our hearts. Even Christians, although they know God, usually fear rather than love Him. The strength of the Rosary lies in the particular manner in which it considers these mysteries, since all our thinking about Christ is intertwined with the thought of His Mother, in the relations between Mother and Son; the Holy Family is presented to us, the home in which God lived His infinite love."
As Mary said at Fatima, "Jesus wants to use you to make Me known and loved. He wishes to establish the devotion to My Immaculate Heart throughout the world. I promise salvation to whoever embraces it; these souls will be dear to God, like flowers put by Me to adorn his throne."