(MIRACLE-HUNTING IN LOURDES)
Above me hovered the image of Our Lady of Lourdes, in the “Grotte de Massabielle”, the exact spot where She showed Herself eighteen times to Saint Bernadette.
I reached out for the shining black rock under the Lady’s feet. The touch of over two hundred million pilgrims have polished it for nearly two centuries.
Under my hand, the stone felt like a jagged slab of ice but the instant my flesh made contact, a bolt of energy zapped my fingers and coursed through my heart.
So sudden, so powerful and overwhelming was the force, my throat tightened and tears, unbidden, burned my eyes.
I forgot my weariness.
I ceased to hear the great throng buzzing around me, the volunteer-helpers urging us on, the endless queue of the old, the sick and the dying in their wheelchairs, chair-wagons and stretchers, nuns and nurses murmuring prayers, singing praises, rustling their rosaries, the smell of melting wax, damp earth, sun and sweat.
The sacred underground spring, which the 14-year old peasant Bernadette Soubirous dug with her hands as the Blessed Mother instructed her, still gushes inside the grotto, behind glass. Its waters seep through the cave’s crevices so that even the black rock on the Lady’s feet weeps.
Reverently, I run my hands over the healing tears of the stone and touched my old, hand-carved, wooden rosary on them to be blessed.
In the metal box to one side of the grotto, I crammed a hundred hand-written petitions from friends invoking healing for themselves and loved ones and heavenly assistance.
Daily, the nuns collect the petitions and burn them that the smoke may rise to heaven and take the requests of the faithful with them.
As a child, I’ve often sought refuge in Our Lady of Lourdes’ grotto in my school grounds. My father’s first gift to me was a rosary and I grew up around Marian devotees clad in Her white habit with the blue sash. A twin image of the Lady has guarded my altar all my life.
Odd that twice before, I had opportunity to visit Lourdes but failed to make it till now, on my third attempt.
Anyway, “If you’re meant to go to Lourdes, you’ll get there,” a devotee once told me.
Indeed, I felt so privileged I made it though it’s just a day trip that my host, Philippine Airlines, squeezed in during my media coverage in France.
By early morning bus from Toulouse, it takes two hours to reach this town near the border with Spain. Add an hour of picnic lunch in Lac de Lourdes – the lake from the ancient melt waters of the surrounding Pyrenees and a short visit to the former home of St. Bernadette, now converted into a museum. In all, I only have two hours allocated to the Sanctuary of Lourdes itself.
So, after the long cue to the grotto, I hastened to the “brulières” (candle bank) – metal stands enclosed in cubicles in the walkway leading to the baths, where thousands of votive candles burned.
Ahead of the whole row, towered giant candles, each six feet tall, brought by pilgrim groups, burning nonstop for over a week. A “feutier” (attendant), assigned to tend the “brulière”, hovered behind me as I lit two candles for my parents and prayed.
The “brulières” yield 800 tons of melted paraffin each year, breeding an entire industry of wax collectors who scrape the melted wax under the trays and recycle them to make new candles.
Next, I lined up for the “piscines” (baths) fed by the sacred spring, where more than 350,000 of the 5 million people who visit the sanctuary each year plunge in. Most miracles occur either from drinking the sacred spring’s water or from taking the baths.
Athough chemists analyzed Lourdes water and found no healing properties, the Vatican verified at least 70 miracles connected with it in Lourdes.
Elisa Aloi soaked the dressings of her tuberculous wounds in Lourdes water while Juliette Tamburini had her tuberculous bone lesions syringed with it. Both were completely healed, bewildering doctors.
On the other hand, after taking a plunge in the baths, Vittorio Micheli, a soldier dying of sarcoma, recovered. An invalid, Jean Pierre Bely, walked again.
Still, friends cringed when I announced I’m dunking myself in the “piscines”.
First, the water’s freezing – at least 12 °C. Worst, for half a million users, Lourdes has only seventeen bath cubicles, eleven for women and six for men.
One of my favorite French authors, Émile Zola, twice visited the baths and was properly horrified.
In his time, they changed the waters just twice daily. As hundreds of the sick immersed themselves, the baths became an “abominable soup of ills, with threads of blood, sloughed-off skin, scabs, bits of cloth and bandage”, he wrote. “The miracle was that anyone emerged alive from this human slime.”
And yet a priest, François Picard, drank from the heavily contaminated bathing pool and no harm befell him. “The water of the good Mother of Heaven is always delicious,” he maintained.
Some say it’s a matter of faith. “We’re all sick in a way, if not in body, then in our heart, mind and soul,” as one pilgrim puts it.
Today, they irradiate the spring waters and constantly top up the supply in each bath via a pump. But the procedure’s the same.
Volunteer-attendants help pilgrims take a dip, completely naked, for a minute while reciting prayers and venerating a statue of the Blessed Mother. It’s like being baptized again.
Yet I wasn’t meant to bathe in Lourdes on this visit. About a hundred women stood in line with hundreds more sliding in benches inside, awaiting their turn. It will take me a whole day to get in.
I headed to the churches instead. The grotto has three, stacked on top of each other – the Crypt first, then Rosary Basilica, then the Basilica of the Immaculate Concepcion. Ultimately my feet led me to the Chapel of the Relics of St. Bernadette, where a golden reliquary held one of the saint’s ribs.
The incorrupt body of St. Bernadette herself rests in a crystal coffin in Saint Gildard Convent, Nevers, mother house of the Sisters of Charity, where she died. It’s 800 kilometers away from Lourdes. One day, I’ll go there to pay my respects.
For now, I have to return to our meeting point, in front of the Statue of the Crowned Virgin at Rosary Square, to catch my bus back to Toulouse.
Along the way, I ran to the taps around the base of the basilica tower to fill my bottles with water from the sacred spring.
An old woman was drinking and bathing under a spigot, unable to access the “piscines”, I reckoned, while young folks shoved empty Evian bottles under the taps.
In the bus, everyone lugged plastic jugs of Lourdes water to bring back to families and friends. If we can’t take those we love with us on this pilgrimage, we can at least take home a little hope.
When I return to Europe, I pray to be granted another chance to visit Lourdes. Perhaps I can serve as a volunteer for a week, helping pilgrims, the sick and the dying, in repayment for all my life’s blessings.