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Full of Grace: A Pilgrimage to the Holy Waters of Lourdes, France

Can a skeptic get beyond the kitsch and find the true miracle of Lourdes?

TWO DAYS AFTER I GET SUED for unpaid hospital bills, I fly to Lourdes, France. I figure I have a better chance with a miracle cure than with lawyers.

And really, shouldn’t I have gone to bathe in the waters of Lourdes years ago? When I first started having all those conversations with Doctors With Serious Faces? Certainly by the time they became Doctors With Very Serious Faces saying I wouldn’t have much use for calendars.

Because if you need a miracle cure, Lourdes, set in a deeply inconvenient corner of southwest France, is where you go. Since 1858, when Bernadette Soubirous saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary—actually, she saw a whole bunch of apparitions over several weeks—Lourdes has been the place to be when nothing else works, when medical science has failed and faith is all you have left.

Never mind that I don’t have faith. Never mind how easy it is, without faith, to be cynical
in a place guidebooks describe as “a religious theme park.”

Lourdes, FranceBut what if I forget all the questions of belief or disbelief and simply go with the same open trust I feel on every trip? At the most fundamental level, surely whenever we leave home we do so in hope of transformation. To see ourselves differently in a different place and to be reminded of how amazingly common beauty is, if only we bother to look.

Besides, it’s not as though I have anything more to lose.

The taxi driver drops me off, I check into the hotel, and before I’ve even set down my pack, I hear singing.

The sound leads me through the warm night air to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. And there, several thousand people—the line of wheelchairs alone is eight abreast and maybe 200 yards long—are carrying candles and raising their voices in a hymn. The front of the shrine is lit by gold mosaic tiles reflecting each individual flame, and the only sound besides the singing is marchers weeping in joy.

Try being cynical in the face of that.

IF IT WEREN’T FOR BERNADETTE and a few thousand claimed miracles, Lourdes would barely be a wide spot on the road. Away from the sanctuary, about the most interesting thing is the way the ducks float sideways in the swift current of the Gave de Pau, letting themselves be carried down the river for a couple hundred yards before flying back up to their starting point, as if it is a game.

But then there’s the sanctuary, built in three layers of chapels, spires pointing to the sky, walkways leading off the sides like wings, all balanced on sheer rock above the grotto where Bernadette saw the apparitions.

Bernadette was only 14 years old when she beheld the first apparition, a lady smiling at her from the grotto. Her family, over the previous several years, had fallen from quite a prosperous position, running the best mill in town, to utter destitution, living in a converted prison cell in a condemned building.

The Torchlight Procession in Lourdes, Frances

Parisians of African descent, members of the French National Pilgrimage (designated by pink lanyards), participate in the nightly torchlight procession to the grotto at Lourdes.

On the day of the first apparition, Bernadette had gone out to gather firewood, something to warm the home in the cold February weather. With luck, maybe she’d find something the family could sell for a few cents to get some food. And then, by the side of this river where I’m now watching sideways ducks, she suddenly felt a gust of wind, and Mary appeared.

Because of my academic background—I have an MA in religious studies—it’s all too easy to fit this Bernadette story into standard tropes: the adolescent girl undergoing a crisis; the inevitable element of water, when the apparition tells Bernadette to dig and she strikes a spring; and on it goes. No different from the origin stories of thousands of other sacred sites. Even the gusting wind is as predictable as halftime commercials.

Back when I started my MA, a friend in his first year of law school explained his career path: “I can take being disillusioned with the law,” he said. “I can’t take being disillusioned with God.” Me, I was already disillusioned with God, but I desperately didn’t want to be. “Free your ass and your mind will follow,” the liner notes on an old Shriekback album had said, but that hadn’t worked. So I was hoping school would free my mind and my ass would follow. Which didn’t happen either. My friend is now a very successful lawyer. I’m wandering around Lourdes, wishing as always that I could make that jump away from disillusionment and into faith and belief and comfort.

The first cure at Lourdes happened while Bernadette was still seeing the apparitions. A woman with a dislocated arm regained its use when she washed it in the new spring. And the spot where Bernadette struck that spring in a dry cave is still pouring out healing water into a bathhouse and to a long line of taps where pilgrims today fill five-gallon jugs with faith.

People save for years to come here, travel past endless horizons for these waters. I see groups from Sri Lanka and from African countries I’m not entirely sure I can find on the map. Each morning, at the baths, at the taps, at the grotto itself, the lines begin to form, a testament to the hope that—what? Miracles happen? Belief is worth any effort, and that effort in itself is to be honored?

That when you’re sick enough, you’ll grab at any straw?

Detail of mosiac on the Basilica of Immaculate Conception

A mosaic on the Basilica of Immaculate Conception

Simple truth: When people get to that point of sick, most turn to God. Or god. Or they turn away, profess atheism, which is nothing more than a different belief. Either way, they’re thinking about what’s next.

Personally, I wish I could believe nothing came next, because I am very, very tired.

Yet I can’t quite believe that either, and by the time I know, it’ll be too late to do anything about it. So meanwhile, I suppose, the only true worry is what’s going to happen in the final moment.

A gasp, a sigh, a thank-you?

Or only shaking fear?

But what if what we feel is the comfort of a welcome? “She talked to me like a person talking to a person,” Bernadette later said of her time with the Lady.

I WAIT IN LINE for nearly an hour to see the grotto up close. From a distance, it’s not all that impressive: a niche in the rock, the church towering above it, a cliff of carefully laid stone. The grotto itself isn’t even big enough for a Boy Scout troop to camp in, yet so many people are coming through, leaving candles—some so large it takes two people to carry them—that scraping old wax off the tree-size candelabra seems to be a full-time job.

Tiny flowers grow on the walls of the grotto, 15, 20 feet up, an unread Morse code of red and blue and purple. Maybe they were planted there, or maybe they just grow there because life looks for places to be. Who knows.

As soon as we near the entrance to the grotto, people reach out to touch the walls; a dark stain shows where hands have gone for the past 150 years. Grandmothers touch children’s T-shirts to the grotto stone, fathers bow their babies’ heads to it. Everybody who was whispering goes suddenly silent.

Plexiglass and a rope keep you from getting too close to the spring—the source of all the water for the taps and the baths, the source of all the miracles—which is about the size of a kitchen sink and covered in flowers.

The water taps in Lourdes, France

A tap yields water from the holy spring to fill bottles shaped in the likeness of the Virgin Mary.

But the grotto offers water elsewhere, oozy wet spots on the wall, and since I’m tall, I reach one that’s far over the heads of the others, where it can be nobody’s prayer but mine. I feel the water, think about it, put my wet fingers over my heart. Above me, the statue of Mary, carved while Bernadette was still alive (when Bernadette saw it, she said, “That isn’t her”), gazes down and seems completely beside the point.

The candelabra is so full it’s like walking past a fireplace.

And that’s it. That’s what you come to Lourdes for. To touch the point that the sacred once touched.

I stand, looking back for a minute, then cross the bridge to watch the sideways ducks again.

I KNOW I SHOULD BE talking to pilgrims, finding out why they’re here, what they’re hoping will happen, how they made their own leap of faith, but I just can’t bring myself to interrupt anybody’s reverie. Not that I’d be the only distraction. Using methods absolutely no statistician would accept, I work out a formula for separating the pilgrims from the tourists: Cut-off shorts, bad English T-shirts (there goes one depicting a Penthouse magazine cover), and talking about soccer (always in Italian) during hymns and prayers = tourist.

Intent expression, kneeling in one of the many, many chapels—there’s the plain one at the top of the sanctuary, with the bright windows; or the ornate one at grotto level where they got seriously carried away with gold paint; or one of the dozens stuffed in the nooks and crannies of the grounds—not saying a word, frequently making the sign of the cross = pilgrim.

I figure the ratio of tourists to pilgrims works out pretty close to 50-50. Both stand in queues at the mile of religious kitsch stores that line the road to the shrine. The shops have very possibly the ugliest souvenirs I have ever seen, anywhere in the world. I start to buy a rosary for a friend, but the wood feels so greasy I just put it back and return to the sanctuary itself, where the air smells like candles and nothing is for sale.

I’m also going to admit that I don’t know which side of the tourist-pilgrim line I fall on. I know I would rather be a pilgrim, but I have done the pilgrimage rodeo so many times before, I don’t know that my preference alone is enough to qualify.

The Grotto

In the grotto where Bernadette first saw apparitions, pilgrims to Lourdes reverently touch the rock walls.

My master’s thesis was on pilgrimage; I wrote a book about pilgrimage in Japan. I’ve been to Canterbury and to Santiago de Compostela, where so many people have pressed their hands on a pillar at the entrance to the cathedral that the marble looks like melted wax. I have stood where Buddha preached, and I’ve been to Mount Nebo, where Moses looked on the promised land he’d never set foot in. Each time, I had hoped the site would enable me to believe in something.

But even if I’ve come away empty again and again, I already know what story the pilgrims at Lourdes will tell me, because besides having talked to a thousand pilgrims around the world already, here’s the thing I know beyond any doubt, the thing I wish I didn’t know, the simple truth of why you go to a site of healing: At a fundamental level, pain, at least your own, is incredibly boring. And if you know it’s not going to stop, what you want most is a day off. Just a single day when you can forget about it all. If you are making a pilgrimage because you are in pain, that is what you pray for.

If it’s the pain of someone you love that’s made you take a pilgrimage, then all you want to do is take that pain on yourself. And that prayer is a lot more intense and serious than the prayers of the afflicted themselves.

But there’s a third category of pilgrim, too, one I honestly hadn’t thought much about until I find myself walking along with a group of eight older women who have come from Saskatoon, Canada.

I try not to make fun of the word Saskatoon as we move together through the standard Bernadette sites—the mill with its rough grinding wheel, the converted prison cell, which is blessedly cool on a blazing hot day—and it doesn’t take them long to figure out I’m not Catholic, but I don’t really fit into the tourist category either.

I tell them the quick version of my story. I tell them about Doctors With Very Serious Faces showing me pictures of the way the springs of my heart have broken like a cartoon clock.

And they, these eight hale and hearty women, tell me why they’ve come: “Is it OK if we pray for you?”

When they do, I cry.

A volunteer from Milan, ItalyTHE NEXT DAY, I spend a couple of hours watching people at the grotto. And I find myself watching not the pilgrims, but the people taking care of the pilgrims. Lourdes is staffed by hundreds of volunteers—every single person in a wheelchair, every single person who needs any kind of help, has someone taking care of them, two or three helpers if that’s what’s necessary. The volunteers range in age from early teens to so old they can barely push the wheelchairs.

And the volunteers all have one thing in common: No matter whom they’re helping, they’re not treating that person like an illness or a condition.

They’re treating them like a person.

Which, on the wish list of someone who’s sick, is second only to getting a day off. Because here’s another thing I hope the people I love never truly understand: Once you’re in the medical machinery, you’re not a person anymore. You’re a set of symptoms, a number, a locus of statistical odds.

But not at Lourdes. Here, you’re just a person. One who is treasured for the simple fact of being a person.

When I realize that’s what I’m seeing, I start crying again. Tears every time I see a volunteer smile, tell a joke, adjust a blanket just an inch to make someone else a little more comfortable. Tears of thanks for the million times I’ve been the recipient of such kindnesses from those in my life, tears of hope that I’ve not failed to offer the same.

In a world full of unexpected beauty, there is little as beautiful as this: simple care, thoughtless, because true care and compassion need no thought.

I fall into conversation with three volunteers who’ve staked out a spot in front of the bookstore for their lunch. Luc has volunteered at Lourdes every year for the past 26; Marco for the past 22. The third guy, whose language I can’t figure out and whose name I never catch, is on his first year.

“Is being here what you were hoping for?” I ask the third guy. Marco and Luc run translation for me, but he answers in careful English: “Much more.”

“Lourdes is a drug,” Luc says. “The best kind of drug. Once you’ve had it, you just want more.”

The Eucharist Procession, a blessing ceremony for the sick and elderly

At the underground Basilica of St. Pius X, a boy from Nice joins the mass for the French National Pilgrimage.

And then he takes me back to the story of Bernadette. “When the Lady talked to her,” he says, “Bernadette was amazed that she used vous,” the formal address in French. “But Bernadette insisted she was the most ignorant, lowest girl on earth, not worthy of that kind of politeness.”

Even the Lady—the Virgin Mary herself—treated this illiterate kid with respect and compassion. The Lady talked to her like a person. And that’s Do Unto Others put to work in a way I’ve never seen anywhere in the world before.

“It’s the miracle of Lourdes,” a volunteer named Ashley O’Connor told me when I had chatted with her earlier in my visit. She has worked as a guide for a month each of the past three years. “It’s not about Bernadette anymore. It’s about the 6 million people a year who come here.”

In the evening after my lunch with Luc, as I watch the candlelight procession from a walkway in front of the highest level of the church, watch the wheelchairs stretched out like a river, the candles like starlight flowing on water, for the first time in my life I see how the world really could work. Should work. Faith, hope, and charity, the Bible says, “but the greatest of these is charity.”

That I can believe.

THE NEXT MORNING, I decide I’m ready. To drop the weight of my history and doubts, to take the miracle bath, to light a candle of prayer.

It’s Saturday. So many people are lighting candles, there’s nowhere to put new ones. A very serious man offers a huge, burning taper; I light mine from his.

I pray for everyone I love and for people I’ve never met. I pray for memory—to remember this moment, to remember kindness, to remember the beauty of action. I pray to remember that maybe intent is not so far from belief.

I pray to whoever is listening that I can find a way to live up to this place.

I blow out my candle. The man carefully stacks it in a trolley to be relit later, so the light will be carried on.

Souvenir Shop in Lourdes, FranceThe baths are right next to the candle area. The building housing them is concrete, low, and nondescript; it could probably be converted to nice horse stalls very quickly. Two lines stretch out front, one on the men’s side, a much longer one on the women’s. I get in line at 8:30, for the 9 a.m. opening. I reach the front of the line at 11:30, a half hour after the baths have technically closed for the morning, but no one’s hurrying, no one’s being turned away. Children and wheelchairs and stretchers get to cut in line; the volunteers look like they’ve never had a better day in their lives, and more than one person comes out from behind the curtains sobbing through a huge smile.

Hidden off in a corner somewhere, a man is praying and reciting scripture into a microphone, the verses looping around so often it takes me a very long time to realize it’s not a recording, words chanting back around until I can recite them myself, until I’m almost sure I’m breaking through into understanding, even though I don’t speak French. The intent is in the vibration, the devotion of sound.

At last, it’s my turn. I’m led behind the main curtain, then behind a smaller striped blue-and-white curtain, where five guys sit in their underwear, waiting their time in the bath, and a group of volunteers, who must, among them, speak at least 20 languages, helps everybody get ready.

After a few minutes, I’m led behind yet another curtain. There’s a narrow marble tub, two steps leading down into it, a statue of the Virgin, the Lady, at the tub’s head. Three more volunteers—including Luc, coincidentally—wait to assist.

Nobody except my girlfriend and medical professionals have seen me with so much as my shirt off in years. There’s just too much to explain. But here, nothing even merits a second glance. The volunteers can see the fresh scars, see the old ones, see my entire medical history.

They’ve seen worse.

Old farm building near Gavarnie, Haut PyreneesLuc holds up a cloth behind me for privacy as I finish undressing. Very gently, he wraps the cloth around me, leads me to the first step of the bath. That tiny spring in the grotto has poured this water out, this and thousands of gallons more every day, enough to wash the world clean, even enough to wash away, at least right now, every bit of my own cynicism. “Cross yourself,” Luc says, “and then say a Hail Mary.”

I’m afraid I don’t know the Hail Mary.

“Then simply pray however you want. Make your intention. And when you’re ready, step into the bath.”

The other two volunteers take my arms to help as I walk into the cold water.

And I take the plunge.

Photographs by Peter Bohler. This appeared in the August/September 2014 issue.