I’m home from Lourdes, this was my first time there, although by coincidence I will be back at the end of July. Anyone I know who has ever been there uses the same adjective to describe it; Amazing. And they are not wrong, all life is there, in all it’s forms shapes and sensitivies, and having been part of it for five days makes me very proud.
Physically the town resembles a British seaside resort (well I say resort…) there are lots and lots of shops all selling the same souvenirs of Lourdes, statues of Our Lady, all looking as Bernadette discribed her, range from six inches tall to almost life size, candles, bottles, pictures, glow in the dark rosaries even down to sweets with a picture of Our Lady on the front. But unlike the seaside towns of Britain where you will encounter two or three customers when you are in one, in Lourdes the shops were heaving with punters. There are hotels everywhere you look too. The economy of the place is staggering, If only Woolworths had sold Lourdes water, Where might they be now?
I went with HCPT, now known officially as HCPT-The Pilgrimage Trust. They take children to Lourdes Every year. They also take young adults wo go to work with the children and adult leaders in order to enhance the experience of the children who are there. Something that often gets overlooked is the fact that these young people, in their late teens and early 20s, PAY to go and do this work.
During the week I watched them jump feet first out of their comfort zone to sing songs with actions for the children, I saw big burly blokes with facial piercings having butterflies painted on their faces, I saw girls having their perfect make-up that had taken them ages ruined as they were face painted into tigers, I saw chaps dressing up as elves, penguins or pandas, I saw girls pushing teenage chaps twice their size up hill in their wheelchairs and every time I saw this I would thing of the prayer of St Teresa of Avila “God has no hands on Earth but ours”.
I was with my group one night as we marshalled the candle light procession. Putting it franckly they were spoken to, and treated, like dirt. Not only by those who didn’t want to be marshalled, but by those who they were marshalling for, although this happened as a matter of expedience in 99% of cases but not once did you hear them complain. The largest amount of comments were saved for the lady who pretended she didn’t understand English as she tried to weave past us, until her friend called out “Sue, we’re over here, Rob’s got your candle”, much mirth ensued our Sue.
Working in th baths is a most profound privilege. The reaction of some of those you bathe is very deep and you can only feel humbled at being allowed to share that. If you talk about what happens at the baths it sounds nothing, let me explain. You queue up, you get sent through a curtain to a bath, you strip down to your undies, you then go through another curtain to where the bath is. There are two helpers, one of the helpers holds a large wet cloth round you, you take off what’s left and they tighten the cloth around your waist. When they do, it’s cold and you gasp. From there you pray at the water’s edge, when you are ready, in you go. You walk to the other end of the bath, you lean back with the help of the two helpers you go into the water and straight back out again. The water is cold. You stand up and pray, sometimes we helped people pray. There is a statue of Our Lady there, the helpers point to it should you wish to kiss it. You turn round, you are helped to walk out of the bath, the cloth is held for you while you put your undies back on and you go through the curtain to put your cloths back on. Sounds a bit random, so why is it so often so deeply moving?
There was many a tearful moment which came from no where, I got hugged, I got kissed, I got asked my name and was prayed for there and then and by one bather I got told to smile less as it made me look creepy (always a bonus) When I went in myself it was almost surreal, the towel is cold but the rest of the experience passed by in a prayerful blur. As I dressed I noted two thoughts, 1- I wanted to do it again and 2- why was I dry? Not a towel had been used yet you are dry before you are dressed.
Mass is a constant feature in Lourdes, I’m a naturally early riser and was often at Mass by 5.30am. Whatever language it was in would not matter. I read the readings of the day each morning, so I knew what was being said, and in French and German I had an idea of what was being preached. Confession and adoration are easy to find too, just join a queue.
Last week I saw God’s hands on Earth, I saw the saints Pope Benedict spoke to at Twickenham in his blue stole with hearts on and I saw the whole world congregate where heaven met earth. I didn’t like all I saw, but I saw the future of the Church, if you hear anyone having a moan about God’s house on Earth, send them to speak to people in Lourdes, although they may be a bit busy.