Promoting French and American friendship and understanding…
A few years ago I was on vacation in southwestern France. Knowing my mother would never forgive me for missing the opportunity, I was determined to make a quick pit stop at Lourdes on the way home, which happened to be right off the highway. For those of you who were not brought up Catholic, the “Miracle of Lourdes” occurred in 1858 when an apparition of Mary appeared to Bernadette, an illiterate peasant girl, right at the moment when the church was having a heated debate as to whether Mary was “conceived without sin” or was subject to original sin like the rest of us (in those days, these were the kind of questions that wars were fought over). Not only did the apparition clear up this oh so important dispute, but a miraculous spring was also revealed that numerous spontaneous healings have been attributed to.
The main road leading to the sanctuary reminded me of a raunchy section of Paris, but instead of boutiques with peep shows and prostitutes, you had every gaudy plastic Mary and Jesus figurine imaginable interspersed with neon hotel signs advertising the “Gloria Comfort” or the “Hotel Lazarus”. Quite an inspiration when you’re on the last mile of your once in a lifetime Lourdes pilgrimage!
Once you cross the bridge into the sanctuary, although the scenery becomes quite beautiful, you can clearly see that the place is designed to welcome the ~5000000 tourists each year. The site is basically a well-oiled, pilgrimage factory. First, you hit the information stand for brochures and a map. Next, you swing by the “House of Confessions” where priests are standing by to cleanse your soul. Then you line up (literally) in stalls where outdoor mass is said in several different languages. Pilgrims suffering from grave illnesses can also immerse themselves in bathing pools full of the spring water during the service. Finally it’s time for the trip to the spring and sacred grotto where Mary actually appeared.
As we were on a tight schedule, I skipped all of that and went straight to the miraculous spring, which turned out to be a wall of ~20 push-button faucets! Once again, not the most inspiring sight in the world, although the water was quite refreshing. On the hill directly above the grotto there is also the huge Basilica of Lourdes. The walls are lined to the ceiling with thousands of marble plaques engraved with “Thank You” messages to Mary and Saint Bernadette for answering prayers. The sheer volume is quite awe-inspiring and makes you wonder if there really is something in the water.
Eventually we made it back to our car and were pleasantly surprised to find that it hadn’t been stolen (considering the seedy section of town by the train station where we parked). In any case, Lourdes is definitely a place worth visiting, but if you’re really looking for spiritual inspiration, I would also highly recommend a hike in the nearby French Pyrenees mountains.
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