Lourdes, France: Of Penance and Piety
It was the 1st of May. My sister and I took a commuter flight from Paris to Tarbes-Lourdes, for our own pilgrimage to Lourdes. When we got off the plane, we proceeded to get a cab for our final destination. It was unusual to not find a taxi cab outside of an airport arrival area. But we waited for almost an hour. While waiting for the cab we noticed a woman of about 55 and a young man, joined by a regal-looking lady. They were on the same flight with us. Suddenly, the regal-looking woman got on a limousine, leaving the woman and young man behind. It was an odd scene, so my sister tried to strike a conversation with the woman. We found out that they were members of the ‘Order of Malta’ and that they were on their way to Lourdes to do their yearly pilgrimage and penance (to take care of the sick). Curious, my sister asked, “How do you become a member of the Order of Malta?” The woman answered, “You have to be invited. Did you see the lady I was talking to earlier, she was the one who invited us. She came from a royal family.” She also implied that they had donated a large amount of money for their membership. She added, “If you give to help the poor, it will come back tenfold.” We ended up sharing a cab to Lourdes. We learned that they came from a very prominent family (related to president of a small country). My sister and I got dropped off first at Best Western Beausejour Hotel. The mother and son waved goodbye and told us to look them up during the procession and mass, they would be carrying and waving an ‘Order of Malta’ flag. Then the taxi drove off to take the woman and her son to their five-star hotel built on top of the hill near the Sanctuary.
A lot of visitors of differing backgrounds and social status travel to the small Pyrenees village of Lourdes - where the Virgin Mary appeared to a young peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 (http://en.lourdes-france.org/deepen/bernadette-soubirous ). Today Lourdes is the 2nd most visited city in France that finding a place to stay could be a challenge. I’ve known a lot of people who had taken pilgrimage or invited me to join a pilgrimage to Lourdes. But pilgrimage had no appeal to me. I became interested in visiting Lourdes because it was listed in the book, “1000 Places to See before You Die”. Since we were already in France, I thought I would take the opportunity to visit Lourdes. I did a last minute hotel booking through Expedia. When we arrived, the hotel had our booking, but did not have any room for us for the first night, so they bused us to another hotel (of the same category according to BWB) closer to the Sanctuary. The substitute hotel was horrible. Never mind the tiny bed and the tiny bathroom, but it was horribly dirty. My sister was about to complain, but there was no other alternative. All the hotels in Lourdes seemed to be booked. If the dirty room was not bad enough, I had the most disgusting food for lunch at a restaurant that was beautifully situated by the river. Although we had a beautiful view, the food was terrible. My sister had to pull my plate of roasted chicken away from me as it smelled rotten. I took everything in stride and told my sister I was going to take all those bad experiences as act of penance. I was being sarcastic of course.
After lunch we visited the ‘ Sanctuary’ which includes: the Crypt, Upper Basilica, Rosary Basilica, Crowned Statue and Rosary Square, Underground Basilica, the Church of Bernadette, and the Grotto (the actual site where Bernadette claimed she spoke to the Immaculate Conception/Virgin Mary). There was an endless stream of visitors searching for spiritual experience and miraculous healing. We saw a lot of people in their ‘Order of Malta’ uniforms assisting people in wheelchair.
We joined the procession later that night. By the time we got to the Rosary Square, people already started to gather and to find their spot for the procession. We took our place at the 2nd tier of the Rosary Square. The sky was blue and there were clouds bleeding across it, with white streak and pale blue: the same color as the shroud in the statue of the Virgin Mary from the Grotto. It was extraordinary and I found it hard to believe, so I kept looking up to see if there was an aircraft that left or caused the white/blue streak. But I did not see any. There was something phenomenal about it that I could not explain. Somehow the color of the sky added sacredness to the place.
The following day, a representative from Best Western Hotel picked us up from the substitute hotel. The Best Western Beausejour was in contrast to the substitute hotel. Our room was pretty and clean. It had a picturesque view of the Pyrenees Mountains and the castle. And I appreciated the fact that BWB was quite a distance from the Sanctuary, away from the crowd. We did a lot of walking and that gave us the opportunity to explore other sites along the way: St. Pierre Church, where Bernadette was baptized, the House of Bernadette Soubirous’ parents, Lourdes Castle and the Pyrenean Museum.
We attended a mass at the underground cathedral. I have never experienced a mass officiated by hundreds of priests, and attended by thousands of people, and many flags raised and waved including that of the Order of Malta’s.
After the mass we lined up to take the Holy Bath, but as we got closer to the bath entrance, we were told to return the next day. I guessed they had their quota for the day. We woke up early the following day to experience the Holy Bath. But when we got to the Sanctuary, the line was already so long that I decided to forgo that ritual. Instead I bought 2 gallon plastic containers and filled them with spring water from one of the faucets along the cove. I used the holy water to bathe in the hotel.
On our final night, we attended the Marian Procession at 9:00pm once again. (http://en.lourdes-france.org/praying/marian-procession). We joined the procession from our respective spot, carrying a lighted candle in our hand. A copy of the Cabuchet statue of the Blessed Virgin was carried from the Basilica. The ‘Hail Mary’ was recited in different languages and the ‘Ave Maria’ sang as one voice. It was such a moving experience to pray the rosary collectively with people from all over the world. The Rosary Square was filled with people. We never saw the affluent mother and son that we shared a cab-ride with. I was pretty sure they were among the many that recited the “Hail Mary” and sang the “Ave Maria” with us. Never could I imagine that I would be so affected by the power of prayers and of this ritual.
I have visited a few holy places before, but nothing has moved me more than Lourdes, France.