A Reluctant Pilgrim at Lourdes

Many Catholics would be eager to be given an all-expenses-paid trip to Lourdes, but there are some who might decline. After all, not everyone is keen on overseas travel, not to mention the huge crowds that gather there.

And as the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes approaches on Feb. 11, I find myself wondering what I would do.

There is a lady whom I hold dear who went, albeit reluctantly, on a pilgrimage there—and then shared the details in her letters in “The Habit of Being.” And although we’ve never met, I have considered this lady a friend—and a spiritual director of sorts—ever since writing a book about her.

You may have guessed it already: Flannery O’Connor was the reluctant pilgrim who went to Lourdes.

She lived a quiet life with her mother on Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville, and after her death was hailed as one of the finest Southern authors of the 20th century. She was a funny and brilliant person, and a faithful Catholic, who died at age 39 from lupus.

And here are the details: In 1958 there was a diocesan pilgrimage planned to Lourdes, and an elderly cousin, Katie, offered to treat Flannery and her mother to a trip. This shrine has been the site of 67 authenticated healings since the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. And Katie was praying for Flannery’s healing, especially because medications were causing her hipbone to deteriorate, and she was on crutches.

Flannery, however, was not thrilled by the idea of flying overseas and also dreaded the prospect of immersing her limbs in the healing waters. “The lack of privacy would be what I couldn’t stand,” she noted, and admitted her reaction was neither “right nor holy”—but it was the truth.

Now fans of Flannery’s fiction know she had a gift for plumbing the dark side of human nature in stories that often featured such shocking events that some of her family members were scandalized.

However, many stories also underscore the miraculous gift of the Lord’s grace, offered in the bleakest situations. This emphasis on grace makes sense, given that the author definitely embraced a belief in divine intervention.

She was well aware, however, that miracles were a “great embarrassment” for self-proclaimed “modern” folks. But, as she assured friends teetering on the brink of nihilism, without miracles Christ would be reduced to a fallible teacher, not God—and the heart of Christianity would crumble.

Believing in miracles on an abstract level, however, was not enough for her. Faith, she wrote, had to be lived out, and that entailed sacrifices. So, in the end, like a character in her fiction, Flannery was given sufficient grace to take the plunge: She squelched her misgivings about planes and privacy—and headed to France.

The “pilgrims” in her group, she reported, included four priests; four old ladies who constantly got lost; two little boys; two secretaries—one of whom (a redhead from Albany, Ga.) saw the entire trip as a shopping spree—and “me and ma.”

As for Lourdes itself, Flannery described it in her inimitable fashion as a commercial nightmare defaced by what she darkly called “religious junk shops” filled with tacky paraphernalia.

Still, she didn’t want to disappoint her cousin, so she put aside her qualms about commercialism and crowds, and bathed in the healing spring. But, as she divulged later, when she reluctantly took a step into the water, it was not her health she was praying about.

A few months after the pilgrimage, doctors reported that her hip bone was somewhat stronger, and she was able to walk—at least for a while—without crutches. This improvement, Flannery noted, might have been due to Lourdes, or to someone’s prayers, but in either case, she was grateful to God.

There was, however, another healing in her life, which meant more to her. It seems her attempts to write a second novel had been stalled for some time, and she had prayed about this at the shrine. And when, not long after, she finally completed the first draft of “The Violent Bear It Away,” she credited Lourdes.

Like Flannery once did, I spend huge chunks of time in my study pounding away on a keyboard. I am also a homebody who flinches at the notion of overseas travel.

Still, if I had the chance to put into practice my belief in miracles, I hope I would follow her example: sacrifice my misgivings about flying and my qualms about crowds, and become another reluctant pilgrim at Lourdes.

Like this lady whom I hold so dear, I’d also be on the lookout for outpourings of grace in my life. And however this grace manifested itself, I hope I would accept it as humbly as she did, and be thankful to God.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage