I can trace my love for the Blessed Mother to a few moments in my childhood. One moment includes watching the classical film The Song of Bernadette, which I watched regularly as a young boy. For me, the apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes, as recounted in the film, affirmed my belief in God and moved me beyond words. Whenever I had doubts, I simply turned on the film and experienced renewal.
Ever since I saw The Song of Bernadette, I wanted to go to Lourdes. I knew that one day I would end up there given my ove for Mary and the work I undertake on her behalf as a person who reads, studies, and writes on the Blessed Mother. That day finally came on January 30, 2016. I found myself in France to research for a project I am working on and in my preparations I told myself, I cannot go to France and not go to Lourdes. I explored the possibilities, bought a hopper ticket from Paris, arrived at the airport, and hired a taxi to drive me to Lourdes.
As I arrived in Lourdes and settled at the hotel, I ventured down to the Grotto of Massabielle, contained within the Sanctuary of Lourdes. I walked through the gates, and immediately was touched by the beauty of the place. It was a picturesque day: no rain and a decent temperature. Better yet, it was the pilgrimage offseason, meaning pilgrim numbers were down and an intimate encounter with the Madonna of Lourdes was possible. I have already said the one word which not only captures my experience of Lourdes, but I would say, Lourdes itself. And that word is beauty. In Lourdes I discovered the Architect of Beauty, God, who fashioned all things and makes His beauty known.
The revelation of Mary’s identity to St. Bernadette speaks of beauty. After requesting the lady to identify herself, she finally did, and shared: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” This is the Divine Architect at work, fashioning the mother of God from the very moment of her conception to be immaculate and without sin. With the Church’s liturgy we acclaim tota pulchra es, she is all beautiful. Bernadette herself recognized Mary as beautiful, and it only makes sense given that she is the Immaculate Conception. In Lourdes, the Divine Architect allows the most beautiful of all creation to be revealed to Bernadette.
The Beautiful Grotto
It is no accident that the all beautiful one, Mary, the Immaculate Conception, appeared in a place not known for beauty, in a place where people pastured their animals, collected firewood, and dumped their garbage. Mary entered into the dirtiness of that place in order to make it beautiful. Similarly, on pilgrimage, we bring our garbage and ask the Lord to take it away through the sacraments and prayer. And in Lourdes, people bring the ugliness of their diseases and sicknesses so that within they may be restored to beauty.
My experience at the Grotto of Massabielle was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. In all of my travels to holy sites, I have never felt so near to God. The beauty of the grotto captivated me, because the Tota Pulchra was there. It was magnetic. While I spent hours sitting and praying in the Grotto, it was never enough. I did not want to leave. I wanted to remain there. I was drawn to beauty. I knew peace and calm. To leave meant I withdrew myself from what I experienced.
The Grotto of Massabielle is a simple place, where the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception has been constructed atop it. In its simplicity there is a characteristic beauty, crafted by the Divine Architect, who allowed the all-beautiful Madonna to appear there. The grotto experienced transformation after the 1858 apparitions from a garbage dump into a beautiful oasis of prayer and healing.
The Beautiful Soul of St. Bernadette
The soul of Bernadette, the one privileged to see the all beautiful one, contained beauty within her soul. Her innocence and love are beautiful in and of themselves. I obtained a small book titled Some of Bernadette’s Sayings in Nevers, France, the place where Bernadette joined the Sisters of Nevers and rests in eternal peace. In that small booklet, Bernadette’s fellow religious share their experiences of Bernadette. They recount the things Bernadette said and did, exposing the beauty of Bernadette’s soul. She earnestly prayed for the conversion of sinners and made small sacrifices, in accord with Mary’s call for penance, penance, penance during one of the apparitions. She never sought honor for the privilege she received. In the initial pages of the book, Bernadette expressed her desire to return to Lourdes, and whenever the place was mentioned, she cried, recalling its beauty and knowing she would never return. When offered the opportunity to go to Lourdes, she declined, knowing that her presence would detract from the experience of pilgrims seeking God’s healing and Mary’s intercession. She sacrificed, so that she would not be honored, but God alone could be for the beautiful work He accomplished through His Mother’s presence at Lourdes.
As mentioned already, my pilgrimage occurred during the pilgrimage offseason. That did not stop some pilgrims from visiting. I encountered Italian pilgrims, and a large group from the United States, among the others who come alone, or like me, travel with a few others. Pilgrims to Lourdes come because they are longing for something. They know Lourdes is special, and believe that God can and will do amazing things there. They seek healing in mind, body, or spirit. Healing of broken friendship or family wounds. On one of the days I was in Lourdes, it rained. Even rain did not stop the pilgrims from coming. With umbrellas in hand, they offered their Aves to the Immaculata. Pilgrims flocked to the Madonna, confident in her intercession, is a beautiful sight to behold.
The Beautiful Will of God
My trip to France, while crafted by my hand, was ultimately crafted by the hand of the Divine Architect. As I reflect about my experience, no man could have arranged it; only God could have. After the English Mass in Lourdes, a small group of three introduced themselves to me. They relayed to me that we were on the same flight leaving Lourdes to Paris. Afterward, they also asked me to pray for one of their group’s members, an individual who, for the past five years, has battled cancer off and on again. The cancer returned, so they turned to the intercession of the Immaculata, and in faith, came to Lourdes seeking healing in some way, shape, or form. I assured them of my prayers and looked forward to seeing them at the airport. Later in the day, I ran into two of them after bathing in the piscines. They shared how that experience moved them.
Later that night, my small group and I ate at a local hotel restaurant. The three pilgrims entered and I quickly invited them to dine with us. Our time of conversation was an expression of how beautiful God’s ways are as we shared how God has been a part of our life and especially on our pilgrimage. One of my pilgrims, an artist, brought some of his prints along with him on the trip. Moved by the Spirit, he wanted to give the woman a print of a butterfly. This simple print meant so much to the woman, for the butterfly was an image which she identified strongly with because of her mother’s death. The artist, who brought his daughter who suffers from neurofibromatosis and recently diagnosed with cancer, shared their story with the other woman. As the evening went on, listening to the woman share her story, I came to a point of tears for her. Moved by the Spirit, I offered the sacrament of Anointing to both cancer stricken individuals at the Grotto of Massabielle.
In the days following my pilgrimage, I continue to unpack and reflect about my time in Lourdes. I continue to return to those moments of sharing between pilgrims. It was there in Lourdes, that God showed me how everything happens in the divine plan. His will is beautiful!
The Beauty of Healing
Lourdes is a place known for healing. It was there, that the Architect of beauty, revealed a miraculous spring where many have bathed and experienced healing. At the prompting of Mary, Bernadette uncovered the miraculous spring of water. Mary further instructed Bernadette to drink and bathe in the water, which she did, and people still do to this very day.
Miracles happen daily, whether medically confirmed or not. The miracles are physical, spiritual, or emotional. They might not look like a miracles to some, but they are. In a story related to me several years ago, a woman went to Lourdes every year to pray with her crippled child. When asked if she received her miracle, she remarked “I come here every Fall and just pray that God gives me the strength to face another year. Having that strength is miracle enough for me, and I am always profoundly grateful.” Miracles can be physical, spiritual, or emotional.
For the one lady I met who suffers from cancer, she stated she never felt more energy in the past five years than during her short time in Lourdes. When it rains, she typically is overcome with pain. In Lourdes, she took no pain medication. A small miracle from Our Lord and Blessed Lady. It’s these small miracles that move people to go to Lourdes and seek healing in some form. The healing people experience is simply beautiful.
Many people search for healing and miracles. There are many people burdened with sickness in the world. Cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and the list goes on. People are in need of healing from familial wounds, maybe it’s an absent father or never experiencing love from one’s parents. Maybe it is spiritual healing, healing of memories or the harmful remnants of sin in our lives. We are a people in need of healing. To this end, I’d like to invite you to join me on a retreat pilgrimage to Lourdes in early 2017. The date has yet to be determined. The pilgrimage will take on the character of a retreat with one conference each day, Mass, adoration, availability for Confession, and the ability to engage the sanctuary of Lourdes. It will take place during the pilgrimage off season, because Lourdes is more intimate and conducive to prayer. If you are interested in this Marian retreat pilgrimage, send me an email at [email protected]. Once details are finalized, I will send them to you via email. I went to Lourdes as myself, and left a different person. I left a part of myself there, and now I want to go back and find it again. I invite you to join me on this pilgrimage of prayer. It will be a pilgrimage of beauty.