In the final hour of a seven hour travel stop gap in Bourdeaux aux St. Jean, I compulsively look at my train ticket for the Lourdes train number and arrival time. As the departure time approaches, I ask an attendant which platform I should stand on for the train to Lourdes.
“Right here,” he says.
I sit on the platform and watch the Arrival/Departure sign. There is no listing for Lourdes and the train is to depart in less than ten minutes. I ask two attendants where the train for Lourdes is.
“What might it be listed as?” I inquire.
They send me to the Information booth. There is no line-up and I am able to speak to the girl there quickly. She informs me that it is the train that will be arriving to Platform Six.
“What platform?” I feel panic rise into my throat.
“Six,” she shouts as I run for the platform. “You must go down, then up!” She gestures with her hands.
I speed down the first flight of stairs I see and then find the sign for Platform Six and race up those steps. I ask two women on the platform if this train goes to Lourdes exposing my travel compulsivity once again.
“Lourdes?” one asks me.
“Lourdes? Lourdes? Ah…oui! Lou-ar-Des!” she pronounces it in an exaggerated manner but not much differently than I had. “Oui. Le train pour Lou-ar-Des est ici,” she says.
“Ah! Merci, Madame. Merci beaucoup!” I smile.
I am so relieved to climb onto that train when it pulls into the station. My heart is pounding. I’m sweating. As time and the train chugs on, I fall asleep. I awake only when the train stops moving.
“Ce qui se passe?” I ask a young woman. “What’s happening?”
“We were told to disembark and busses would take us into Lourdes,” she tells me. “The train broke down.”
I thank her, grab my little carry-on bag and walk outside. It is a cool evening. The balmy, breezy night is such a welcome relief to the relentless, oppressive Paris heat. It is almost ten o’clock at night so I immediately begin to fret that I will be locked out of my hotel room. I walk into the parking lot and search the bus signs for one that read ‘Lourdes’.
“Lourdes?” a small Latino looking woman with red hair asks me.
“Oui, Madame,” I say. She points me toward the bus she is standing in front of and later will be driving.
I am the first one to board. That is one of the perks of carry-on luggage. The other passengers eventually load onto the bus and within minutes we are on our way. The night is so beautiful. Palm trees sway in the cool breeze. We pass mountains and rolling hills thick with lush forests. The twilight settles softly upon a blue black sky pregnant with the promise of rain. I immediately feel a deep sense of peace and calm. We pass through two petite villages that are quaint but visibly poor. We pull into Lourdes at about ten-thirty and again, I walk off the bus with my one small bag and approach a taxi.
“Etes-vous libre?” I ask the handsome, silver-haired cab driver if he is free.
His face is quizzical. “Quoi?”
“Etes-vous disponible?” The woman to whom he is chatting through his window explains what I had meant. “Are you available?”
“Oui,” he says. He thought I had meant would he drive me at no cost.
I immediately trust that cab driver. He has an honest face. He charges me only eight Euros for the journey. He drives me to my hotel and leaves me with his card in case I need a taxi again during my stay. I ring the front doorbell and the hotel proprietress opens her door to me. Her name is Elisabeth. Her gray hair is neatly tied back from her luminous face. I apologize profusely for my delay. I explain that our train broke down.
She waves her hand and says, “Someone did not want you to come here.”
She sits with me and using a brochure she explains the things I will want to experience while in Lourdes: Confession, Mass, The Stations of the Cross, and the night Procession. She emphasizes several times that I must to go to Confession before I do anything else.
“You might want to go to the baths but you have to wait for hours to get in. You might not want to do that. Just go to the taps and use that water,” she advises. “It’s the same water in the baths that is in the taps.”
I did want to be dunked in Lourdes holy water, but I didn’t know that it would be possible. Now it seems as though I wouldn’t have time to do so since I am only here for one day.
The hotel in Lourdes has its own chapel. Elisabeth tells me that they celebrate Mass in there every day and invites me to join them whenever I wish. The house is decorated with holy pictures and quotes from saints. I am in the room named after Saint Rita. She is the patron saint of hopeless causes along with Saint Jude. My parents married on the Feast Day of Saint Jude – October 28th – and I often tease them about that, making my mother laugh. My proprietress has the same name as the mother of John the Baptist. She was the woman who long waited to get pregnant and did so in her old age when it seemed beyond all possibility.
As I drift off to sleep, I think about what Elisabeth said to me, “Someone didn’t want you to come here.”
She is right, of course. It wasn’t just the maintenance issues with the train. While in Paris, I learned that there was some confusion regarding my Lourdes hotel reservation. I also suffered through a long layover in Bourdeaux aux St. Jean. I almost missed my train connection from Bordeaux, then the train broke down and I had to change to a bus. Prior to my arrival there were torrential rains in Lourdes for several days. Those rains washed out the roads and caused damage to buildings and bridges in Lourdes, even within the sanctuary.
“But I’m here. Christ and His Mother brought me safely here. I am here and I am His!” I say to the darkness. Exhausted, I sleep soundly.
I leave my hotel early the next morning and walk the sanctuary grounds. As I approach the gates I am amazed again by the deep feeling of peace I experience. This is a sacred place. I can feel it. The cathedral is beautiful but it is the mountains beyond the cathedral that take my breath away. I imagine Mary appearing over those mountains. It is incredible. I walk the grounds and pass the baths. It is seven-thirty in the morning and some women are already sitting there waiting for the nine o’clock entry. They pray the rosary together. I feel my heart telling me to join the line, but I don’t. Instead I begin my day with Mass in English.
After Mass I go to Reconciliation. Though Elisabeth has been insistent that I not go to Mass before Reconciliation, I have only one day in Lourdes and have to do things as I can fit them in. I have the most unenthused priest imaginable for Reconciliation. He is a very handsome, older man who walks with a noticeable limp. After my confession he quickly offers absolution and that is that. It is very anti-climactic. From there I go to the High Stations of the Cross. A young seminarian from Boston leads us, and a Scottish woman takes older pilgrims to do the Lower Stations. She tells me that she comes to Lourdes every year to volunteer for six weeks and while there she lives at the Lourdes hostel. She and I chat about Scotland. I tell her I was born in Dalmuir and she says that she is from Dundee. I tell her I am down to one teabag and ask if she knows where I might buy some tea.
“I haven’t seen teabags in a shop since I left Dublin,” I tell her.
“I have some in my room. I’ll go get them for you,” she says.
“Oh no,” I am embarrassed. “Don’t bother.”
I do not mean to hint that she should provide me with teabags, but she insists and runs off. She returns with about fifty teabags and a box of chocolate chip shortbread biscuits. I am touched by this act of kindness and generosity from a fellow Scot.
I see people filling bottle after bottle with holy water. Then they stand under the taps and splash their bodies with Lourdes water. This is the water to which Elisabeth referred when she told me not to bother with the baths. I think the pilgrims look silly washing themselves beneath the taps, but then I find myself sloshing about in the water from the Lourdes taps each time I pass by them and there is never a line. I throw some on my torn right rotator cuff, and the raised bump on my left shin, which I am convinced is the beginning of skin cancer. I throw the healing water over my head and heart too. I have to try, right? I also bring tiny bottles to fill so that I can bring some healing water home with me for loved ones.
After I have a quick lunch that day, I decide to try my luck at the baths. It is just after twelve noon when I arrive to the bathhouses. There are only fifteen women waiting. I sit down to join them and we pray the rosary together in Italian as more and more women join the line. Italian is spoken in Lourdes with greater frequency than is French. I wait for about ninety minutes before they open the baths.
During that time two Asian women enter through the front gate rather than the back port of entry that we had entered through, sweep past the line and stand at the front next to the baths’ entry. They have a little girl with them who is about age three. A man working security approaches the two women and tells them to go to the back of the line, but the women start to sign at him and make sounds in their throats that a wounded animal might make. They are signing to one another and in his face with a fury. Fleshy palms smack hard against themselves to emphasize point and meaning. I have seen a mute/deaf couple argue once before while I was newly married. Jack and I were in an elevator with the couple when a similar exchange occurred. This is what it looked like. I sit mute myself in the face of it all and watch them as they continue to communicate with passion and agitation. The little girl wears pink leggings and a pink floral t-shirt that comes down to her tiny bottom. Someone tells the women to remove the little girl’s leggings and when they do the child is bare-bottomed. One of the women, presumably her mother, sweeps the little girl into her arms and clutches her to her breast inadvertently exposing the baby’s genitals to the crowd. The child looks so vulnerable. They sit for a time and then they rush along the side of the wall behind which are encased the stone baths. Then they reappear. All of their movements are frenetic.
As the baths open, I am ushered in with the first group. We move from where we are sitting to the seats positioned along the stone wall that encloses the pools. People in wheelchairs and on stretchers are taken in ahead of the others. Two young American teenagers who are sisters, act as volunteers with their Catholic Youth Organization, and direct the women. One of the girls gestures to the two Asian mutes, who have reappeared again, that they should go in next. Now they stand holding the toddler, waiting to go in. I see an Asian man run through the same front gates whereby these women have entered. He flies past security and runs to face the two women.
He too is mute. He is making the same noises as I’d heard emanating from the women as he stands defiantly before them. The women have immediately flown into a panic at the sight of him and then he is suddenly upon them. He rips the baby from her mother’s arms as the mother pulls the child back into her. The man, presumably the child’s father, is wild with anger. Clearly, he does not want his child to be dipped in the healing waters of Lourdes. He starts to run with the baby in his arms but his wife pursues him and he is stopped by two men at the gate who take his child from him and return her to her mother. Her mother then runs with her daughter and her friend behind the curtain where the man can no longer reach them.
It seems clear to me that the child is also mute and her mother wants Our Lady of Lourdes to heal her of this affliction. Her mute father seemingly feels differently. Perhaps he wants to accept her as she is and not look for a miraculous cure for his daughter. This is his way of saying, “There is nothing wrong with her. There is nothing wrong with us. She is not sick just as we are not ill. She doesn’t need to be cured just as we do not need to be healed.” Her mother, having suffered in her own life as a deaf mute, wants something more for her child, something better than she’s had. She wants her daughter to have an easier life somehow as a hearing and speaking person. I can see both sides of the argument yet still I am glad the men intervened and returned the child to her mother.
Once behind the curtain I am asked to remove all of my clothes.
“Everything?” I ask.
I am surrounded by women. Some sit naked beneath their dark blue cotton wraps with an elastic that sits across their bare shoulders atop their breasts. Others are standing next to me ready to strip me of my clothes before they wrap me in my own dark blue cotton, elasticated robe. Reluctantly I allow myself to be stripped. The women could not be kinder. God shines from their faces. They are gentle and giving. They lovingly undress and dress again the older, lame women waiting to be dipped in the healing waters, and though I am moved by their attendance to the other women I could not be more mortified that I am about to receive the same undressing and dressing by alien hands myself.
“You hold onto your bra,” this one very kind woman says. “You take it in with you.” She presses my bra into my hand. It is an old, worn out sports bra, which is precisely what I love about it. “Hold it like this,” she says.
She looks like a sweet grandmother. She is plump and has short grey hair and smiling eyes. She gives my bra to me and I hold onto it. I keep readjusting my dark blue sheet and wrap it tighter around my naked body. When it is my turn to go in, I hold tight to my blue cotton wrap and release my bra from my hand as one woman insists that I give it to her. The woman speaks to me in rapid French and when I indicate that I do not understand her she asks me, “Quelle langue?”
“Anglaise,” I say.
They tell me to let go of the blue sheet and they will wrap me in the already wet white sheets and lift me into the bath and then out again. I understand now what I am to do but I can’t let go of my blue wrap. The French woman who has taken my bra from me slaps my hands away so she can pull my covering from my body. She sighs, indicating that she is frustrated with me, and yanks the blue robe from me like a magician who quickly snatches a table cloth in a nifty magic trick.
With the help of the other women, she wraps me in the white sheets. I felt terribly vulnerable in that moment. I am aware of my nakedness and every physical imperfection, but I shift my mind to think only of the sanctity of that place. I think that Christ must have felt as vulnerable when they stripped our Lord of His garments to crucify Him. When I let my thoughts rest in Him I am able to let go. I let all thoughts of my painful past, my inadequate clothing, and imperfect body fall by the wayside, and step into the bath guided by the loving hands of the six gentle women around me.
“Make an intention before you go in, oui? And then when you are ready we will walk you in.”
Just one intention? I have a boatful of them. I need more than one moment to lay them at the foot of the Cross before immersion. Nonetheless, I stand for a moment and think of my greatest intentions, which I wrote on a small sheet of paper as I waited in line. It now sits in my purse, which hangs on a hook in the disrobing room through the curtain.
I close my eyes and within the silence of my heart I say, “I praise You, God, for healing me of my past. I praise You for healing my heart of resentment and my mind from self-doubt. Thank You, God, for leading me here. Thank You for all that I am and all that I have. All that I am and all that I have is from You. Amen.”
I step into the bath, my hands held by two women, one on either side of me, as they gingerly guide me down the marble steps into the water. Two other women hold the wet white sheets tight against my body, securing me in the middle like a caterpillar in its cocoon. As I step fully into the bath I gasp slightly. The water is cold.
“I know it is cold,” the lovely, plump one says.
I hear another behind me, the one who slapped my hands away from my blue wrap, suck her breath through her teeth. I seem to infuriate her.
“Lie back in the water,” the sweet one says.
I lie back in the water and think of Mary and Bernadette. I want to totally immerse myself but I am called from the water by the women who then lead me from the bath in the same manner they have led me into it. The one who slapped my hands away asks for my bra and the sweet one gives it to her.
“This is not a bra,” she says in French handing my bra back to the grandmother.
“Oui,” the grandmother assures her. “Oui. It’s her bra!” she responds in French placing my black bra back into the other’s hands.
“Non!” she argues giving the bra away again.
“Oui,” the sweet one insists, still smiling, giving my bra back to the hand-slapper.
“Oui Madame! It is a sports bra,” I intervene. “Oui. C’est un soutien-gorge de sport. Il est tres confortable. Tres, tres, tres!”
They hold the sheet in front of me while I roll my tatty old sports bra over my wet skin. I walk back into the other room covered by the dark blue wrap again. A nun tries to help me dress.
“It’s okay, Sister,” I say. “It’s okay.” I turn my back to her and, still wet from the healing waters of Lourdes, quickly slide into my clothes.
When I leave the baths, I am determined to meet the English-speaking pilgrims at the Bernadette museum. That means that I don’t have time to get back in line at the Grotto where I want to place my petitions in the intention box that sits in front of the Grotto. I ask a man who is standing inside the ropes of the Grotto if he might put my prayers inside the intention box.
“Parlez-vous anglais?” I ask him.
He is Italian and he says, “Francais s’il vous plais. Un peu de Francais.”
I have to think for a moment. I look off to my right as I translate my request first in my head.
“Allez-vous mettre mes intentions de priere dans l’intention case, s’il vous plait?” I motion toward the intention box with my paper as if I am inserting it into its slot.
“Ah oui, oui!” he takes my prayer list from my hand and waves it at me as he heads toward the box where his group is lined up to touch the wall of the Grotto. “Oui. Dans l’intention case!”
“Si! Grazie, Senore!” I smile and wave to him. I watch him put my intentions in the box.
I run toward Bernadette’s museum, but I have missed the English pilgrims so I go to see Bernadette’s house and then her museum on my own.
I then go to the afternoon healing mass. It rains during the Mass but standing beneath a tree I don’t get wet. I look at the thousands of people who have come for physical healing. Many sit in wheelchairs. Some are afflicted with Cerebral Palsy or MS. My own cousin once brought her son to Lourdes. He has Cerebral Palsy. I pray for the healing of all present and all not present also in need of healing.
After the Mass, I walk the Low Stations of the Cross in the rain. Again, I am alone. I enjoy the peace of this sacred place as I walk its holy ground without another living soul around.
When I return to my hotel I chat briefly with the other Canadian who is there. Elisabeth had told me about her but I hadn’t met her yet. “She is from Calgary,” Elisabeth had told me. We speak together of Canada for a few brief moments, and then I retreat to my room to lie down for an hour before I go back to the sanctuary for the evening procession.
The procession starts at eight-thirty. There is no line-up yet to touch the Grotto so I move past the Grotto walls quickly then sit in the front seat before the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I watch people process. A beautiful African woman, dressed like a queen in robes of red, orange and gold, swishes past holding her head high. A tall, blonde, middle-aged woman who looks Dutch touches the walls and feels the water running down its sides. She nods knowingly at the water oozing from the crevices of the rocks as if the water is a miracle from Mary, but it has rained earlier that day during the healing Mass. It is merely accumulated rain water easing its way down the rocks of the Grotto. A man comes with a ladder and proceeds to carve away the wax from each white, pillar candle beneath the Virgin Mary’s statue. This goes on from dusk until dark. Finally, he has prepared all of the thick pillars to be lit and he lights them one at a time. It is beautiful.
When I leave the Grotto, I climb the steps to the cathedral. A group of youths run with a Jesuit brother toward their hostel located behind the cathedral. The priest picks up the skirt of his brown robe and races the children to their lodgings. I walk down the steps of the cathedral and head along the path that leads to the main gate. I return to my room and try to keep the balcony doors open to admit nighttime air to cool my room, but at the Italian gelato place beneath my room there is non-stop frolicking fun. Gelato enthusiasts below my window speak to one another in loud Italian and laugh noisily. I lie in my bed trying to sleep despite the gelato party that rages beneath me, and I wonder what it is about Italians. They are social in ways I cannot comprehend. They are not in any way considerate of others. They are not considerate at the breakfast table or at the holy sights of pilgrimage or even at night when people want to sleep.
My mind then congratulates my efforts in Lourdes. In one day, I fit in everything that I had wanted to do. I even got to dip in Lourdes’ holy waters. I decide that when I leave Lourdes early the next morning, I will try to take this sacred peace and healing with me to Italy. And while there I will try to figure out once and for all what it is about Italians, but in that moment I just want them to shut up and go to bed.