I will never escape Lourdes. My heart will always be a captive of this village on the north skirts of the Pyrenees. I have not seen Lourdes since 1974, my second and last visit, so far. But I’m quite sure there will be a third time. Because of the first time.
I was not a Catholic then. I was not even a practicing Christian.
I had left the Episcopal Church upon leaving home for boarding school, at 15. In 1971, the year of my first visit to Lourdes, I turned 20, and I was deep in the throes of a spiritual quest headed eastward, through yoga and Zen to sufism and the teachings of Gurdjieff.
Traveling with two friends, I arrived in Lourdes without a clue. One of my friends, raised Catholic, prepared me with some basic knowledge about the fourteen-year-old girl, Bernadette Soubirous, who saw a series of apparitions in 1858, a beautiful lady holding a rosary who called herself the Immaculate Conception. I did not know that the Immaculate Conception had become Church dogma only four years before the apparitions, or even what Immaculate Conception meant.
At that time, there were in Lourdes, if memory serves, several hospitals or hospices for the care of invalids, thousands of whom come every year in hopes of a cure. [The rest of this post is an edited excerpt from a longer post written last October.] On a beautiful late-spring day I was walking alone past one of these buildings when I noticed some kind of vehicle being unloaded and hospital sisters in full habits scurrying about. My attention must have been attracted, and I wandered closer when, suddenly, one of the sisters turned hopefully to me and asked, in French, if I could help for a moment. She gestured to follow her to the far side of the vehicle, then reached inside, and pulled out a child, whom she immediately placed in my arms, indicating that I was to carry the child up a flight of stairs. Attention à la tête! she said. Be careful of the head.
I looked down and only then fully realized what, I should say whom, I was facing. It was a hydrocephalic boy, with “water on the brain” and a terribly misshapen head. I was shocked. But he was in my arms and there was only one place to go: up the flight of stairs. I cannot remember how much eye contact I made with the child, or whether I even said anything. I know I was trembling. I reached the top of the stairs, where I mercifully was met by another sister who quickly scooped the child from my arms with a simple Merci, monsieur. Feeling my own inadequacy and lack of charity more than anything else, I beat a hasty retreat. Nor did I volunteer again to help the invalids of Lourdes.
That evening, I said my first rosary. At least that's how I thought of it, though I was not holding beads and the rosary was said in French, with which I was only high school–fluent. I did know the Our Father in French—Notre père, qui es aux cieux . . . —and could chime in pretty well every decade. But the Hail Mary was a work in progress, in French or even English. Yet none of the words mattered ultimately, because I was “saying my rosary” with about twenty thousand other souls, most of whom held a candle as we processed together in front of the great church that has been built above the grotto where the Blessed Mother appeared to the girl Bernadette.
I did not witness any miracles while in Lourdes, either in 1971 or again in 1974. I never bathed in the waters of the grotto, although I probably will next time. I can only say that from that evening on, the rosary was impressed on my consciousness as something I wanted to experience more often. And my eastward path had taken a slight deflection toward Rome. When your voice is joined with twenty thousand others, you understand that something far greater than you is praying when you say the words. There was a presence in the square in front of the church at Lourdes that evening. As there surely is a presence in Lourdes, 152 years after Our Lady’s apparition there.