A Skeptic's Pilgrimage to Lourdes

When I was diagnosed with a rare and untreatable auto-immune liver disease five years ago called PSC I had no idea how to cope. My family has always had horse-shoes shoved up their rears as far as health went. Nobody in my family had ever, as I have come to call it, "lost their medical virginity" i.e. been diagnosed with a disease that could prove fatal. 

I had no road map to follow. Franck, however, did.

He had several family members who had dealt with life-threatening diagnoses and, as French Catholics, an incontournable part of their treatment was always to make a pilgrimage to the town of Lourdes in the French Pyrenées. 

Lourdes is one of the world's most important pilgrimage sites for Catholics. It is where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared several times in front of a local peasant girl named Bernadette in the mid 1800s.

That's Bernadette above being visited by the Virgin Mary and a bunch of, it appears, angels and other Holy Things.

Since the day I was diagnosed Franck insisted that he needed to take me to Lourdes to drink the Holy Waters and recruit the Virgin Mary for my support squad. 

So one summer morning in Burgundy we left La Maison des Chaumes in Villers-la-Faye at the ghastly hour of 4:00am, stopped for lunch at the market in Toulouse (delicious - rocamadour cheese drizzled with honey on a salad) and arrived in Lourdes mid-afternoon. 

Here I am, wondering how my agnostic / wannabe Buddhist self ended up here - as one of thousands of Catholic pilgrims at the world-famous Lourdes basilica. 

Nuns were everywhere. I mean EVERYWHERE. Nuns, for reasons I have never dared explore in depth, have always made me uneasy.

I was quickly reassured, however, by this Italian nun who lounged on the curb smoking, gossiping, and calling "BAMBINO!" at all the cute babies so they would be brought over for her to gush over. I wanted the Italian nun for my grandmother. 

There were also lots and lots and lots of sick people being ferried around on little blue carts by volunteers called les brancardiers. Franck was a brancardier at Lourdes during many summers of his youth with Villers-la-Faye's church group. He loved feeling like he was helping the pilgrims and those young brancardiers partied hard in the evening once they had put their charges to bed. 

The Catholics, it appeared, saw nothing at all abnormal about this unique cocktail of solemnity, reverence, and carousing. The Lourdes experience could, and did, encompass all of that.  

Even though I was definitely sick with my PSC (that "tan" I sport in the photo of me above isn't because I've been vacationing in St. Bart's - it's jaundice) it dawned on me that I wasn't really sick in the context of Lourdes. I was able to walk. I was able to eat. I wasn't hooked up to an IV. Really, I was more healthy than ill.

I realized I needed to give thanks for this as well as asking the Virgin Mary's good vibes for the future which, if I was one of the lucky ones, would include a life-saving liver transplant.  

After we checked into our hotel right beside the basilica, Franck hurried us back down to the river that flowed with of Holy Water right through the pilgrimage site. We had to participate in the evening prayer procession that looped around the basilica grounds.

As luck would have it (or maybe heavenly intervention seeing as we were in Lourdes after all) we found a group from the Diocèse of Dijon and joined them, walking behind the statue of the Virgin Mary they had brought from Dijon. We were each given a lit candle surrounded by a paper which had the Ava Maria and other prayers we needed to know written on the outside.  

The ceremony was incredibly moving - not because I had suddenly converted to Catholicism, but because I was, for the first time, made truly aware that I was not alone in being humbled by the random arrow of sickness.

I was not the only one who had to come to terms with the new reality that to possibly survive my diagnosis I would need the help of so many other people - my doctors, my nurses, my friends, and family, and in my case a heroic liver donor. It was impossible to walk this path on my own. If the Virgin Mary wanted to help too, she was more than welcome.

I may have cried a little. 

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The evening ended in the cave (la grotte) where the Virgin made her first apparition to Bernadette and created a spring of fresh water that exploded from the dry earth, still supplying the holy water of Lourdes that pilgrims drink while they are there and carry home with them in countless bottles.  

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I lined up with all the other pilgrims and circimambulated the walls of the grotte, trailing my hand over the rock surface which was smooth and shiny from all the pilgrims that passed before me.

I was just one of so many fellow humans suffering and far from alone in asking for a miracle.  

The next day we wandered around the inside and outside of the basicilica and marveled at the opulent design and detail of it all. 

Then we filled up numerous bottles of water to take back for ourselves, to Franck's family and some of our Catholic friends.

Last but not least, we hit the shops, where there is Virgin Mary EVERYTHING and kitsch is de rigeur. I found the stores a hilarious counterpoint to the intensity and emotion of the night before. 

Franck and I left Lourdes and enjoyed the afternoon driving around the Pyrenées before heading back to Burgundy, our car weighed down by rosaries, Virgin Mary statues adorned with glitter, and many, many, many bottles of holy water.

Since our pilgrimage, Franck feels that I am protected by Mary. You know what? As I hold one of the tiny bottles of Lourdes holy water that sits in my meditation corner, maybe I feel some peace in that too.