Our Lady of Lourdes

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 Candlelight procession, Lourdes, France

Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes/ Message for World Day of the Sick

Shortly after I converted to Catholicism I worked a "stage" in Lourdes: three weeks as a volunteer helping the usual staff accommodate the huge summer crowds. One week I peeled potatoes at one of the hospice-hotels where pilgrims stay -- on a team of ladies peeling about 600 lbs a week, using hand graters just like at home.  Another week I served meals and accompanied people to and from the grotto. The third week I worked in the baths, lowering the sick and other pilgrims into the waters.

It was difficult, spiritually. The humble work I didn't mind. I was still coasting on baptismal grace and it seemed wonderful to do something hidden that could be offered as an absolutely pure, un-self-interested offering to God. We'd be exhausted at the end of the day, but when you do physically hard work in the service of others you have the satisfaction of accomplishment and sleep the sleep of the just, which is a good not to be underestimated. 

What was hard was that I was a fresh-minted Catholic and only intellectually reconciled with the Marian doctrines. Mary as a spiritual mother still didn't resonate with me, and to be thrown into the saccharine core of Marian devotion with its endless tacky souvenir stands on the approach to the grotto was troubling to the point of scandalous to me. Plus, people go to Lourdes who are the forgotten of the earth. I saw deformity and decrepitude and physical and emotional suffering there the likes of which I'd never imagined: a 12-year-old boy with his face contorted into a snout, his natural features looking something like a gas mask you might see in a sci-fi movie; a woman with liver disease that had turned her literally green. So many bizarre cases to make the gaunt cancer sufferers and palsied children in their pallets seem lucky.

If there was ever a place exemplifying Shaw's contemptuous complaint of the tackiness and ugliness and noise of the Church, Lourdes is it. 

Its beauty sneaks up on you, or sinks into you, quietly. In the grotto, the abandoned crutches testify to 67 bona fide miracles over the years --and the power of God to heal us if he wills it. What touched me more was the simple goodness all around me. The generosity of the care-givers who accompany sick pilgrims. The tireless patience and devotion of the year-round staff at Lourdes. People reconciled with the faith and with their own crosses -- almost everyone leaves having seen suffering in another they can't imagine bearing and grateful for their own lives. The mysterious sense of Christ's being with you, carrying his cross beside you, in the nightly Eucharistic procession. Life, even with its crosses, gradually makes its goodness felt.  I had a profound experience of Christ's presence at mass there one day, and was inspired with a little private prayer to say upon receiving communion that I've prayed every single day since. 

When I came upon this little poem the other day, I didn't at first like it. Reading it a second time more carefully, I found it captures the spirit of the place well.  

Lourdes
Gerard A. Lessard, OP (1981) 

Poor silent wheeled about
The stone and marble route
Form queues to bathe and quench
Both foreigners and French.
Stone kissed and touched grown worn
As surely dreams are born.
A peaceful atmosphere
Remembering the seer.
Our Lady mystery
Makes sweet the misery.
God’s gift of life received
Makes us purely conceived.
Candle streams afire
Vanquishing the dire.
Angel’s Salutations
Rise with expectations.
Weathered faces shielding
Pilgrim’s faith unyielding.
Bodies of all races
Filled with heavenly graces.
Unsympathetic fiends
May stand to judge the scene
Yet tears of joy and pain
Change hearts to hope in gain.