By Alicia Reynolds
“Notre Dame de Lourdes, priez pour nous. Sainte Bernadette, priez pour nous. Oh, Marie, conçue sans péché, priez pour nous qui avons recours à vous,” I said for the hundredth time that day as I helped an elderly French woman walk out of the bath and into the arms of the “Madame” of the piscines. It was June of 2014 and I had finally made it to Lourdes, France—a rare place on this earth I know has been touched by Heaven. I first decided to go on a volunteer pilgrimage during my sophomore year of college after learning that ordinary people like me could actually travel to Lourdes and serve in the baths for those making a pilgrimage to Lourdes. This was so exciting for me because it was like I found out I could travel into the world of my favorite fairy tale. The account of Lourdes was something I didn’t hear about until I was in college, but it resonated with me more than any other Marian apparition site. Here is a quick synopsis of what happened there on February 11th, 1858:
A poor and unintelligent (seriously, that’s how they describe her) fourteen-year old French girl named Bernadette Soubirous and two other girls made their way down into the grotto by the river Gave de Pau, which was the equivalent of the city dump, in order to find any driftwood to sell for bread. Her mother told her not to get wet since Bernadette was sickly (forgot to mention that; she had a lot of things against her), so Bernadette just hung out by the grotto while the two other girls skipped across the rocks to the other side of the river. She then heard a strong gust of wind even though everything around her remained still. She turned around and saw upon a rock in the grotto a lady dressed in white with golden roses on her feet. The lady did not say anything and neither did Bernadette. They simply prayed a rosary together and then the lady vanished.
For the next 5 months, the lady appeared to Bernadette 17 more times and she handed on to Bernadette a message for the world: “Come, drink from the spring and repent.” The lady (who later revealed herself as the Blessed Virgin Mary) was referring to a spring she made appear in the grotto, which began to miraculously cure people who drank from it from their physical ailments. There are 69 miracles approved by the Church that were the result of the water from the spring. Today, thousands of pilgrims of all different faiths, languages, ages, abilities, and ethnicities travel to Lourdes every day to visit the grotto, drink of the water from the spring, which still flows today, and take part in the processions. Pilgrims can also literally immerse themselves entirely in the message of Lourdes by going into the baths (or piscines) of the spring water, which is where I came in.
Honestly, I could write a whole book on the meaning of Lourdes and its significance in my life, but the greatest lessons I learned from my time there were received through the pilgrims I served and through my fellow volunteers. I volunteered in the women’s baths, helping pilgrims get undressed, lifting them into and out of the water, and just being a hand to hold through their experience. Some women cried, some nervously laughed, and others were silent as they stepped into the waters. I spent 6 hours of back-breaking work in the piscines every day for a week and at times I felt I was going to pass out from physical and emotional exhaustion. A lot is required from someone who bears the weight of others, and I was not strong enough for that, but somehow I made it through (I like to say that was the 70th miracle of Lourdes) and I learned something I never want to forget:
There is no excuse for not going out of our way to love every soul we encounter.
A young girl broke down in the baths from carrying so much pain, and I thought, “She looks so normal. If I passed her on the street I would probably just be jealous of her shoes and dismiss her, never realizing her burden.” Everyone has a story, but we do not take the time to learn it; we sometimes just unconsciously judge. And there is no excuse for that. There is no barrier too strong or wall too high to not be taken down by love. It may happen slowly (like trying to patiently instruct an Italian woman on the routine in the piscines when neither of you speak each other’s language), but that barrier brought on by pride, impatience, and indifference—the one telling you to give up and go home—will eventually come down. Brick by brick and log by log, it will fall if we bear each other’s burdens and make it. This type of loving acceptance is what makes Lourdes the rare place it is.
People do not just make a pilgrimage to Lourdes in hopes of being healed of their physical disabilities. They come to Lourdes in order to learn how to hope again. It is the loving community of volunteers and pilgrims that restores hope and faith, which is a miracle not so easily seen. It may seem to be a little step, but putting yourself in the arms of a stranger as you walk into new waters can renew your faith in love and give you a reason to hope again.
For more information on Lourdes visit http://lourdesvolunteers.org/