Memories of another March and a pilgrimage to Lourdes
For me Lourdes is a very special place on Holy ground. The Spirit moves there in the rushing waters of the River Gave, and in the gentle breeze that wafts down from the mountains. The Spirit moves there in the souvenir shops where the staff will literally move the doors, displays and furnishings to enable a wheelchair bound customer easier access. The Spirit moves in the cafes where no-one minds if you just buy a drink but use their toilets and take up all of their tables and chairs to eat your own picnic. The Spirit moves in the Churches, the Grotto, the Basilicas and all around the Domain, where the sick and infirm are the VIPs who go straight to the front of any queue, getting the most attentive care.
I have fond memories of travelling as a helper on many ACROSS trips to Lourdes by Jumbulance. Trips were usually made up of 10 VIPs and 10 helpers, with a Doctor and 2 nurses ready for any medical emergency, and a Priest to celebrate the sacraments whenever and wherever the need or opportunity arose.
We all stayed in specially adapted accommodation at L’Astazou where attentive staff catered for our every need. We helpers were there to make it possible for VIPs, whatever their physical limitations, to take part in and enjoy all the wonderful experiences on offer in Lourdes and the countless opportunities for prayer and Liturgical celebration in spectacular settings.
Amongst the most memorable celebrations I attended, apart from those in the Grotto itself, was an International Mass at Pentecost. It was celebrated in the amazing Underground Basilica and attended by more than 30,000 people of all ages and in all conditions. Mere words cannot describe the emotive power and overwhelming joy of celebrating Mass with that number of people singing as one to the Lord in such a vast and impressive setting.
Yet another was celebrated on a mountain-top in a thunderstorm complete with lightning! We often had to improvise in unusual settings, as when we used a wheelchair for an altar and celebrated Mass on a grassy bank beneath the statue of Our Lady of the Snows, with the sun in the sky and a breath-taking backdrop of the snow-capped Pyrenees.
I imagined sharing such experiences with a very dear friend who was very sick, we will call her M, who, although she had travelled far and wide had never been to Lourdes. I suggested that we could go together and her immediate response was, “Yes, we should”. She was keen to make the pilgrimage as soon as possible and we thought Holy Week would be a special time. So, I set about making the arrangements and she prayed for the strength to travel.
In Oliver Todd’s lovely little guide, The Lourdes Pilgrim, he describes a pilgrimage as,
“a reflection of our life’s journey towards God, with all the decisions and demands that this makes on us. On a pilgrimage, which might last only a week, we encounter the spiritual milestones of our lifetime’s journey in faith”.
Well my life’s journey towards God has at times resembled stumbling across a minefield on a foggy night in hobnail boots, so I thought I had better get some help! As there were no organised trips available when we wanted to go, I turned for help to one of my soulmates and a Lourdes veteran, whom I shall call C, to do all the driving and practical stuff so that I could devote all my attention to caring for M. Thankfully he agreed.
M’s doctor was very keen for our venture to succeed but it was not possible for her to travel with us in person. So, she visited M at home and made sure that she had everything needed to make the trip as comfortable as possible. She gave me all the reassurance I needed that I would be able to look after her and assured me that qualified medical help is immediately available in Lourdes itself in case of emergencies.
I then turned to Tangney Tours for help with travel and they could not have been more helpful. They organised a flight from Birmingham to Toulouse so that we would not have to endure long uncomfortable drives or flights. They organised the perfect ‘people carrier’ for us, a Kangoo, to drive from Toulouse to Lourdes in. It had plenty of space for luggage and wheelchair, and it was almost brand new with only 500km on the clock. They also booked us into the central Hotel St Sauveur where we had excellent rooms. Last but not least they gave us the phone number of their permanent representative in Lourdes, who was most helpful and even came to visit us at the hotel. So, there was no escaping now.
Lourdes here we come!
Monday~ The journey to Birmingham airport was pleasant and short with M resting comfortably in a reclined passenger seat complete with pillow. The airline company had been informed that we would be travelling with a wheelchair so we got very good service. A lovely young lady called Sue met us and took us all the way to the plane. Sue was very interested in our trip and wanted to hear all about Mary, Bernadette and Lourdes. She asked of Mary, “wasn’t she the one who had a baby?” Sue told us about a pilgrimage she had been on to the shrines and temples of India, and about her confusion over the Bible, and different Christian religions. Such deep conversation and we hadn’t even left Birmingham Airport!
The flight was short and M slept most of the way while C and I chatted about all the places we would like to visit with her. The landing made M feel a bit queasy but a cup of tea and a sandwich soon made her feel better. We then picked up our Kangoo and set off for the drive to Lourdes by the scenic route ~ because I was navigating! It was picturesque and the weather was dry. We stopped on the way for refreshments and to give M a chance to stretch her legs. We nattered, laughed, reminisced and generally relaxed, as we got closer to Lourdes via Tarbes. We arrived in good time for dinner at the hotel.
One of the surprises of the week was that M really enjoyed her food and ate heartily at every meal. This was a great relief as she had refused point blank to bring any of the nourishing liquid meals that she had on prescription.
After dinner we settled into our rooms, a shared twin for M and me and a single for C. We could almost see the Basilica from our window and we could clearly hear the singing from the Torchlight Procession. But after all that travelling we were happy just to listen for tonight.
Tuesday~ We made our first visit to the Domain to say hello to Our Lady at the Statue of the Crowned Virgin. We then went straight to the Grotto where the Brancardiers cleared a way for us and M had her first glimpse of the spring from which Bernadette had drunk, and the actual Grotto where Our Lady had appeared. We put our written petitions into the petitions box, handing them over to Our Lady, then touched the cold rock and blessed ourselves with the water trickling down. We then made our way past all the candles and saw that there were no queues at the baths. M was determined to go into the baths so we went straight to the ladies’ entrance, as C went off to the men’s. As always, I found the baths very humbling – and incredibly cold. M bravely entered the bath after me and was almost fully submerged as she walked slowly towards the little statue of Our Lady in penance. I think she would have stayed there all day she was so moved by the experience. She didn’t mind the cold, she felt invigorated. C was out much quicker than us and got into conversation with a Vietnamese lady. She told him she was only in Lourdes for one day with her doctor son. She had wanted to bring her husband who had cancer, but sadly he had died before he could make the trip. His name was Joseph.
We then found each other again and went to see all the places of interest in the Domain. First, we visited the Crypt, which was the first church to be built in answer to Mary’s request. It was blessed on Pentecost Sunday 1866 and the first of countless pilgrimages started. Next, we went to the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, or Upper Basilica, a Gothic style building consecrated in 1876. Inside there are many chapels to see and beautiful stained-glass windows, which depict the story of Lourdes. Onward we went to the Rosary Basilica, opened in 1889 and consecrated in 1901, where we were pleased to see that many of the mosaics have been restored to their original beauty. There is a large mosaic of the Virgin Mary with arms outstretched and an inscription ‘Par Marie a Jesus’ which means ‘Through Mary to Jesus’. We saw an interesting exhibition about the Turin Shroud at the Chapel of Cosmos and Damian before going back to the hotel for a very welcome lunch. M requested chicken and chips followed by apple pie and ice cream. After such a busy morning we had an hour’s rest before getting onto a petite train for a tour of the museums and town of Lourdes. This was very successful as we all saw places we had not seen before. We decided to get off and visit the rather overpowering Chateau Fort for the fantastic views over Lourdes, and to see the model villages and floral displays. M took lots of photos then we returned to ground in a dreadful old lift and decided to go shopping. There is a special shop in Lourdes with a very eccentric owner, an obsessive collector, who seems totally unimpressed by customers to the point that he simply ignores them. His shop is stuffed to the gunnels with treasures and every year it gets harder and harder to see his stock because it is so cluttered. But it really is so wonderful we just had to battle through his defences. Onward we went buying candles and postcards until M spotted the River Gave. The river was like a raging torrent crashing over huge rocks and hurtling round bends. M was very fond of water, the wilder the better, so we found a place where we could climb down and we sat against a wall basking in the sun like a pair of lizards until it became uncomfortable. We then had a hot chocolate in a café and headed back to the hotel for a well-earned rest before dinner. That evening we went to the torchlight procession. The procession was very small because the big pilgrimages don’t start until Easter week, and it was very dark because the wind was so strong that the candles kept blowing out. But we made our way down and were ushered straight to the best place in front of the Basilicas. Our candles were relit and we sang the final hymn, ‘As I kneel before you’. C remembered talking to a priest who knew the girl who wrote this hymn after an experience in Lourdes.
Wednesday~ M had a good night’s sleep after our very full day yesterday and she was very chirpy at breakfast. We are letting M set the pace and choose what we do each day so it is a very different experience from the larger ACROSS group pilgrimages. Today we planned to drive to St Savin to see the old Benedictine Abbey. On the way I popped into a Chemist to stock up on the dressings, which made M a lot more comfortable. She posted her cards and had a look at the local street market with C. She was very unimpressed with the prices! We then set off on the road to Argeles, which would lead us up into the hills and to St Savin. The weather was not good with drizzling rain so the expected superb views were tantalisingly obscured. But we arrived and had a wonderfully peaceful time in the ancient abbey. We settled down by Our Lady’s Altar and lit 3 candles, one for each of us, and our intentions. As the three of us prayed together in silence, a deep peace settled on us and it lasted and lasted and we rested in it. To our right a small arch framed the Blessed Sacrament on the altar at the other side of the church. We quietly left the abbey and headed for the ‘Poste-Café’ for some hot drinks. We settled down and started talking. M mentioned the Infant Jesus of Prague and was invited to tell us more. She gave us a moving account of the story of the statue and we shared some of our journeys through life. We all need the healing touch that only the Lord can give. Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, which is a hallmark of pilgrimages I find, we each went into the loos to marvel at the floral toilet seats and animal pictures on the walls. We had parked the “Roo” in our favourite spot and headed back there for our picnic. The drizzle had eased and the clouds had lifted to reveal a panoramic view of the snow-covered Pyrenees. It was made more breathtaking by the black kites flying just a few metres away from us. “It’s a wonderful day – praise the Lord”, as Brother Joe would have said. Bro. Joe was a Salesian who had travelled to Lourdes with us several times and he was always in charge of the weather, since wherever he went the sun went too. However, his philosophy was that the sun did not follow him, he just knew where to go to find it! So, following his example we decided to just drive and see where the Lord took us. M had warned us that she does not like being driven up steep roads so we convinced her that the Pyrenees were not steep as we headed straight for them. Fortunately, she was so captivated by the views of the rushing river Gave, the waterfalls and snow-capped mountains against the deep blue sky that she failed to notice how high we were climbing until we arrived in the ski resort of Gavarnie. Here we all turned into children again, throwing snowballs at each other and enjoying the warmth of the sun. M’s joy was complete when she saw the small row of shops selling souvenirs and wonderful sheepskin goods – and so cheap. She raced through the whistling dolls and cowbells looking for presents for her much loved family, with some success. We then walked as far as we could with M in the wheelchair towards the frozen waterfalls, the source of the river Gave. We passed donkeys, skiers, and intrepid souls who walk or cycle the Pyrenees for fun! After refreshments in a café we headed back for Lourdes enjoying the spectacular scenery once again. A more pleasant way to spend a day would be impossible to imagine. And when we got back to Lourdes we went straight to the Underground Basilica for the Blessing of the Sick.
The service was well attended but we were able to get right to the front with the wheelchair. C was struck by the beauty of the cross with figures of Mary and John below. In front of it was a floral display, which we had noticed in other Basilicas. It comprised a large palm, which seemed to form the base and the back of the display; rising in front and from it were sprays of white flowers and some red tulips. It symbolised Holy Week from Palm Sunday, and right up to the Resurrection. The Blessing was very simple and moving and then we went back to the hotel exhausted. Supper was delicious as usual and M managed all four courses. Afterwards she felt so well that we went for a drink in the bar before bed.
Holy Thursday ~ Today was planned as a special treat for M as we knew how much she loved markets. Ray from Tangney Tours had told us that Tarbes market is the biggest and best around so that was our destination. At the sight of all the stalls M got a new lease of life. She abandoned the wheelchair and was off. It was all we could do to keep up with her. I have to say the market was impressive with beautiful French designer clothes at bargain prices. Still M haggled and got prices even lower until hardened stallholders were visibly despairing. We felt it was time to rescue them and lured M off to a café for drinks. After a few more forays and a few purchases she was satisfied and we set off for our next destination, Bartres and Hosanna House.
Hosanna House, home of the HCPT, had been spring cleaned ready for the arrival of the big Easter Pilgrimage. The English staff had just arrived and the head of the ‘Handicapped Children’s Pilgrimage Trust’ was expected any minute to inspect the house. However, as always, they welcomed us with open arms and let us browse round their lovely little shop. We could have spent a fortune, in fact two of us did, but we were getting hungry so we set off to find our favourite café in Bartres. We passed the sheepfold where Bernadette had worked as a shepherdess in 1867. The Bergerie (shepherd’s hut) that Bernadette would have known so well is still there and visible from the road. After another delicious picnic and lots of hot chocolate we set off for Lourdes once again by a different route. This time we passed L’Astazou and glimpsed the ‘chateau’ where we had stayed so many times with ACROSS. It was sad to see it all shuttered and empty but the ACROSS sign was still on the gate. Back in Lourdes M had a rest while C went out to buy all the water bottles, candles and last-minute gifts for the people who were with us in spirit. He found a wonderful new shop selling religious items but kept it secret, fearing that M and I would plunder it if we knew its whereabouts.
After a quick meal we set off for the Mass of the Last Supper in the Underground Basilica. This was impressive with quite a big crowd. Being well wrapped up with blankets in the wheelchair, M slept through some of the incredibly long homily, which was entirely in French. C and I had to kneel on the cold stone floor for almost two hours so we managed to stay awake. We would have loved to ‘stay and watch’ all night at the Grotto but we were all very tired and it was raining hard so we went back to the hotel to pack and sleep.
Good Friday~ Our last day in Lourdes and we intended to spend as much of it as possible near the Grotto. We took candles of various sizes with us and lit them, placing them on the special stands and praying for our intentions and for all of the people who helped and encouraged us and made this pilgrimage possible.
The Grotto has changed, with a new altar made out of rock, and steps possibly for a lectern being cut into the face of the Grotto as well as new candleholders around the inside.
We went to fill up our water bottles with Holy Water from the taps then decided to follow the Way of the Cross in the Underground Basilica. We had no books with us so we took it in turns to say a few words at each station and to pray again for our intentions. Then we set off on the return journey to Toulouse.
We stopped briefly so that at the Holy time of 3pm on Good Friday we were sitting together deep in our own thoughts and surrounded by icons in the exquisite Ukranian Orthodox Church. Looking out of the window we saw the snow-covered mountains bathed in sunlight. It was a beautiful way to leave Lourdes and we had a wonderful journey back. The scenery was beautiful and we passed numerous shrines, churches and crosses along the way. The kites seemed to follow us and we were all totally relaxed. M slept peacefully throughout the flight as C and I recalled all we had seen and done. We agreed that it was a gentle pilgrimage. We felt that we had been drawn to Lourdes by Our Lady and guided and blessed by her son. What a privilege it had been to share that precious time with M. And what an inspiration she was. My abiding memory will be that even though she was so ill, and she knew it, she never once complained or worried about herself. She was incredibly brave and so considerate. Her petitions were always for others not herself.
M died less than a month after we returned from Lourdes.