“Could we have a second round of cappuccinos please?” I asked the French waiter. Amused, he asked if we were American. I suppose we were propagating the stereotype that Americans expect massive portions, but we didn’t mind because we wanted the caffeine. Europeans need to get over their stinginess when it comes to the serving size of their delicious coffee.
My two friends and I had arrived at our hostel in Lourdes at 7:30 that morning. We had taken a night train from Paris, which sounded so exciting and adventurous when we were buying the tickets. In reality it meant that I spent the night pretending to sleep on a cot that folded down from the wall, across from an interesting little man. He slept in his underwear and interrupted my journaling to ask if I could please turn out the light. Above him was a woman who sipped on a bottle of wine, and above me was my friend, who of course had no trouble sleeping. Haggard and depleted, my friends and I stumbled off the train at the Lourdes stop, and toted our 50 pound suitcases crammed with everything we brought with us for our semester abroad. Our merciful and generous host let us into our rooms, and we passed out on our mattresses for a few hours, until we got up to get coffee and breakfast.
After we were finished our with cappuccinos, and the waiter was finished with teasing us, we followed the signs for the Grotto. I wasn’t expecting the grounds to be so grand and extensive. I also wasn’t expecting to be so moved as soon as we walked through the gate. In fact, as we approached the entrance to the Grotto, I realized I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t done any research or preparation for our day trip, and had no idea what it would bring.
The first thing it brought, in the first fifty feet, was tears. I couldn’t help it when I saw a single-file line of nuns and volunteers pushing men, women, and children in wheelchairs into the Grotto. I wondered what they had gone through to come here, and how much faith it would take to make the trip. I marvelled at the volunteers, marching the sick people to the site where Mary had appeared. It was a line of wheelchairs and pilgrims without a clear beginning or end. I realized that if it was like this on a Tuesday afternoon in September, it must be like this a lot.
We got in line to get up close to the grotto. Again the sheer number of pilgrims was striking, but even more than that, it was incredible to witness their faith. The faith of the people praying before Mary’s grotto was visible. Everyone was filing through, expressing their love to Mary in a variety of physical gestures. Some simply touched their fingers lightly to the water, some wiped it all over their faces; some cried and blew kisses to Mary, some walked through with their hands folded in silent prayer.
All around me I witnessed so many manifestations of hope and faith, and so many acts of devotion, fervor, and petition. It was good for me, because sometimes I have a hard time understanding the point of prayer. I often wonder, “Why would God grant one person a miracle and not another?” “What’s the point of touching relics and sacred places?” Simply witnessing the tremendous faith of the sick, the elderly, the volunteers, and the gaurds, strengthened mine, and was an example to me. It was bittersweet and beautiful.
Above all us, the statue of Mary stood with her hands outstretched, inviting us to come and let us help her.
I got up from the kneeler, and my friends and I re-connected. We smiled at each other, all of us feeling pretty peaceful. I thought we were about ready to make stops at the Church and the gift shop, and then head out. Until my friend suggested that we seek out the baths. I agreed that we should, but secretly I was surprised that this was even an option. I thought that bathing in the waters at Lourdes was something only sick people did, but my friends had heard of perfectly healthy people doing it. They didn’t know all the details, but were vaguely aware that it was done, and had been hoping to do so.
We got in a line of women praying the rosary outside a building, hoping that it was the line for the baths, but having no way of knowing, because we didn’t speak French, and the building wasn’t marked with any signs. It was a long wait. Though I was trying to focus on the rosary, it was getting harder as we got closer to the front; I had no idea what we were waiting for. First of all, we weren’t even sure the baths were in the building, and then secondly, we had no idea what the baths would be like. Big pools? Small sinks? Bernie had asked if we should wear bathing suits. I looked around. No one seemed to be carrying any bags big enough to contain changes of clothes. Did they have suits in their purses? Were we expected to just strip down? Each in our own stall or something? Soon, I was inside the building. The questions were becoming more pressing with each passing moment. It’s funny in hindsight, but it was less amusing at the time.
I was seated in front of a big curtain. Women’s voices came from behind the curtain, and every so often I heard a big whooshing sound. I was forming a plan of action. They can’t force me to strip, can they? I’ll just wash my face and slather it on my arms. I read a sign that said to prepare myself I should recollect myself and make an intention. I made one. Presently, a woman came out from the curtain and gave me her hand and a smile, which seemed to me like more of a smirk.
To make a long and humorous story slightly shorter, once I was behind the mysterious curtain, I was instructed to replace my clothes with a towel, and surrender myself to three little ladies who forcefully plunged me backwards into the icy waters of Lourdes. The whole process was frightening, humiliating, and took me completely out of my comfort zone – up until that moment.
After I had been bathed in the waters, I felt different. The water was icy cold, but I came out feeling warm. I felt peaceful and happy. I had read, on the same sign that instructed me to make an intention, that many people feel noticeably different after they bathe. But I hadn’t expected to feel anything because I wasn’t focusing on that aspect. However, I have to admit, it was true. I felt a difference. And I noticed I was smiling. Partly, I was smiling at how weird and unexpected the whole process had been. But mostly, I was smiling because it was very rewarding. My friends and I discussed it afterwards, after we exploded in laughter, and came to the conclusion that the way it was done was perfect, because it symbolized total surrender to Mary.
I hope the second half of this doesn’t deter anyone from bathing at Lourdes, it’s meant to encourage people to. It was hard, but it was worth it. It was bittersweet and beautiful.