Monday, August 1, 2011


Over dinner in a chambres d’hotes (B&B) outside of Lourdes, France, my husband and I met an English couple who over the years have become two of our closest friends. They’d been in the region for several days and told us about their trek into the nearby Pyrenees where they happened on a Great Pyrenees dog show. We got an odd response when I told them we were headed for Lourdes the next day. They hadn’t ventured into the town and couldn’t imagine why I would organize our itinerary around going there.
In case you’ve never heard of it, Lourdes is a pilgrim destination where in 1858, a 14-year-old local girl, Bernadette Soubirous, claimed the Virgin Mary appeared to her in the remote Grotto of Massabielle. The lady appeared 18 times, and by 1859 thousands of pilgrims were visiting Lourdes. Since then millions of people have come, many to take the waters which are purported to have healing powers. So what were a Buddhist and her Southern Baptist husband doing there? Good question.
The answer—curiosity. What about the place drew thousands of pilgrims from around the world each year? 

While we parked our car in a tourist lot around nine in the morning, tour coaches began to arrive and deposit pilgrims who swarmed toward the streets leading to the Shrines. To avoid the crush, we hurried ahead only to be distracted by shop after shop of unbelievable religious kitsch: Bernadette and/or the Virgin in every shape and size, adorning barometers, thermometers, plastic tree trunks, empty bottles that you can fill with holy water, bellows, candles and illuminated plastic grottoes. I bought a tiny glass bottle with a metal disc of St. Bernadette and the Virgin Mary glued on it and we headed for the main attraction.
When we eventually got to the Grotto the atmosphere shifted to one of reverence. Priests, nuns, pilgrims and a pair of Americans (us) waited patiently to enter the Grotte de Massabielle  and touch the sacred stone where Mary had appeared.  The stone was worn smooth and I only had an instant to brush my fingertips over it before the crowd nudged me on.
As we left the shrine, it felt right to light a devotional candle and fill my small bottle from the line of spigots along the side of the hill before entering the Rosary Basilica.
We sat reverently in the ornate sanctuary for many minutes, admiring its colorful domed ceiling and golden Roman-Byzantine arches. And from the ceiling a beautiful mosaic of the Blessed Virgin looked down on us with open arms. It was a serene and moving moment—mystical and beautiful.

Then my husband leaned over and whispered, “Who does she look like?”

Instantly I knew the answer. “Cate Blanchette,” I said.

He grinned and I knew it was time to move on.


Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

You planned your itinerary around a place of religious significance, and I stumbled upon one. Three years ago, in Ireland, my husband, two friends, and I joined a walking tour in the hills of the Burren in County Clare. "Burren" is Irish for "rocky land." I expected a good hike, great views, and information about the alpine plants that grow amongst the limestone slabs. I got all that as well as stories about the Catholics driven into the Burren during and after Cromwell's time. I touched a mass rock--a rock on which mass had been celebrated for those in hiding, and the experience was moving and, yes, mystical.

Lark Howard said...

Don't you love Ireland! There's something about the ancient ruins that inspire reverance. I haven't been to County Clare. I'll put that part of the country on my wish list for s future trip.