|The Grotto at Lourdes ~ France|
The flowers have appeared on the earth,
the time of song has come;
and the call of the turtle dove
is heard in our land.
Rise, my love,
my beautiful one,
O my dove in the clefts of the rocks,
in the recesses of the cliffs.
Gradual Prayer for the Mass of Our Lady of Lourdes
THE FEAST OF OUR LADY OF LOURDES is celebrated this year on Tuesday, February 11. Lourdes is in the Pyrenees Mountains of France where the Virgin Mary appeared eighteen times to young Bernadette in 1858.
I have been to Lourdes many times, my first visit was while I was a seminarian in the mid 1970's. Poor fellow, the priest I traveled with wasn't much of a believer in Marian apparitions, and so it was a short visit. Quite often, the secular clergy don't do especially well with discomfort, so he wasn't a happy pilgrim: taking the overnight train from Paris - the rain beating on the metal roof of the sleeping car, waking up in the cold mountains, no coffee, a foul train toilet, no shower, no shave. I didn't mind; I only wanted to go to the grotto. He tried rather valiantly to put up with my piety, but it was clear he had breakfast on his mind more than prayers and processions. And so after this firs unsatisfying visit, I resolved to return to Lourdes on my own.
My Benedictine friend, Sister Jeanne Marie, says, "The veil between heaven and earth is most thin over Lourdes." I understand. Every year millions of people from all around the world pilgrim to Lourdes. Very many of them are sick with their helper-companions. At Lourdes, following the pattern of Jesus, everything stops for the sick. That the apparitions began at the start of Lent in 1858, calls us to remember that Lourdes is intimately linked to what Catholics call The Paschal Mystery which is our sharing personally in the dying and rising of Jesus. This is the death of our darker inclinations: our debilitating fears, arrogance, defensiveness, hurtful foolishness, stubbornness, moodiness and the like - and the re-birth, healing and rising up of the higher human things: graciousness, confidence, inner-freedom, compassion and willingness.
For several years I would take a group of young graduates to Lourdes where they would load and unload the long pilgrim trains, assist in the piscines (baths) and at the Mass in the huge underground basilica. A friend and school colleague accompanied us as a helper to the thousands who come to Lourdes each summer in wheelchairs. He served the week with great patience and courtesy but admitted that just days after our return to the states he found himself grumpy and impatient with an elderly man who was trying to navigate his grocery cart through a parking lot. We grow in goodness. Conversion is usually slow, like the long ripening of fruit.
Then there is the smile of Lourdes. In the course of the eighteen apparitions, the skeptical parish priest, Father Peyramale, would tell Bernadette what she was to ask the thing, as Bernadette didn't yet know who this was appearing to her in the grotto. But when Bernadette obediently posed the clergyman's questions, the Lady only smiled. Maybe heaven wishes we'd ask fewer questions out of our perplexity and more simply enjoy the divine in-breaking wherever it is to be found.
Maybe the Lady's smile is a revelation to those who find little joy in their religion. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: "I would have considered a vocation to the ministry except that so many of them resembled more the undertaker." Sad to say, but too often our religion has stolen away joy - especially the joy of children. I remember well the pictures of Jesus in my boyhood catechism where he frowned and suffered deeply, depending on the depth and intensity of my venial and mortal sins. While I suppose we can grieve God, I expect it isn't my silly thoughts and bits of inner resistance that cause God grief nearly so much as the great sins of humanity: sexual exploitation, wars that burn down cities, the global disregard of children and the weak ones, the hating of people who are different, the failures of religion to love, the lies told by persons and organizations of power. But Mary's smile at Lourdes reminds us that as heaven beholds each soul, God sees there the beauty of who we really are and how we were each created.
So perhaps our feast day prayer can be to the Mother of God at Lourdes, that we would not lose our sense of humor about our ourselves and that despite the disappointments and the frown-tempting encounters of life, we would keep a light heart and a ready smile. It's possible.
"I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody would realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun."
Thomas Merton: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
This Catholic Classic is a must read: A Woman Clothed with the Sun by John Delaney. Accounts of seven Marian Apparitions. New and used copies are easily obtained online