The Healing Love of Lourdes
One hundred-fifty years ago Our Lady visited Lourdes, France, a place that looms large in the Catholic imagination. Long before Poland Springs became popular, Catholics had their own brand of bottled water. It was well known that if you were sick, Mrs. Murphy or Mrs. Gimminiani or any number of women in the neighborhood would have a bottle of Lourdes water for you. We knew also that the word “grotto” was exclusively associated with Lourdes. Once after watching the movie, The Song of Bernadette, my father remarked that Jennifer Jones, the young actress who played Bernadette, beat out the Blessed Mother for Best actress at the 1944 Academy Awards
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to go on pilgrimage to Lourdes. My first feelings of the place were similar to the ones I had felt on a visit to Atlantic City. It had a sort of baroque splendor in neon and plastic. Just before exiting our bus to register at the hotel, a scream sounded in the street. A taxi had just run over a woman’s foot. “Good thing it happened to her in Lourdes,” I thought. Not long after that, I headed to the café in the hotel basement. There a large elderly Sicilian woman sat playing a solitary game of cards. As I sat drinking my café au lait the Sicilian woman lumbered toward me, stroked my goatee and said, “I like Dominican”. I did not return the compliment.
Recently, an English priest wrote on his blog that he was going to stop visiting Lourdes because he was distressed at how much the English pilgrims drank and partied. Apparently he hasn’t met the Irish pilgrims. Whether they’re English, Sicilian, Irish or any other nationality, the human condition is on display in Lourdes.
The beginnings of the great story of Lourdes are not much different. Lourdes was a crude little place steeped in poverty. When Bernadette told her mother that she had seen a little girl with a rosary in the grotto, her mother responded in the way a responsible mother should—she gave her daughter a sound thrashing. Neighbors proposed an explanation; the apparition, they said, must be the soul of a recently deceased woman. The people of Lourdes believed also in fairies and strange woodland creatures; perhaps Bernadette had seen one of these. During the second apparition, Bernadette threw holy water at Our Lady to see if she really was a heavenly apparition.
Before the apparitions ceased there would be plenty of other instances that seem almost comedic. The local law enforcer would hover over humble, uneducated Bernadette while offering her threats of imprisonment. When Our Lady told Bernadette to dig for water, Bernadette emerged with a muddy face and grass in her mouth.The onlookers laughed and her aunt gave her a good wallop. And so it happened, Bernadette confounded her interrogators and the waters flowed.
A friend once remarked that Marian shrines are special because they are our mother’s house. And so it’s to our mother’s house that our siblings come; the lame, the sick, the proud, and those who party too much. Mary has a special place for all; even the revelers. After all, she’s the one who interceded at a party when the wine ran out. She knows the love of those who buy cheesy holographic images of her, cigarette lighters decorated with pictures of the grotto, and little bottles shaped like her. When our birth mothers die, we too are hard-pressed to find artistically fine tokens of love among her effects. Rather, we find the scribbled art of our childhood, a stick figure with the primitive label “mommy” above. Our blessed mother blesses our humble imperfect offerings of love with a maternal heart.
An old story is told of two young men who grew up together as friends. One became a priest and the other a sailor. The priest would occasionally see his friend, and he could see that he was up to tough living. The sailor drank hard, gambled, used filthy language and had a girl in every port, the kind of girls who have a man on every ship. After many years the priest was called to the side of a dying man. Seeing that the man in bed was his sailor friend the priest wondered: “How is it that such a sinner comes to a blessed death?” He asked his friend: “How is it that you, of all people, come to receive the Lord’s mercy?” The dying sailor raised a trembling hand entwined with a broken rosary.
Lourdes reminds us that we are in need of healing and that we are called to help the sick among us, those who are deprived in any way. Our Lady recognizes the suffering of her son in all her children. If we fail to imitate her in this then we disregard the very criterion of the final judgment. Today, we eat the Eucharist in order to give to others what the Blessed Mother wants all her children to have—the merciful love of our brother, Jesus Christ; it is for this reason that we are a family.