IT’S surely a miracle I didn’t get double pneumonia in Lourdes last week, while I spent five days in the town at the foot of the Pyrenees.
Years ago, I heard someone describe Lourdes as ‘the place where you could get the four seasons in the one day’. Well, it wasn’t quite that varied last week but we got Biblical, torrential rain on two days, heavy showers another day, and drizzle as well.
Yet, despite all that precipitation, we had gorgeous blue skies on two afternoons. In reality, the weather didn’t make an awful difference to me as the time was my own, I’d no timetable or ‘agenda’, to stick to so I had five awe-full days in the Village of St Bernadette.
I met and shook hands with a lady I’d never met before - though we’ve ‘corresponded’ for six years.
The Spanish Convent on Rue Bagneure was very quiet this year. Six was the biggest crowd we had for mealtime. That was just for one supper. I was the sole guest there for the last day and a half. One of the highlights of this year’s November pilgrimage was an International Choral event I took part in - it was just wonderful.
On many of my previous early winter trips to Lourdes over the last dozen years, I had to stay ‘bunked down’ in Stansted Airport in London overnight. This was because the flight to Lourdes was early in the morning and I used have no option but to fly from Cork or Dublin the night before and ‘rough it’ in Costa, KFC or Burger King.
Last week it worked out perfect with an early Monday flight from Cork over to London, a wait for three hours, and I landed in wet Lourdes at three in the afternoon - 4pm French time. The €1 bus trip from the Airport took me to the Train Station. From there to my lodgings is about half a mile downhill initially and then up a steepish climb. The umbrella protected my shoulders but the rain was gushing from side streets, gullies and drains. I was drenched when I reached the Convent door.
The Sisters are always very welcoming, speaking Spanish and French, though Sister Annunziero has learned to say ‘Conas ata tu? with a big laugh. Five others there for the supper - all French.
Rain eased off later as I walked the mile to the Domain of Lourdes. I stopped at the Crowned Virgin Statue where a few had gathered -like the ‘Cead Mile Failte’ to this special place. I didn’t cry when I glimpsed the Grotto for the first time since my last visit in June. Maybe the rainfall earlier symbolised my tears. I just stood there and looked up at the Statue of Our Lady in the rocky niche where she first appeared to a little girl in 1858.
First time visitors here often look around searchingly, trying to see a statue of St Bernadette - but there is none here. This was Bernadette’s own wish - she wanted Our Lady to be the centre, the ‘draw’, the attraction here at the Grotto. She saw herself as merely a little part of the Lourdes story - in her humility she shunned publicity for the rest of her life.
I walked in under the Grotto where the black rock has been smoothed by the hands of millions over the decades. In June, you’d barely find a trickle of water on that rock to moisten your finger - now ‘twas pouring down everywhere.
I took candles with me across the bridge to the Chapels of Light. In an accidental fire earlier this year, two of the Chapels had been destroyed and while I was in Lourdes last week Domain workers were dismantling the charred remains of these Nissan-Hut type structures.
I lit the candles -the first of many - and closed my eyes, thinking of the many people who said in the last few days ‘light a candle for me when you are over’. As the flames of my candles, and all the others too, burned brightly, all I could do was pray for the intentions of those who were sick, infirm, in hospital, waiting for scans, results or treatment.
Twenty years ago this week, I got the first hip partially replaced and ‘tis giving me a bit of trouble now, fairly painful, but I ruled out any thoughts of praying for relief for such an insignificant ailment.
In fairness, I walked at least six miles each day I was in Lourdes, but felt the pain of sore feet and hip suffering was not worth talking about. Yeah, suffering and hardship are relative and I have so much to be thankful for, and being able to go to Lourdes at this time of year is in itself a great blessing.
I slept so soundly Monday night ‘twas nearly 8am when I sat at the breakfast table next day for the 7.30 meal. Coffee and baguette with marmalade was the basic but grand menu each morning.
It was 8.30 when I knelt in silence in the Poor Clare Church on Rue de Grotte - the door was open but no-one was in the Chapel, always an oasis of peace and quiet even when the town is thronged in the summer.
I’d been told there was a 9am Mass in the Crypt in English - as it turned out it was in French. A lovely priest gave three sermons, before, during and after the Mass, but the congregation knew him well. They laughed, clapped, sang and chanted with him. The Crypt was built in 1866, the first church built here and the only one seen by Bernadette before she departed for the convent of Nevers that autumn.
After Mass I started up the hillside overlooking the town of Lourdes to do the High Stations of the Cross. The white marble steps that lead up to the first station were wet and cold - you have to kneel on each step as you move upwards, it’s tough but a kind of reminder that there’s no gain without pain.
At the 6th Station, ‘Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus’, I saw snow for the first time on a mountain top - maybe a mile away. Talking to people on the plane over, they said the snow had not yet come to Cauterez and other resorts so the skiing season was very late starting.
Up one side of the rocky, craggy hillside and down the other on rough terrain, past the Grotto of The Two Marys dedicated to all those who have lost a child. I met my friends behind the bar at The Little Flower, they said 2022 was a bit better than last year but hoped full Pilgrimages might return for 2023 - I told them hopefully Cloyne would return on June 2.
I met Sr Fatima, the ‘doorkeeper’ at the Poor Clare Convent, where I got Masses said. She gave me the key of the Community cemetery where I visited the grave of Sr Marie Terese O Connell who died in 2015 - each year between 2007 and 2014 I visited her in the convent for a good Cork chin-wag.
When I returned the key, the Sisters had just got a delivery of several big boxes of food and supplies. I gave them a hand taking the boxes down the hall leading to the Parlour. Holding the door open was Sr Maria Pio, the Reverend Mother - Sr Fatima explained who I was and Revd Mother shook my hand, saying she had written to me each year with the past six years and we’d never met until now!
Next morning, as I walked to the 9.30 English Mass, I went through the Halles - the local version of the English Market. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the price of Bigorre Black Pig Ham - it’s €129 a Kilo. Apparently, the rare pigs are fattened for 14 months and the meat ‘cured’ for another 12 months before it’s eaten, sparingly!
I met two Texan girls, in Lourdes for the first time, both have Irish ancestry so they’ll be in contact looking for their ‘roots’.
On Wednesday night, in the Spanish Convent, Sr Annunziero called on me for a song so I sang A Mhuire Mathair in Irish, she joined in with her version in Spanish while an African lady joined our ‘Choir’ with the same hymn sang in Swahili!
What a wonderful few days I had with praying, walking, an odd song and very little talking - heavenly in Lourdes.
As my friend Tony O’Brien used to sing, ‘Now I am home and happy to be telling of places I happened to see, but there’s one little town I’ll never forget, that’s Lourdes the Village of St Bernadette’.
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