It must be the regularly scheduled catholic school retreats. Or the religious fervor of my grandmother. Or simply the proximity and access of places that are marked as religious sites. Whatever the reason, I now have made the spiritual
pilgrimage an annual, sometimes personal, tradition. A year cannot be complete without a journey to a sacred place, renowned or not, for some contemplation and reflection. So it must be pure luck (or the invisible hand) that drew us to country
where some of the world’s religious sites have been designated as such.
The most famous of these is the town of Lourdes located in the Southwest region of France known as Midi-Pyrénées.
This is approximately a 4 hour drive from our village through major highways. The drive is pleasant and takes one through changing climate and topographies. From dry, warm weather overseeing vineyards to cool, sometimes wet, temperatures that give rise
to emerald green pastures. The town is recognized for the appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary to young shepherds and its healing waters. The place welcomes people from all over the world who come to experience the hallowed grounds, participate
in the sacraments and, in the experience of a lifetime, an immersion into the healing, invigorating pools. The lines are long and the opening hours short but the wait is definitely worth the experience. Not for the uniqueness of it but for the
contented, peaceful emotions that infuse the mind, heart and body.
Our first venture was in the mid 2000s when a group of aunts, uncles and cousins spent Thanksgiving day in very cold Lourdes. Since it was winter
weather, we had easy access to the pool. Not really knowing what we were in for (I mean, we brought bathing suits, for goodness sakes!), we had no pre-conceptions, only heightened anticipation. We discovered that the men and women had separate
areas so even the children were divided among the relatives. Second daughter was just a toddler then and I worried about how she would take this all in.
In the women’s area, we went inside the building and waited in the
chairs lining the wall. Across us were multiple rooms divided by walls and protected by long, dark curtains from the waiting area. When our turn came, the curtains divided and we were summoned by a lay person (sometimes a nun) to come inside.
Each large room can hold about 10 persons. Despite the lack of partitions within, we were modestly covered while we undressed and changed into flimsy cotton wraps. Only one person at a time can enter through another set of curtains. First
daughter had to go inside by herself. Second daughter, who still had to be carried, was allowed to enter with me. We went through the second curtain where two women stood on each side of an elongated stone bath filled with water. There were
steps leading down to it and the women held each of my arms to lead me to the water. My fear about second daughter crying, screaming, wiggling to escape were for naught. She, I believed, sensed something wonderful but reverent and so, remained
calm throughout the brief but highly emotional encounter.
Since then, we have had additional occasions to go to Lourdes when staying in the France. One time, during the height of summer, the lines for the women’s
area were so long that more than half would not make it into the building before it closes at 11:30 am. Knowing this, I had informed husband that we will meet him outside the cathedral grounds after his visit. I told first daughter (nearly
as tall as I was then) that I would check the area where mothers and young children had access to see if we can take advantage of the much shorter lines. But a guard was standing by the entrance to make sure that only very young children with a female
companion can go in. As I returned to the women’s line, I convinced myself that this was not meant to be.
When I reached my daughters, the oldest was talking to another guard telling him that she won’t
leave the line without her mother. Apparently, the guard saw them standing in line and told them to go over to the young children’s entrance. When I came over, he repeated the instructions. Never one to miss an opportunity, we followed
him to the other entrance. The line was so short that we finished earlier than my husband. The only troubling thought, perhaps driven by my catholic guilt, was that there were others with young children in the women’s line who were not asked
or directed along with us. I had to convince myself that this was meant to be.
This week, with the arrival of a dear aunt from the Philippines, we returned to Lourdes. Upon arriving in the afternoon, I took the girls
and my aunt around for a quick orientation and to check schedules. The pilgrim crowds were up and about… mostly from Italy. After seeing the grotto, I told my aunt that we will go to the pool area to check the schedule so we can plan to
arrive one to two hours early the next day and make certain our access. Just before the women’s entrance, we stood aside to allow a big group of pilgrims through as they promenaded to the church. I overhead one of the men inform a couple
of pilgrims that they have 30 minutes before the pool closes. I grab the girls and told my aunt to hurry as I did not see any lines in the women’s area. We pushed through the parading crowd and was encouraged by the volunteer guard to hurry
along. One of the volunteer women was waiting for us by the entrance door. I gave quick instructions to my aunt who was completely unprepared for the sudden visit. All four of us were able to partake of the healing waters, unexpectedly
but kindly welcomed. As we left, my aunt turned to me, still dazed, and simply said, “This is such as a wonderful experience. I feel better already.” I know the feeling quite well.