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Posts Tagged ‘Lourdes’

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Lourdes Revisited

In my last post I wrote about Lourdes and commented that it tends to put front and center the fundamental issues of our lives.  In part, I think, the place reminds us of our mortality.  Just as the ashes of Ash Wednesday vividly point out our earthly destiny, so does Lourdes with its focus on the ill and the suffering.  Sooner or later we will all be in that boat.

Given that, it would be a serious mistake to dismiss Lourdes as an exercise in religious escapism, divorced from the realities of daily experience.  Two incidents from this last pilgrimage made that abundantly clear, at least to me.  Like many of my fellow pilgrims, I flew into Paris and then took the six-hour train trip south to Lourdes.  Generally it’s a pleasant enough journey, with some interesting though not spectacular scenery until just before arrival in Lourdes.  Four hours into this trip, however, there was an incident.  It began with a sharp application of the brakes, followed by a slight jolt that most of us felt.  Then the train ground to a halt.  Some poor soul had hurled himself in front of the train, and for nearly three hours we sat on an isolated stretch of track while the police sorted things out.  None of us actually saw the damage, but we did see the van that carried the body away.

IMG_6099It was sobering, and I naturally wondered why someone would be so desperate that he would give up on life entirely.  Did the man leave behind friends and family?  How might they respond?  I could only speculate, but I also realized that one lonely man had given us a dose of reality therapy.  Already this was no ho-hum pilgrimage.

It was something else entirely that impacted most everyone in Lourdes, even if many were blissfully unaware.  Lourdes is a high-profile place, since it is one of the most visited spots in France and it is a religious shrine that attracts considerable attention.  Not surprisingly, there are always security issues, which the French handle discreetly and adroitly.  Still, when you add to the mix four or five thousand members and volunteers with the Order of Malta, the stakes are a bit higher.

There were special concerns for our safety this time around, as was evidenced by the presence of a few plain-clothes security people who shadowed us.  God bless their souls, but their efforts to blend in just didn’t work.  Not a few in our group noticed the strapping men who seemed to follow us wherever we went.  These guys must spend half their waking hours in the gym, and physically they looked like the last people on earth who needed the healing springs of Lourdes.  Still, we were happy to have them with us, even if they made all the rest of us look like wimps.

IMG_6138No one seemed to be particularly alarmed, but the situation did raise one point for reflection.  Why would anyone want to harm us?  There wasn’t a single person in our group who had international stature, and yet there were those who wished us ill.  That’s a difficult pill for anyone to swallow.

These kinds of events inevitably raise for discussion the problem of evil.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do a few people despair enough to give up on life?  Why do some think that they do deeds of valor when they do harm to others?  Why do the innocent have to suffer?  To these questions there are no tidy answers.  Even the questions are a problem, because they fall outside the pale of science and are a conundrum for philosophy and theology.  Yet, ironically, they are at the heart of the human experience.

Lourdes offers its own take on these issues.  It may not  have the definitive answer to the question of why evil exists, but it does show that love is the proven antidote to evil.  The love of God, the love of neighbor and the support we offer to one another all counteract evil, and they extend hope to someone whose life seems devoid of meaning.  They offer hope to the hopeless.

IMG_6131This explains why someone might go on pilgrimage to a place like Lourdes.  It also explains why we might want to join with neighbors to approach the altar of the Lord to be renewed by God’s Word and sacrament.  Such fellowship asserts that we are not lone travelers, adrift in the world.  Rather, we are part of the community of the Lord.

We act on these spiritual impulses because of one primal urge, which Saint Augustine once described.  “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”  That helps to explain why we, imperfect though we may be, still try to do our best.  And we do our best both for God and for one another.  Coincidently, all this helps to make some sense of the world.  Having embraced the Lord in faith, in love we joyfully embrace the world which God has created.

Notes

+On Saturdays we celebrate the Eucharist in the monastery at 11:30 am.  That’s a useful point to note as I confess that on this last Saturday I was standing at the community bulletin board at 11:27, when someone paused to remind me that I was the celebrant for the Mass.  In panic I glanced at the list, and sure enough, there my name was down for Mass, in three minutes.

IMG_6092+On Sunday May 14th we celebrated the graduation Mass for the seniors of Saint John’s University and their families, with Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud as celebrant and homilist.  Bishop Kettler is an alumnus of the college as well as of the School of Theology and Seminary at Saint John’s, and he welcomed everyone with these words:  “On this day in 1966 I was sitting exactly where you are sitting today.  Things happen,” he deadpanned.  All appreciated his dry humor.

+My reading companion on the trip to and from Lourdes was a book entitled How to Speak Midwestern, by Edward McClelland.  It is a fascinating and entertaining book, which analyzes the development of English-speaking in the Middle West.  Scattered through it are allusions to the kind of humor that has emerged from the region, including one item he heard years ago on A Prairie Home Companion.  It seems that a Minnesotan married a Palestinian, and to take note of their respective nationalities they named their first-born son Yassir Yewbetcha.  My laugh-out-loud response drew polite stares on the train to Lourdes.

+Near the end of our pilgrimage to Lourdes it has been the custom for our members from the Western Association of the Order of Malta to make a visit to the village of Saint Savin.  The abbey there dates to 945, and the scenery is just gorgeous.  The photos in today’s post illustrate the visual delights that await travelers.

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IMG_6063.JPGThe Pilgrimage of Life

A pilgrimage must seem like a rather strange bird to 21st-century Americans.  To many it harks back to something out of the Middle Ages, and to more than a few it must seem like a big waste of time.  Yet, as a metaphor for life, a pilgrimage is that path through life which everyone must choose.  It boils down to the destination which all must set for themselves, sooner or later.  People may choose to go nowhere, but they will still go somewhere simply because events will set the course for them.

This week I happen to find myself on a pilgrimage to Lourdes with members of the Order of Malta.  It’s the 10th time I’ve done it, and you might legitimately wonder why I even needed to do it a second time.  But many of my fellow travelers have been here far more often than I, including Bill, who is here for the 24th time.  Don’t we have anything useful to do with our time?  Why would we do this over and over again?  Well, what most of us realized by the second time is that each pilgrimage is unique.  The mix of personalities and individual stories makes a single pilgrimage an unforgettable experience, each and every time.

IMG_6007Annually members of the Order of Malta from the Western Association, along with volunteers and some fifty sick people, travel to Lourdes and spend a week in prayer, camaraderie, and wonder.  I use those terms deliberately, to counter the common assumption that a pilgrimage to Lourdes has to be among the most tedious of experiences.  It’s not.  For a week we 350 stay together in one hotel, dine and pray together, take care of one another and enjoy the beauty of this shrine.  Tucked away in a remote spot of southern France, it’s about as far away from Paris as one could get.  To the south Spain is just a few miles away, on the other side of the snow-capped Pyranees, which we can see from the edge of town.

Lourdes is by every measure a logistical challenge.  In Lourdes we 350 join upwards of 3,500 other members of Malta who travel from elsewhere around the world.  Then there are the thousands of other pilgrims from all over the place.  There’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait about Lourdes, and it tests everybody’s patience and cooperation.  Imagine what it takes to get 20,000+ into the underground basilica of St. Plus X for Mass on Sunday and you get a hint of what organizers confront.  Of course the staff of the shrine is used to this, but most of the rest of us are not.  It’s energizing and crazy all in one.

IMG_5955I never fail to take away two things from Lourdes, and I always leave one thing behind.  I’ll mention the latter first, just to get it out of the way.  There are a ton of religious shops in Lourdes, catering to every taste known to humankind.  Of those, all but four or five sell stuff that US Customs should never allow into the country.  Those things range from the gaudy to the merely tacky, and they include items like the Blessed Virgin Mary cocktail glasses.  Her etched figure in the crystal may be a fitting tribute to the Mother of God in some people’s eyes, but not in mine.  So each year I do my part not to diminish the supply of those treasures, by not buying any.  That way there will be more than enough for the other pilgrims to drag home.

On the positive side, Lourdes is a vivid reminder of the universality of the Church.  When Jesus commanded the disciples to preach the gospel, even to the ends of the earth, the disciples could scarcely have imagined the results.  Stand in front of the basilica long enough and you really will see and hear people from the ends of the earth process by.  Clearly, somebody took the command of Jesus seriously, and you see it incarnate at Lourdes.

Finally, and most important of all, people come to Lourdes for all sorts of reasons.  Like medieval pilgrims they come to atone for sins;  they come for spiritual healing;  they come to satisfy curiosity;  they come because of religious enthusiasm;  and a few come because they are bored with life.  But no one leaves Lourdes in quite the state in which they arrived.

IMG_5959Lourdes has a way of calling the important questions in life — questions that sooner or later none of us can avoid.  If people are suffering a serious illness, Lourdes can remind them that there is meaning to their lives.  For those whose prayer is a variation on the old saw “There but for the grace of God go I,” Lourdes offers a follow-up question.  “All right, if I’m blessed not to go down the path of suffering, then exactly where am I going with my life?  Have I chosen a direction, or are the currents merely carrying me along?”

Lourdes has no monopoly on these kinds of questions, but along with places like Santiago and Jerusalem it invites visitors to pause and take stock of their lives before too much of it is spent.  It encourages people to make those small and large course corrections that determine life from that day forward.

Of course nobody needs to go 4,000 miles to pose those questions.  Wherever we find ourselves, we all have the chance to stop, get a grip on ourselves, and ask if we are becoming the people whom the Lord calls us to be.  Do our lives have purpose?  And if not, ought we make some sort of adjustment while it can still matter?

Lucky you if your house is in good order!  Quite possibility your life is nearly done, and there’s no need for further improvement.  As for the rest of us, however, our pilgrimage continues on, and the Lord invites us to use well each day and hour and minute.  Those precious minutes count for something on the pilgrimage of life.

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+On May 5th the monks of Saint John’s celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for Fr. Mark Thamert.

+The last few days have been taken up with the pilgrimage to Lourdes, which ends on the 9th of May.  My major concern about the trip was the condition of my back and the ability to negotaite steps and hills.  The biggest test came when the fire alarm sounded in my hotel.  With the elevators out of commission, I had to climb down seven fights of stairs, which I managed gingerly.

+For repeat visitors on the Malta pilgrimage to Lourdes, the gathering has the character of reunion of sorts.  On 7 May I attended a Mass where my friend Jean Brunel took his Promise of Obedience in the Order of Malta.  He is a member of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes, which is the east-coast equivalent of the west-coast subpriory in which I work.  Also at Lourdes I got to visit at length with Bishop Steven Lopes, who in his days as a seminarian spent a summer at Saint John’s discerning a monastic vocation.  Recently he was appointed a bishop, with oversight of Anglican churches in North America that have been received into communion with the Catholic Church.

+One notable feature of our time in Lourdes has been the extraordinary weather.  The photos in today’s post give some inkling of that.  The photo at bottom shows the Sunday liturgy of some 20,000 gathered in the basilica of St. Pius X.

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imageThe Price of Springtime

Many years ago — once upon a time, to be precise — one of my students introduced me to the wit and wisdom of Cheech and Chong.  For someone steeped in the lore of Lake Wobegon and Olie and Lena jokes, these two Angelinos were a bit jarring.  But humor is humor, even if it doesn’t come packaged in a Minnesota accent.

What won me over to them was an album in which they recast several children’s stories, and they transplanted them squarely into the middle of East Los Angeles.  My favorite, hands down, was their fractured version of The Three Little Pigs.  To sum up in brief, mama pig had just slammed the front door on the three little pigs, and she went off to rouse papa pig from his early morning torpor.  “The three little pigs have gone off to school.  What shall we do?”  After a pregnant pause, the duo answered in unison, with a rousing “Let’s move!”  And so they did, leaving no phone number or forwarding address.

For years I thought this was a charming and much better rendition of the version I had heard as a child.  And for almost as long I continued to think of it as just another nice story, until some friends of mine up and did the exact same thing to their kids.  Both of their kids had finished college, and in time each had meandered back to the ancestral manse in suburban Chicago.  And there they stayed, and stayed, and stayed.  And who wouldn’t.  With doting and accommodating parents, it was a little piece of paradise.

imageBut the kids had badly misjudged all that affection, and their strategic error was to be away from home for a few months — at the same time.  Then, like mama and papa pig á la Cheech and Chong, the parents seized the initiative and decamped to a one-bedroom condo just off Michigan Avenue.  Of course they would always be welcome for dinner, they assured their kids.  They also encouraged them to stop by for coffee whenever they might be in the neighborhood.  Then they all lived happily ever after, which actually is the most accurate part of this largely true story.

I bring all this up because this is the season of college commencement, and yesterday we graduated our seniors at Saint John’s University.  No doubt it was a joyous occasion for our seniors, and for spoken and unspoken reasons it was a joy for their parents as well.  But lurking in the imagination of more than a few parents was a fear shared by millions each year at this time.  What if their pride-and-joy comes home and stays and stays and stays?  Had it been a mistake not to sell the house and move into an efficiency apartment earlier?  Well, now they will find out.

imageA glance out the window at this time of year shows the renewal that is the very essence of springtime, and with it comes obvious change.  Those graduations and weddings and movings that are typical of this time of year bring changes in our human relationships as well.  Such upheaval can be exhilerating for some and wrenching for others, and for most of us there’s a little of both.  Parents naturally have to be thrilled to see their kids grow up and begin to strike out on their own;  but any good parent feels the anxiety that comes from letting go.

In May and June all this activity seems to accelerate.  All sorts of people and events crowd into the scene, and these test and stretch family ties and friendships.  Along with that, people mature in unexpected ways, and coming to terms with that can be a challenge.  With it comes the uncertainty of how all these new relationships will shake out.  Will there be room for everybody in the new order of things?

imageThere are many ways to respond to this seasonal upheaval, but sooner or later everyone has to deal with it, including monks in a monastery.  In our own community in the past month we’ve welcomed the ordination of one monk as a priest and another as a deacon.  We’ve accepted the applications of our two novices to take their first vows, as well as those of four junior monks who will pronounce their final vows in a few weeks.  And while this may seem like undiluted good news, it comes with a price for us all.  In the case of each and every one of these young monks we have to stand back, let go a little, and allow them to grow into our peers.  It sounds easy, but I imagine that it’s very much like a parent letting go and allowing a son or daughter to mature into the person they always hoped to see someday.

All that takes both work as well as an act of faith that somehow it will turn out well.  It means letting go so that the Holy Spirit can continue the work, and to do it in new and surprising ways.  It means standing back to allow the growth that springtime brings.

Naturally there’s anxiety about the future, but it’s a lot better than trying to keep things exactly the way they have always been.  That, it seems to me, is the goal of commencement.  And it’s the goal of any worthwhile human endeavor.

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+Two weeks ago, on the eve of my pilgrimage to Lourdes, I noted that the weather forecast had included torrential rain, floods, and avalanches.  Well, the weather people struck out on two of them.  There was scarcely any rain, and if there were avalanches, I didn’t see them.  Ironically, it was unexpectedly warm, and all that heat and sunshine caused the snow in the mountains to melt quickly.  In turn that caused the Gave River to roar through the town of Lourdes, flooding the grotto and the sacred baths.  No one got hurt, but it did leave more than a few pilgrims disappointed.  For a gallery of photos from this pilgrimage to Lourdes, please visit Lourdes: May 2015.

+On May 10th we celebrated commencement at Saint John’s University.  Preceding the event I attended the President’s Luncheon, which included a few students and their families, a few trustees and officials of the University, Abbot John, and Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud.  Sadly, rain did fall on our academic parade, but it did nothing to dampen the spirits of graduating seniors and their parents.   Because of the rain the graduates lined up in the Great Hall before proceeding to the abbey church, where friends and relatives awaited.  The pictures in today’s post were taken in the Great Hall as the seniors gathered for their moment in the sun.

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imageLetter from Lourdes

For those whose European tour includes seven cities in seven days, a week in Lourdes must seem like a  huge waste of time.  Why would anyone want to spend a week here?  What could possibly fill up all that time?  What’s there to see that couldn’t be seen in a day?

The last question is the easiest, because the truth is that everything of value in Lourdes can be seen in just a few hours.  That still leaves plenty of time to drive the one hundred kilometers to Toulouse for dinner.  Of course it’s also possible to stretch out a stay by visiting the 250+ shops here, but I personally don’t recommend that.  The shopkeepers are friendly to a fault, but only a handful sell stuff I’d ever consider dragging home.  It’s no secret that people don’t come to Lourdes for the shopping, unless they are serious collectors of religious kitsch.  Of the latter there is a veritable bonanza here.

Then there’s the question of how to fill up all the time if one does stay for a week.  The casual tourists can’t imagine how we do it until they’re here.  Once here they discover that Lourdes is a bee hive of activity, with processions going here and there, and other groups gathereed for prayer, for visits to the sacred spring of the grotto, for stations of the cross and for a host of other acitivities.

imageThis week our own group of members of the Order of Malta joined with some 3,500 other members, volunteers, and sick people (malades.)  In small and large groups we scurried through the town and into the precincts of the shrine, where we wiled away hours of time.  Without meaning to diminish our efforts, I’d summarize by saying we do a lot of hurry-up and wait, which is necessary when groups are so large, and when they come from all sorts of language groups.  Rushing things only leads to chaos and fights, both of which I’ve seen here, by the way.

Sunday in Lourdes is scarcely a typical day, but it illustrates how the logistics for Mass alone can chew up all kinds of time.  In brief, from door to church to door, it took us three hours and forty-five minutes yesterday.  This involved 325 people, with carts for the sick, meeting at our hotel garage at 8:00 am.  Our goal was to process the four blocks to the  underground basilica, find our assigned places, and be ready for Mass when it started at 9:30.  It’s important to keep in mind that 25,000 other people are trying to do the exact same thing, at exactly the same time.  I’m not kidding on this one, and it creates a logistical nightmare that the French volunteers handle with poise, serenity, and at times an iron fist.  The Mass itself lasted one hundred minutes, beginning with an entrance procession of 250 priests, various bishops and four cardinals.  My guess is that many of these priests had not been in a procession for years, and it showed in ragged lines and distracted gazes.  But once again the French handled this well, and they showed no mercy to the priests who strayed from the fold.

imageThen there were the myriad prayers, hymns and pauses.  The petitions were in French, Italian, German, Dutch, Polish, English and Arabic, while the offertory procession must have taken all of ten minutes.  I almost felt sorry for the cardinal who had to bend down and take each and every ciborium, but then I came to my senses.  That’s the price he pays for wearing all that red.

Eventually the Mass ended, and the clergy then processed to the grotto at the other end of the shrine, where we sang the Regina Coeli.  Then we processed back to the basilica, shed our vestments and stampeded to the bathroom.

At one session the grand master of the Order of Malta reminded the first-timers in our group that all pilgrimages are a blend of experiences.  He recalled the Canterbury Tales, with its mix of the sacred and the profane, just to make the point that at Lourdes you have a bit of both.  So it is that there’s laughter and tears, awed silence and minor irritation;  but somehow they flow into a wonderul experience of the holy.

imageOne leaves Lourdes with all sorts of memories, and three stand out for me from this pilgrimage.  First, I recall sitting in a meeting of chaplains and leaning over to comment to my neighbor on what an electrifying meeting it was.  He nearly burst out laughing, which would have broken the funereal tone in the room.  The second is my recollection of 25,000 people singing together as one on Sunday.  It’s a modern-day Pentecost and a goose-bump experience.  And finally, there was the ceremony at which the grand master handed out medals to first-time pilgrims.  When he welcomed a group of sixteen Catholics who had come from Iraq, the hall burst into an applause that lasted two minutes.  It was a moment of loving solidarity in a shared faith.

In sum, that’s what people get for hanging around for a week in Lourdes.  It can’t be hurried, but it can be savored in the moment and for a lifetime.  It’s definitely worth the hurry-up and wait.

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+On May 2nd Bishop Donald Kettler visited Saint John’s Abbey and ordained Br. Nickolas Kleespie to the priesthood and Br. Lew Grobe as deacon.

+In the course of our Lourdes pilgrimage our group had an afternoon outing to the neaby abbey of Saint Savin.  From Carolingian times it was a Benedictine abbey, and it remained so until it was closed in the French revolution.  The pictures in today’s post illustrate Saint Savin.

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imageOff to Lourdes

The forecast for Lourdes last Saturday was decidedly not the best.  The Weather Channel predicted thunderstorms, floods and avalanches, which is a combination I’ve not experienced before.  In Lourdes I’ve stood with other pilgrims in torrential rains.  I’ve seen high waters in the river and viewed the damage after floods have swept through the precincts of the shrine.  But avalanches would be a new one to me.

With that kind of a welcome, you have to wonder why somebody would go on pilgrimage to such an inhospitable place.  What draws people who will put up with weather that can include rains and snow and heat and cold?

Perhaps the more fundamental question has to do with why people go on pilgrimage at all, to any destination.  Wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier to stay home and relax and watch the entire proceedings on the internet?  Well, to answer the question adequately, you really have to be there.

I’ve been to Lourdes eight times, and this week I’m there again.  It’s never a place I’d go to alone, and in fact each time I’ve come with a large troop of members of the Order of Malta from the west coast.  Together with volunteers and some forty-five sick pilgrims, we number around 325.  But in Lourdes we will meet up with other groups of the Order, from the east coast, Europe, and elsewhere.  Eventually our numbers might swell to 4,000.  Together, for a week, we will pray, enjoy each other’s company, and very often experience a spiritual transformation.

imageOn the eve of my first visit to Lourdes I was a bit apprehensive about the whole thing.  Benedictines are not predisposed to bouts of religious enthusiasm, and frankly I feared that it all might be too much.  But I quickly put aside that anxiety, because one realizes that at Lourdes you confront the fragility of life and the ultimate meaning of life.  Only a few people go to Lourdes for physical healing; but most go for spiritual healing.  And that healing is not likely to take exterior expression, because it happens deep within one’s soul.

Yet another surprise that awaited me that first time was the extent of spiritual healing that takes place.  Many who for years have suffered serious illness come seeking peace.  They are there to come to terms with what life has dished out to them.  But to the surprise of many, the vast majority of people who have experienced miracles came not expecting to see any miracles at all — and least of all miracles that happened to them.  After all, they arrived in good health, and they only allowed for the possibility that the healing of others might touch them.  But God’s healing power eventually sucks them in as well.  In short, they arrived thinking they were well, only to discover their common humanity with the physically sick.  And along with those who arrived sick, they find some measure of healing.  Those are the real miracles of Lourdes.

imageIt’s a stretch to duplicate that experience while watching on the internet.  And yet that does not exhaust the benefits of an international shrine like Lourdes.  At Lourdes Pentecost happens.  At the first Pentecost the Holy Spirit overwhelmed the apostles, so that when they spoke, all heard in their own language and understood.  At Lourdes God speaks in all languages, because Christians have gathered from the ends of the earth.  The languages divide them, but faith unites them.  It’s then, perhaps for the first time, that many realize how varied are the people in God’s Church.  The Church is bigger and more varied than any one town or region, but all are one in their common quest for God.

People go to Lourdes to experience the healing power of God, and in the course of a few days they discover that God generally works in mysterious ways.  They discover God working through Mary, the mother of Jesus.  They discover that God works through their fellow pilgrims, no matter their language or country of origin.  And last but not least, and in what may be the biggest surprise of all, individual pilgrims discover that God works through them.

The tourist brochures point out that Lourdes is in the south of France.  That’s enough to lure most anyone.  And the chestnut trees in bloom and the moments of glorious sunshine will make anyone forget about the threat of storms and floods and avalanches.  But these are not the reasons why people go to Lourdes.  At Lourdes God touches people, and that’s the big take-home from the experience.  And it’s only then that they begin to realize that this is the one mystery that can be duplicated in the comfort of one’s home.

imageNotes

+On April 24th I attended Saint John’s Day, an annual celebration to express our gratitude to the supporters of Saint John’s University.  This year the University honored alumnus Fr. Don Talafous (’48) with the Presidential Medal and Citation, for his decades of service.  For many years he taught theology and served as University chaplain, and currently serves as University Alumni Chaplain.

+Saturday April 25th was a very busy day in the Abbey, and particularly so in the church.  In the morning, at the community Eucharist, celebrant Fr. Brad Jenniges received into full communion in the Catholic Church oblate candidate Emily Stamps.  In the afternoon Fr. Anthony presided at a wedding, and in the evening there was a concert by the boys choir.  In between times we rushed in to say evening prayer, and somehow it all fit in.

+Also on Saturday we hosted the annual visit of students from Saint Olaf College.  This year 100+ students came, and Brother David-Paul spoke to them about the monastic life and the architecture of the abbey church.  He is particularly suited for this role, since he is an alumnus of Saint Olaf.  These visits have gone on for over twenty years, and it is always a pleasure to host them.

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The Report from Lourdes

Once upon a time the first week of May meant that I would be found at the annual International Medieval Congress at Western Michigan University.  I miss the camaraderie a great deal, and it was a chance to catch up on current research in medieval studies.  However, for the last nine years I’ve stepped back into a close approximation of a genuine medieval experience by going to Lourdes.  Each year members of the Order of Malta gather here, and along with them are hundreds of volunteers and the sick — all part of a ritual that pilgrims have experienced for centuries.  For a week both the healthy and the suffering pray and celebrate and talk together, and extraordinary is the best word to describe what happens here.

Many who have never been to Lourdes can find it difficult to understand the attraction of a shrine in the 21st century.  People often assume that Lourdes is all sweetness and light, but that’s  hardly the case.  At Lourdes people confront illnesses and all their troubles, and they come to a better appreciation of the reality of their lives.   People also assume that Lourdes is in the business of providing physical cures; but its specialty is spiritual healing, and it takes place not just daily, but minute by minute.  For an example of this, visit my post of October 31, 2011.  The Boy and the Marine recounts a moving exchange between two pilgrims.

Medieval fortress, overlooking Lourdes

People also operate under the assumption that Lourdes must be the capital of religous simplicty.  In fact, it’s a complicated place, like most shrines were in the middle ages.  I like to think of Lourdes as the place where the sacred meets the state fair.  The town has a carnival atmosphere about it, with 300+ stores selling what can gracefully be termed religious “junque”.  So far I’ve found only two shops that sell stuff that I would drag home.  But the contrast bewteen carnival midway and the precincts of the shrine serve a purpose.

A couple of years ago I wrote a short piece on Lourdes, which was published in the magazine of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  Rather than re-invent the wheel and write something brand new that says the same thing, I’ve reproduced it below.  It gives a flavor of “town and gown” in a great pilgrimage destination.

Meanwhile, my mind still wanders back to Kalamazoo.  What Kalamazoo and Lourdes have in common is this.  Both are hives of activity, with people rushing and meandering about.  The two towns  also share a common weather forcast.  It can rain, snow or hail.  It can be quite hot or be quite cold.  You have to bring clothes for every possibility.  This year my mind will be in both places, even while I wander the streets of Lourdes.  And I will light a candle for my friends in Kalamazoo who have organized that pilgrimage destination this year.  Both Kalamazoo and Lourdes are shrines, each in their own way.

Lourdes: Where the Sacred and Secular Meet

The very name “Lourdes” conjures up the image of a sleepy village tucked in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  It evokes the sacred, where generations have come for the purifying waters and the deeply moving round of prayers and processions.  It summons visions of the French countryside and a  shrine bypassed by the relentless march of modernity.  In short, the uniniated expect to find in Lourdes an oasis of holy tranquility.  But what they get at the city limits is the equivalent of a cold shower.

To be fair, there is ample warning for what awaits.  At the airport the jets disgorge their cargo of weary travelers, while on the other side of the terminal the coaches scoop them up and whisk them away.  This is travel on a massive and well-organized scale.  En route, billboards announce an array of hotels and restaurants, and at town’s edge are the stores typical of any city.  But it is the center of Lourdes that jolts the unwary.

There, on the very threshold of the shrine, are block after block of shops hawking religious souvenirs, ranging from the outrageous and tasteless, to the merely tacky.  It’s worse than the worst of strip malls.  It truly is something between a flea market and a carnival.  Garish neon lures the dazed pilgrims as they make their way, and one begins to realize the value of the red line that leads through the middle of town to the sacred precincts.  Stray from it, and you enter the dens of crass commercialism.  Stay with it, and you reach the long-sought goal.

Shrine cities have always had their merchant quarters, as pilgrims to Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago have known for centuries.  Host citizens need to earn a living, and one cannot fault them for catering to the range of tastes that pilgrims bring with them.  For their part, visitors need to eat, sleep and stay healthy; and for centuries they’ve also wanted to bring home a token of their spiritual journey.  So to expect something entirely different from Lourdes would be unrealistic.  How then should one deal with the sacred and the profane, abutting one another as they do so dramatically in Lourdes?

As much as one might wish the shops to disappear, in fact they play a vital role in Lourdes.  The contrast is sharp as one leaves behind the glitter and enters a hauntingly sacred sphere.  In the shrine there is no trace of the commercial to distract pilgrims as they now walk with God.  Here one truly meets God, and the sensation is all the more intense because of what’s just been left behind.

Town and shrine together are a parable of Christian life.  If the commercial district of Lourdes is over the top, so too is the shrine.  One is the epitome of allure and the transitory; while the other points to the holy and the eternal.  One represents the earthly home, the other the heavenly home to which God calls everyone.

But there is another lesson as well.  Pilgrims cannot stay at a shrine forever, and sooner or later everyone has to go home.  And it’s then that the town of Lourdes becomes symbolic of the world to which everyone must return.  Lourdes grows on people, and in a week a grudging affection often replaces the initial shock.  The stores may still be tacky, but the merchants have become familiar.  The shops are still garish, but they are less off-putting.  Something is different now, because visitors to Lourdes have taken the sacred with them back into the world.

The evening candle-lit procession, Lourdes

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