Posts Tagged ‘Lourdes’

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.


+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.


+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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