June 13.On our way to Lourdes, we toured Lisbon and then went on to Barcelona to visit the museums and to simply walk the windy streets experiencing the European culture. I couldn't wait to go onto Lourdes.
After a grueling eight-hour bus ride, we finally arrived in Lourdes. Lourdes is a place of great miracles, made holy by the apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the year of 1858. Mary appeared to a young girl, fourteen years of age, named Bernadette Soubirous. Bernadette could neither read nor write and struggled with ill health most of her life. Mary appeared to her on eighteen occasions at a grotto by a river, now called Massabielle Grotto.
In a vision on February 15, 1858, which was the ninth apparition, Mary told Bernadette to drink from the spring. Since Bernadette could see no water, she dug into the ground and was finally able to find some, and with the cups of her hands she drank the water. Mary then told her to eat some grass for penance. Seeing what looked like mental derangement, she was ordered by police authorities not to return to the grotto. However, she did not heed their order, and continued to communicate with Mary at the grotto.
The most significant visit was during the sixteenth apparition on March 25, 1858 when The Lady revealed: "I am the Immaculate Conception." Prior to this apparition, the church did not believe Bernadette. She was now taken quite seriously, because she was illiterate and did not know what the Immaculate Conception meant.
At the seventeenth apparition on April 7, 1858, a psychiatrist was observing Bernadette closely while she was in ecstasy during a vision. Bernadette was holding a lighted candle cupped between her hands. The wind caused the flame to flicker around her fingers, but she was not in anyway burned by it. The psychiatrist confirmed that something mysterious and supernatural was indeed happening.
From that period on, there have been many healings that are considered miracles for those who have drank or bathed in the grotto’s waters. The intended message of the Virgin Mary is to purify oneself with the water. I feel by entering into this mystery, the symbolic gesture of being purified by the most holy, can indeed be miraculous.
Right after checking into the Imperial Hotel, we walked through town on our way to the grotto. The streets were lined with wall-to-wall stores overfilled with statues and pictures of Mary, plastic bottles to fill with holy water, and a myriad of other souvenirs depicting Mary. It was bit disconcerting to see all this commercialism in such a holy place. Such is life!
We walked down the paved road by the river Gave where many people were sitting on long benches. I could see a green meadow across the river as we approached a group of people in blue wheel chairs, and others who were standing in line waiting to pray at the altar that was placed in the grotto. There was a statue of Mary in white Carrara marble standing on a pedestal placed in an oval niche surrounded by ivy. This is where she appeared to Bernadette and said, “Que soy era Immaculada Councepcious” (I am the Immaculate Conception), which is inscribed on her pedestal. The base of the grotto is paved with marble, and placed on top of it is a simple white altar with two white candles and bouquets of flowers. To the right of the altar is a large candelabrum with tall white candles that burn continuously, symbolizing the devotion to Mary. To the left is the spring of holy water. I said to myself, “I've never felt a place as holy as this.”I was so open to her that I spontaneously knelt down and gave myself to the Blessed Virgin. I felt such a deep love for her in this very sacred moment in time.
Walking back to the hotel for dinner, I had this burning desire to aid people. It was the same feeling I had in India when I was compelled to go to Mother Teresa's orphanage.
June 14.We walked to the Basilica for morning meditation. It was packed and a bit overwhelming. It wasn’t just because there was around two thousand people there, but because it was enormous. It has three levels and was built in gothic design with stained glass windows throughout the church that referred to the Immaculate Conception. There were also fifteen chapels within the Basilica with twenty-one stained glass windows all depicting the apparitions. Ornate chandeliers were hanging from the ceiling.
We walked downstairs to the Crypt. I could breath again. It was small, simply but tastefully decorated, and exquisitely quiet. We sat down on brown benches and looked up at the beige marble altar that was covered with a white cloth. On either side were five thin candles placed in brass holders. In the center, high on a beautifully wooden sculpted plaque, was a white marble statue of Mary with baby Jesus in her arms. In front of her was a vase with pink and white gladiolas.
I was so grateful that we were the only ones there. I felt this cascade of energy coming through me as our prayers echoed throughout the Crypt.
In the afternoon we walked to 14 Rue Bernadette where Saint Bernadette lived as a child with her parents and three siblings. It is a small two-story building. On the ground floor is where Bernadette's father, Francois Soubirous worked. We stood there observing his old wooden machinery. We went upstairs to Bernadette’s bedroom and looked closely at her personal belongings. The room was very simple: a twin bed in a wooden bed frame with a blue and white-checkered canopy. There was a matching canopy that hung from the shelf over the wood-burning stove. My gaze was on the rosary that hung on the wall near her bed--the rosary that brought her closer to Mary. It wasn't until later that I found out that it really wasn't her rosary. O well, I enjoyed the romanticism while it lasted.
From there we walked to the Cachot, a damp one-room dungeon that was a former prison. When Bernadette’s father was out of work and could no longer afford his home, a cousin offer this gray cement building to him to live in. Bernadette was a very unhealthy child so these horrible conditions only added to her demise.
I looked at some of my fellow pilgrims: Rene, a woman in her seventies was wearing her favorite garb: denim jeans and a denim jacket. Her long gray hair was tied in two braids. She was looking very inward absorbing the history of this place. Mary, a woman in her early forties, was in deep mediation. Robert, a man in his thirties, who is French decent, but because he has a dark complexion, he looks Middle Eastern and was always getting checked out by airport officials. He looked so vulnerable and innocent as he was staring up at a vase of white lilies. We were all taken back by this sign of poverty and the story behind it. Our hearts were so open.
In the late afternoon we joined a ceremony called the “Blessed Sacrament Procession.” It began in the Grotto. There were lines of people in dark blue covered wheelchairs and thousands of people walking along the Gave River to the Rosary Basilica where Benediction is held. This was all Greek to me, but I enjoyed the spirit of it all. That is how my whole spiritual pilgrimage has been. I have not understood in a literal sense until after the fact, but was able to feel behind the words, the songs, the ceremonies, and feel the presence of God. Later, a friend explained that walking in this procession means to accept and join Christ on life's pathways. I was quite moved.
June 15.After meditation we decided to see a movie about the life of Bernadette. I was so worried and nervous about going, because I was terribly phobic in movie theatres. I was worried for nothing, because we were the only ones there. We sat in these wonderfully comfortable seats and watched the movie intently. We now had a better feel and appreciation of her story.
Except for Judy, who wanted to be on her own today, we all returned to the Crypt to perform a healing ceremony for Betsy's father-in-law who recently passed away. We were surprised when we saw Judy kneeling down in prayer in front of a statue of Mary. It was so beautiful to see her tall thin body and her gray hair softly flowing over her face as she gave herself to prayer. She felt our presence and was glad to see us and joined our healing ceremony. The energy was so powerful in that room that we were showered by our own light, as we allowed the power of God to come through us.
After lunch we spent two hours in line waiting to be bathed in the holy water of Lourdes. It was very emotional for me and I was extremely phobic. I began feeling guilty about being there when I saw children with crippled bodies. I felt undeserving. I couldn't see at the time that I was also crippled. This phobia has crippled me in so many ways.
Since I have never even seen a baptism, yet been baptized, this was certainly an experience I would not forget. I was taken to a room with four other women. A woman was there who helped us undress. We had to take everything off except for our bras that were kept on but were unhooked (I never did understand why). Three women then escorted me into the water. They told me to make the sign of the cross (which I think I did incorrectly and this was upsetting to me) and to sit down. The water was so cold. Then they took my bra off. A figure of the Virgin Mary was at the foot of the bath. They told me to kiss her and then to lie in the water. To wash in the water of the Grotto, "... is to respond to the Blessed Virgin's call, and expresses our faith and hope."7 I went deeply into this mystery that words cannot express. I said to Mary, "Take what you wish from me." I wanted to pray deeper, but the cold water bothered me so much. I felt I was not strong enough, and if I could really give myself to God, it wouldn't have bothered me. I felt I had failed Mary. Immediately afterward I had to go within and did not want to talk to anyone.
There were so many people around, but finally I found a place to sit and meditate. Even though the tension in my neck was extreme and I was shaking uncontrollably from nervousness, I felt Mary so deeply and wanted to stay in that holy state forever. I prayed to her for the strength to accept my illness if I must. For some reason, I never prayed for her to take it away.
In the evening there was a Torchlight Procession, which symbolized one's faith and love for God. There must have been one hundred thousand people all singing Ava Maria. I had to experience this. I made it through by moving, which distracts the phobia some. Singing Ava Maria also helped, even though at the time I had no idea what I was singing.
June 16. Three miles from Lourdes, we came to Bartres, a small village nestled in a lush green valley that radiates peace. It was such a nice contrast from the crowds in Lourdes. As an infant Bernadette lived there with a wet nurse so she could be breast-fed. Her mother could no longer feed her due to an accident. Bernadette returned in her teenage years when her nurse needed her help.
We meditated and said prayers near the shed where she tended sheep. I couldn't imagine returning to the crowds. I needed the serenity of the country, so I decided to stay here for the rest of the day. Robert said he would stay as well, but I explained to him that I needed to be alone.
I was in heaven. I continued to pray and meditate. I wrote my name and Ananda on a rock and wrote the names of the people I prayed for on a piece of paper and placed them between two rocks. I felt they would be blessed there. It was such a blessing to close my eyes and instantaneously feel so much love and peace.
Walking down the tree-lined streets and flowered covered fields back to Lourdes was like being in a picture book that had come alive.
I felt I experienced Bernadette by being there. She died in 1879. She was to be canonized, so in 1909 her body was exhumed for identification. Like Jacinta, she displayed perfect preservation and remains that way today. Her body can be seen at the convent of Saint Gildard in France.