If you think religious places are sprawling, dusty sites that thrive on mining spiritual gold, then you obviously haven’t been to the pilgrim site of Lourdes — picturesquely situated in a verdant valley, nestling in the foothills of the Pyrenees in south-west France. If, on the other hand, you feel religious places expose you to the possibility of transcendence, holding the potential to stir you, even if you’re not quite sure you believe in anything in particular, then Lourdes is an interesting study in the nature of faith.
It was raining when we landed. Grey clouds careening through the sky like piles of unsteady shaving foam. But not even the most virulent rainstorm can be a curtain against the faithful who flock in, wielding umbrellas to ward off the forces of nature. Horns bellow like lost cattle. Armadas of tourist buses push forward in front of us. Committed volunteers guide the wheelchairs of those who are too sick to walk. Nuns in blue and white habits scurry to and fro. From billboards, saints smile benevolently upon the flock pouring in. We check into a hotel. Over my bed hangs a framed image of a smiling Jesus with a bleeding heart.
Few corners of the world have been gilded with as many expectations as Lourdes. People of all faiths converge from all across the globe hoping for a miracle, a recovery or a healing. There are those suffering from physical diseases or mental illness who arrive longing for a cure. Their numbers are matched by the new breed of pilgrims: sports enthusiasts aspiring for a gold medal, motorcyclists hoping to win a Grand Prix and old ladies aiming to sweep the stakes at the casino. Whatever the goal, they’re here for renewal of depleted energies to go on with the business of living.
For those who came in late, the story so far: In 1858, a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette Soubirous experienced 18 visions of the Virgin Mary at the cave called Massabielle, beside the river Gave, near the town of Lourdes. Despite being ordered to keep away from the cave by her mother and the local magistrate, Bernadette found herself guided to a spring of water with miraculous healing powers. The church gave recognition to the miracles in the 1860’s and since then many people claim to have been cured by the holy water. A huge polyglot of shrines, churches, hotels and hospices have mushroomed around the spring, with a dynamic tourist industry to match.
This explains the myriad shops selling bottles in which to fill Lourdes water, rosaries, medals, “healing” socks, even ashtrays with the virgin’s face.
Tourists have probably done more to turn around the fortunes of the saints than anyone else. It is a fairly universal fundamental that markets are good indicators of the fashion and predilections of the space in which they thrive. With the market in Lourdes, there are signs of capitalist familiarity, that bright exuberance that creates desire, the bric-a-brac of religion pedaled by salesmen with a fervor only matched by those devotees claiming to be touched by the Holy Spirit.
The free market thrives. But I notice less of the hustling that accompanies other pilgrim sites across the globe. You’re more than welcome to step in and buy, but none of the shopkeepers will push you into making a purchase. I say to my guide, “The problem with pilgrim sites is that there seem to be more stores than pilgrims.” To which she replies, “The stores are concentrated on the two main routes leading to the sanctuary: the Rue de la Grotte and the Boulevard de la Grotte, both narrow. And so you feel at first as if you are enclosed by rows of shops, but in fact given the overwhelming volume of visitors, while the stores may exist and thrive, they are not as plentiful as they appear.”
I’m not a religious zealot by any stretch of imagination, but it is an epiphany of sorts to be offered a seat by a physically challenged man at a crowded church service. I expected to feel repulsed at what I thought blind faith, and depressed at people’s gullible tendencies, but my abiding sense is one of marvel at the dignity of the faithful. The grace procured by faith that allows one to stand patiently under an umbrella in the rain, praying for an intention with a heart full of hope. The guide and I walk together around the town, which is eminently walkable. I see all the visible exclamations of faith’s big feast: spires and steeples, gilded domes and churches. A row of men in frocked coats repeat the Virgin’s name over and over, as if she were hard of hearing. The floor of the Massabielle grotto where the visions first occurred is strewn with roses while the walls have been kissed so many times that the surface of the stone is worn away and resembles the molten halva in a Lebanese diner. Lines of devotees wash in the holy water from the sacred spring. A man touches the hem of the robe of a priest about to celebrate Mass at the Sacre Coeur church. “Take your hat off in God’s house,” a patron hisses at me. God doesn’t seem to mind, but his sycophants certainly do.
A robed figure sits huddled in the last pew, ticking off the attractions he’s patronised through the day. Lourdes Wood — the forest where Bernadette collected dead lumber. Check. The museum of Lourdes for an appraisal of period costumes. Check. A sampling of the gourmet regional produce: gascon black pork, tarbais beans, trout, pyrenees lamb, duck and goose, the local cheeses and mountain honey. A satisfied grin appears on his face. Check Check Check.
A cloaked lady spins like a dervish outside the church, whooping and calling God’s name as she revolves. I wonder if these vocal and visual gymnastics are intended for the Lord or for the charity-giving audience.
After the nightly rosary and prayers recited in the church square in several different languages, a procession of men, women and wheelchairs wielding candles, swing and sway down the street towards the grotto, like a gentle ocean current.
But of all the churches I’ve seen in these parts, nature’s cathedral inspire the most awe. You climb the ramparts to the thousand-year old fortified castle towards the Pyrenean Museum and are rendered speechless, not just because of the in-depth history housed in the museum, but because from its high battlements the landscape is as breathtaking as if it knocked back a gallon of holy water. Alpine scenery, a view of the Pyrenees and some of the most splendid flora and fauna that I’ve seen on the planet, thrive here. At the foot of the 14th century dungeon, sits a botanical garden and models of Pyrenean architecture. In the distance a patchwork quilt of cemetery crosses serves as reminder that we too must die and ought to use our limited time on earth to live meaningfully.
We take the “Pic du Jer” funicular railway to be greeted at a 1,000-metre altitude by more panoramic views. It begins to rain and the landscape washed clean grows lovelier with each shower. In this mystical place that looks like the secret home of fairies, I feel free to believe in something larger than myself.
To get the most out of Lourdes, I learn to set my myopic vision past manufactured religious novelty — like the car painted with Bernadette’s face on its side, the Lourdes waxwork museum, an animated crib, quirky inspirational messages, funny hats and exotic robes. And once I listen beyond the sound of people reciting prayers by rote, I’m able to sense an undercurrent of faith. The faith of volunteers and pilgrims who converge from remote corners of the world, willing to brave the vagaries of the elements, some having spent their life-savings to be here, having given up the comforts of hearth and home, prepared to wait in serpentine queues for a visit to the shrine. And this itself is nothing short of miraculous.
There are daily flights from Paris to Tarbes Lourdes Pyrenees Airport. You could also hop aboard the TGV (the high speed train) from Paris to Lourdes. This journey will take you 5 hours 30mins.
Grand Hotel Moderne is reasonably comfortable and easy walking distance of the Grotto and the Sanctuary.
Don’t leave Lourdes without: A worthwhile one-day trip to the nearby Cauterets-Pont d’Espagne for the experience of a charming little spa town and ski resort. For more information, visit www. cauterets.com
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