Embraced by God
A pilgrim is simply a soul in search of God. In secret, we all long for an experience of the Transcendent. And yet we live in a world that does its best to turn us into cynics. The mere mention of the word miracle and our first reflex is a nervous giggle and a roll of the eyes. And yet, at the core of our being, we yearn for the mystical. We are desperate for a sign. A sign that there is more to this tale than meets the eye. A sign that we are holy, known divinely, and that our lives have meaning. My pilgrimage to Lourdes originated from a deep need and curiosity to experience something sacred, holy and hopeful. You could say I was chasing an epiphany, thirsting for Mystery, eager to surrender my being into the healing waters of Lourdes and rise, renewed and reinvigorated in my faith and holy purpose on this planet. I needed for just a breath to feel something of the Eternal.
They don’t call it a pilgrimage for nothing. For us, it was a nine hour plane flight across the Atlantic, another two hour flight from Paris to Bordeaux, a three hour car ride to our base in Eugenie-les-Bain, and then the final momentous 200 kilometers to reach the grotto of Lourdes. At first, we feared the holy site was closed. It was so eerily still as if the whole place had taken a monastic vow of silence. I found myself whispering, even walking with a gentler step. Ahead, a pair of French nuns dressed in the Virgin Mary’s blue and white, kneeled at the grotto. Next, we witnessed a blind priest wiping his eyes with the water that dripped from the rock crevices, and then there was the handful of Italian pilgrims joyfully filling enough jugs of holy water to fill several swimming pools. I found myself nodding at each person as if I knew them. What I recognized in their eyes was hope. We had all made the journey convinced this place at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains was charged somehow with holiness and that just maybe we would catch a glimpse of God.
A path of candles, some as tall as me, led us to the baths. Promptly at 2:30pm, the doors opened. A nun stepped out and surveyed the crowd dutifully waiting in anticipation on wooden benches, the women seated on the right and the men on the left. The nun blessed the crowd with the most beautiful smile of benevolence. My motley of five jet-lagged children, husband, and mother caught her attention. I petitioned in French for our family to experience the waters together. Normally, they take one person per bath. Again she smiled and invited us all to follow her inside.
Time stopped. The most exquisite music greeted us from a place we could not see. It was as if a choir of angels were singing to our souls, softening our hard edges, so we could surrender to the moment. We were met by five women waiting to serve our every need. They would prove our greatest blessing. Even speaking in a foreign language, their pure words and deeds, made us feel so loved and cared for. Hanging on hooks along the walls of the cabin were royal blue capes. Ever so gently, the women placed them around our shoulders and then helped us undress. Every effort was made to honor the body as sacred. One at a time, the nuns took our hands and led us to the foot of the stone bath. Carefully, they removed the blue cape and wrapped our body in a white sheet. In French, the nuns invited us to walk forward into the water, kiss the feet of the icon of the Virgin Mary, and then lay back into the waters.
The most moving experience for me was the five women who circled around the bath and prayed aloud as we each entered the waters. The water was so cold and yet I knew only warmth. The gentleness and generous faith of the women praying mysteriously drew me into the presence of God. My mother described it as being in the womb again. It was so clear. I, little old me, was holy, intimately known, and Something greater than I would ever be able to understand loved me tender. I felt held in the tender embrace of the God of Psalm 139, the One who created me from and for love, and promised to be with me always.
Did I experience a miracle? Yes, I believe I did. Not the physical healing that so many come to Lourdes seeking. In that time out of time moment, with the Ave Maria streaming above, the nuns blanketing me in prayers, the cold waters baptizing my spirit anew, and surrounded by all of whom I love so dearly, I experienced a peace beyond understanding. A peace that I could carry deep within me. When life proved scary, when all the unanswered questions overwhelmed, when I found myself down on my knees in desperation, I could close my eyes and remember again what it felt like to be held so tenderly by my Creator.
When I boarded the plane last week, I carried with me precious cargo. Prayers, nearly eighty of them, each tenderly inked in hope and entrusted in my care. In the satchel of my heart, I carried a wife’s prayer for her husband to find God, a mother’s prayer for healing from breast cancer and a future with her boys, a prayer for a grieving mother who lost her child, a prayer for a brother suffering from a life-long battle with schizophrenia, a daughter’s prayer for her ailing father, a prayer for a baby just born with Down Syndrome, a husband’s prayer for his wife suffering from Alzheimer’s, a prayer for a friend to conceive with child, a prayer for a pair of widows, a prayer for a very sick child with cancer, another, for a classmate of my son’s that was hit by a car the day we flew to Paris, and that was just the beginning. It was my mother’s beautiful idea to buy one of the large candles and carve each of the names into the wax and then place the candle luminous at the grotto. We also hand-wrote prayers on little white slips of paper and deposited them into a wooden box for the priests and nuns of Lourdes to pray. There is nothing more powerful than being trusted with another’s heart before God. For that, I will always be grateful.
We are a people so in need of tenderness and healing. Our souls yearn to hear an angel’s anthem, to be tenderly prayed over, to feel the waters baptize us again and again in hope. We are vulnerable beings. What we must realize is that more important than physical healing, is our soul’s need to believe that come what may, all will be okay for us. God’s love promises it. But there is more. God asks us to respond to this beautiful truth. We, like the nuns, must radiate tender love in return. We must meet the world, even the ugliest, the scariest, and the most hopeless, with Divine tenderness. Taking hold of each other’s hands, speaking tenderly, praying fervently, and trusting in Love, together, we can find ourselves in the presence of God. If not, what is the point of all this?
This is only the beginning of the Pilgrimage for me. I see that so clearly now. Lourdes gave me a taste of what it is like to feel something of the eternal brush up against my life. Inspired, I must continue forward on the path, seeking that which is bigger than myself, truer than true, unknowable and yet known in the depths of my being.
Live in Hope,
P.S. We returned with holy water abundant and it would be an honor to share!