Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Lourdes - A Visit!

Lourdes is a tiny riverside town that lies in the foothills of the magnificent French Pyrenees. Two thousand years ago it was a Roman military base and a Gothic castle stands in the centre of the town affording wonderful views. It is floodlit in the evenings. But this is more than just another historic town. It was a place of refuge during the Inquisition for fleeing Cathars and also for Knights Templar and it provided sanctuary for Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in World War II. Franz Werfel was one of these men and he pledged to write the life story of Bernadette Soubirous if he and his wife survived the journey over the Pyrenees mountains to safety in Spain. His book was titled the ‘Song of Bernadette’ which was written when he reached safety and his book was made into a film of the same name. This town feels like sacred ground to many who come here and it is where a fourteen year old peasant girl had an incredible experience.  

The story begins in 1858 when Southern France had been hit by an epidemic of cholera, caused by bad water supplies. The illness had severely affected Bernadette, her family and the health of the people in the surrounding towns. Bernadette’s father was a mill owner but had lost his livelihood due to several bad harvests and ill-health. He was accused of stealing bread and the Soubirous family were accommodated free of charge in the 'Cachot', a dark, damp prison basement, declared unfit for prisoners! Bernadette was the eldest of many children, several of whom died in childhood. She cared for her younger siblings while her father looked for work, and her mother took in laundry. Many people said her father spent his days in bed and his nights drinking in the cafes, and that her mother drank heavily too. Bernadette had rarely attended school and spoke only Occitan, a pigeon French dialect. Whilst still a child, she was sent to the local village of Bartres to be a live-in maid and shepherdess but her mistress cruelly beat her for not knowing how to read her catechism. Bernadette eventually returned home to work as a serving girl in the local bar. All these sites are on the tourist trail and can be visited for a very small fee.    

A biting wind blows off the peaks of the high Pyrenees and even in summer the morning air is icy. It was one very early February morning that Bernadette was sent to trespass on the private land of Massabeille to steal wood for the morning fire. She needed to cross an ice cold river and it was here that she felt a gust of wind and looked up to see a young lady standing in a rock cave that was used to shelter farm animals. The lady told her to go to the authorities and tell them that a church must be built in the town. When Bernadette told the local priest, he called her a liar and said sarcastically “tell your lady to make the roses bloom this winter!” The people of the town heard about this lady and followed Bernadette to the grotto, but they saw and heard nothing. Bernadette was the only person who could communicate with the lady and the lady told her to dig in the gravel at the foot of the cave and drink of the spring water that she would find there. They jeered at her, saying she had gone mad as Bernadette scratched at the surface of the ground and put some muddy water to her mouth. The lady told her to eat of the herb, and they laughed again (but the herb might have been burnet, which is helpful for lung conditions). She was sent to the Town Mayor, the local judge, eminent physicians and priests, all of whom cross-questioned her and dismissed her claims. The Police Commissioner threatened to throw her into jail. “I know your father!” he said!

On one occasion at the grotto someone gave Bernadette a lighted candle to hold. As she shielded the candle flame from the wind, the flames licked her fingers. Everyone stared. Her hand was resistant to the scorching flame!

The lady then insisted that she wanted a church to be built so Bernadette took her plea to a high church dignitary. This time Bernadette was instructed by the church official to ask the lady for her name. It was on this occasion the lady told Bernadette, “I am the Immaculate Conception”. This caused a major controversy within the Roman Catholic Church as the vision was immediately identified as Mary, the Mother of God, the Theotokos (a point of doctrine related to a goddess giving birth to a god in the form of Jesus). Even more people went to the grotto so the authorities decided to section off the area so no-one could go to the spring, which was now gushing with fresh, clean water. 

Everyone wondered what to do with this strange girl who had seen the extraordinary vision eighteen times over a period of five months and some people began reporting cures. Bernadette could become a danger to the church authorities if her fame spread, so they put her to work in an infirmary where many illnesses, such as tuberculosis, were common and highly infectious.

As the months passed, many people who drank from the spring found their health improved. One man who had been blind for many years was able to see again, and a woman with a paralysed arm was healed. The authorities decided to take Bernadette from her work in the infirmary and place her in a secluded convent several hundred miles away. She never saw her family again. It was here that a jealous nun bullied Bernadette, giving her the most menial chores, making her work long hours in the kitchen, and humiliating her whenever possible. Poor Bernadette, only four feet six inches in height as an adult, was continually told she was “good for nothing”. 

Bernadette suffered from severe asthma. One day whilst having an asthma attack, the nuns gave her some Lourdes water to drink. It immediately relieved the problem. But Bernadette had contracted a much more serious illness, tuberculosis, and this had caused a knee tumour that left her in excruciating pain especially when kneeling to pray or whilst scrubbing the convent floors. Bernadette bore this distress without complaint. One day the nuns offered to take her to Lourdes but she said “the healing waters are not for me”. She died at the age of 35 and was declared a saint, not for her psychic ability, but because she bore all these great difficulties so heroically. Her feast day is on 16th April.

The Lourdes water has a very high mineral content. One of the most famous cures took place in the bath-house. Anna Santaniello had seen many specialist doctors and was diagnosed with an incurable disease which caused great hardship. She was taken by stretcher to Lourdes where she prayed for relief from the pain. Whilst taking a bath in Lourdes water, she was healed. She is now 93 years old and has had no recurrence of this illness.

Abigail Witchalls was just 26 years old and pregnant when she was attacked in a near fatal stabbing whilst out walking in the summer of 2005. Her attacker was thought to be a neighbour who committed suicide with a drug overdose a few days after the attack. Abigail was given strength to deal with the resultant severe disability by visiting Lourdes with her family in 2006.

People of all religions and denominations come to Lourdes. Mandy Lorimer was not brought up as a Christian but travelled there in a wheelchair after a drunken driver crashed into her leaving her on crutches with a knee injury that failed to heal. Mandy felt like giving up on life. She says “When I saw thousands of other people with far worse disabilities than mine, I realised I could get over this and still make a good life for myself”.   

You will find the hotels and guest houses provide a first class service and cater for every requirement. Good quality campsites are available and the local towns of Pau and Tarbes have an excellent train service to the shrine. The cafes and restaurants offer a large range of foods and all hotels supply wheelchairs. In the early evening, the sound of chants and songs ring out as the infirm are brought to the great underground cathedral. A candle-lit procession takes place at 9pm in Rosary Square each evening.

I attended the 2008 celebrations which included special prayer parades and sung services and the unveiling of a new mural around the sanctuary. Commemorative medals, fine china and other mementos are on sale. Six million people of all denominations from around the world visit the shrine each year. If you go, make sure you have pre-booked accommodation and don’t expect a cure. Only 67 people in history have ever had confirmation of a miraculous recovery from a really serious illness. However, what you will no doubt discover is great consideration, kindness and warmth. Perhaps the healing you will find is that life can be very precious despite heartache, and that the great hardships of life, such as disability and infirmity, can inspire others towards tender caring, genuine concern and joyful hope for a brighter future. The Lourdes tour guides suggest visitors keep an open mind and told us “Though many pray for physical healing, they might not be granted their wish but they will receive something else, such as spiritual renewal, a sense of community, compassion, forgiveness or courage”. Father Tony Ives, a spiritual advisor, emphasises the importance of the pilgrimage as a search for greater connection with the divine. Article by Wendy Stokes Visit: www.wendystokes.co.uk


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