Warning: Prepare for a long post with lots of links to read! Do not attempt unless you have ample free time or a very, very boring job.
The next weekend was an exciting one, because we went to France! Alyssa really wanted to visit Lourdes, a small town in the south of France with a basilica and, of course, a legend. So interesting of a legend, in fact, that the last two times I’ve sat down to write this entry I’ve accidentally gotten lost googling stories about the legend and consequently forgotten about my blog entirely. If you have any time at all, read this account. It’s truly incredible. If you’re in a hurry, however, all you really need to know is that in 1858, a fourteen-year-old girl named Bernadette witnessed a vision of the Virgin in a grotto in Lourdes. She was sick with tuberculosis and had been for all of her life, but whenever the Virgin spoke to her, all of her symptoms vanished and her face took on a healthy glow for the duration of her meditations. Now, a basilica and shrine have been built on the site of the apparition, and the water that trickles down the walls of the cave is considered holy and to have remarkable healing powers. There is actually an extensive list of recorded medical miracles that have occurred from visits to Lourdes, all of which have been subjected to a very complex, multi-year miracle-confirmation process that you can read about here.
We went in a fairly large group of perhaps fifteen, among whom were Agus, Uge, Alyssa, Monica, Paty, and myself. I already knew everybody going (or had at least met them before . . . I have the embarrassing habit of forgetting people’s names if they haven’t already reminded me four times), and we were planning on staying the night in Monica’s family’s cabin in the mountains. As I would later confess to Uge, Paty and Alyssa, I had been just the tiniest bit uncertain about the trip for a number of reasons:
I am in a different country.
My familiarity with the language of said country is in a working state, and still prone to the occasional communication roadblock (the confusion of “monk” and “monkey” comes to mind).
We were actually leaving that country to go to another country, the language of which I speak approximately 0%.
We were fifteen twenty-somethings staying in a house with no parents. Now I know that makes me sound boring, but I think it’s fair to be a little wary of the tendencies of twenty-somethings, particularly with trepidation numbers one through three taken into account.
Agustín and María Eugenia had me convinced that with Agus driving, I was certainly going to die.
But I was so pleasantly surprised to find that this group was a really intimate, wholesome group of friends that really just wanted to visit a church—and that the drive wasn’t nearly as perilous as I had anticipated. We had a great time, and I really got to know some of the people better. We played games in the car, and we sang songs from the Sound of Music (Monica has an eerie memory of the words . . . we’d be singing and she’d interrupt the song to pay homage to the intermittent dialogue that appears in the film but not on the audio track). When we got to the house, we ate the quiche that Uge had made and we just sat around, talked, and sang more songs, accompanied this time by the unmatched guitar-playing abilities of Pau. Uge, Paty, Alyssa, and a really nice girl named Blanca and I shared a room, and we didn’t end up going to bed until about 4:00 because Uge was telling us a story she had made up. She made it up off the top of her head and told it in English, and she hasn’t taken an English class in four years!
The next day, we visited the basilica. It is phenomenal. From afar, it kind of looks like Magic Kingdom, but up close, it begins to take on the decorative yet sober qualities of a Catholic cathedral. There are two parts: the bottom part, the basilica, which is dedicated to Mary, and an entirely separate church that sits directly on top, which is dedicated to her mother, Anne. We started by visiting the basilica. The enormous dome ceiling is covered in a mosaic of Mary, her two huge eyes watching you wherever you go. It’s so impressive that at first it was almost off-putting, but as I walked around, I realized that I found it rather comforting. There are more mosaics around the chapel, all of them done with the finest detail, and together they map out the conception, life, and ascension of Jesus from the perspective of Mary. I really don’t have a better word than beautiful, and I use it to describe more than the art of the mosaics. It was just a nice opportunity to walk around and be silent and meditate, and furthermore, it was the first time I had ever actually thought about what it would have been like to be Mary in the story that I’ve been told countless times. It was a very tranquil and reflective beginning to the day.
After seeing the basilica, we went to the shrine in the grotto, which is pictured below where it sits beneath the basilica. There’s an altar in the middle, and visitors file into a line that snakes behind the altar along the walls of the cave. There’s a small stream at the foot of the rock, which itself is covered in a thin, permanent layer of running water. This is the water that the Virgin ordered Bernadette to drink. We were in complete silence as we passed through the grotto, and every member of the line ran his or her fingers across the rock, wetting their hands with the holy water. It was as it was in the basilica: silent, somber, and thought-provoking.
We had a picnic after in a nearby field, with the mountains framing our eating space in every direction. It was a beautiful day and just a nice, relaxing time. After lunch, we watched a Eucharistic procession that took place in a pagoda near the lodgings. Since Lourdes is famous for its healing powers, a lot of ill people make a pilgrimage there. The facility provides accommodations for them in what is technically a hotel, but is equipped with medical technology and other amenities to make the sick as comfortable as possible. This procession was a way of administering communion to those who couldn’t make it to the church or basilica, and it was held in several languages. After the communion, the general public was invited to join the procession and walk as a group with the monks. We joined in, breaking off about halfway to attend mass at the church on top, that of St. Anne.
This is certainly the longest post I’ve ever written, and hopefully the longest I will ever write. It’s very difficult for me to refrain from elaborating, sometimes, because I have an endless pool of things to say (which isn’t always a good quality). But this trip was just so incredible and important, in my mind, that it really deserved more than the usual amount of description. I made some amazing friends from this trip, in just the space of one day, and I felt truly moved by being in the proximity of so many people who believed with such conviction in the spiritual power of Lourdes. I hope to one day go back, because it really was something.