Another Sacred Place

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Maybe Penrhys is just as spiritually important as the Notre Dame in Lourdes, but here you wouldn’t find a large basilica, millions of tourists or an economy based around the legend. Instead there is just a statue in the middle of a field, next to a council estate with a community centre. It’s an obscure little place in the Welsh valleys, but just a 20 minute drive along the A470 and across the bridge in Porth.

How this site became sacred is shrouded in legend, the truth lost in the depths of history – perhaps it was a centre for nature worship in pre-Christian times, because the spring provided clean water and people were awestruck by the view of the valleys. There’s no doubt an earlier statue, ostensibly of Our Lady, existed somewhere in the vicinity, but nobody knew where it came from. Allegedly the statue mysteriously appeared one day in the opening of a large tree. For a while, many travelled from afar to see it, and because the spring was considered special in some way.
During the ‘Reformation’ period, the authorities destroyed the shrine and the original statue, in an attempt to supplant Catholicism with a regulated state religion. The statue we see today was installed there sometime in the 1950s.

Further down the hill there’s an area that looks like a miniature Roman ‘theatre’, obviously constructed quite recently. This is where we celebrated the outdoor Mass with my local priest and several other priests from around the valleys. We were quite lucky with the weather, as it had been crap most the week.

The well is a little harder to find. To get to it, there’s a footpath (marked) from the road running behind the theatre. Following that downhill leads to the small stone building.

The spring’s outlet is hidden away to the side of this building, amongst the grass and undergrowth.

Lourdes #5: Things to See Before I go

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Currently resting under the pavillion again, waiting for a Spanish contingent to finish up a midnight Latin Mass at Massabielle. A gang of men in Fedoras just rocked up to the shelters. When they’re done I’ll light another candle for my intentions, the people I said I’d pray for and the ton of things that have been weighing on my mind. I bought myself a beautiful red and gold rosary the other day, but giving it to Ivan the Hungarian to help him on his journey seems the right thing to do.

Early this morning I did something extremely risky in my current condition: I reached the Pic du Jer’s summit on foot, and that involved ~90 minutes of arduous traversal across rocks and rough terrain. I knew it was going to be difficult, but I was determined to conquer that 2km peak without using the rail car. On a clear sunny day, one can view the whole of the Pyrenees mountain range to the south, and all of Lourdes. Today I found myself in the middle of a cloud, and could see sod all through the dense mist except for the large antenna and steel cross. The nearby cave entrance was also closed, so I couldn’t explore that either. I’m still a bit worse for wear, as they say.

After meeting John near Massabielle, we walked around the Basilica for a bit, and I showed him the relics of John Paul II, Pius X and other saints kept at the Underground Basilica. John was impressed by the organ, which is perhaps the most powerful I’ve heard.

One of the most beautiful things to be seen is a torchlit procession in Lourdes on a fine summer evening, and I finally managed to experience that again for maybe the last time. Unfortunately I never managed to get the vantage point or image quality to capture this on camera.

Lourdes #4: My Thoughts on the Phenomena

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Probably the main reason I follow the story of St. Bernadette is that one can learn, through her eyes, so much about Lourdes and the people who once lived here, and with a lucidity that we don’t get from merely reading history books or watching documentaries. How did they survive as a civilised town, a vast distance from the nearest city (which I think is Toulouse), without the transport, supply and communications infrastructure most of us take for granted? What were their culture and beliefs, and how did they experience the world? We can also learn quite a lot in the museums at the Chateau Fort, which I also visited again this afternoon.

I joined a tour guide in passing through the places associated with the Soubirous family, which began in the Domain’s museum. We visited the Cachot, which was the disused jail in which the family stayed after technological advances put Bernadette’s father, Francois, out of business. It was when Bernadette was out collecting wood for the fireplace there that she reportedly encountered the apparition.

The Maison Paternelle de St. Bernadette, which I’ve already visited several times, was apparently given to Francois Soubirous by Bishop Peyramelle sometime afterwards, and it was one of several mill houses that were occupied by the family over the years. Also along the trail was the birthplace of Bernadette, which was a large house by modern standards.

Commonly it’s asserted that Bernadette was too uneducated to have known about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, but I have my doubts about this. The Miraculous Medals bearing that title were in already in circulation for about 25 years before, and there are references to Bernadette having worn one at the time of the apparitions, so she must have at least been aware of it.

This brings me to the main question. What are we to make of Marian apparitions themselves? Some accounts I’m sure are fabrications and cases of people seeing things that aren’t there – the Medjugorge ‘apparition’, for example – but some accounts, such as St. Bernadette’s, aren’t so easy to dismiss.

One thing I believe with certainty is that Marian apparitions are largely a product of the human mind, and I believe this because the appearance, imagery and symbolism are unmistakeably borrowed from romanticised artistic representations of Our Lady rather than manifestations of something non-human. Also, apparitions are typically experienced by a single person in an hypnotic state or trance, perhaps even an epileptic seizure, which further suggests there’s a phychological element to the visions. Typically there are no third-party witnessesses or physical evidence that anything appeared. I’m open to the possibility of a supernatural cause, because there’s still so much we don’t know or understand about how reality works. Sometimes things happen that cannot be understood or explained.

Also, it’s important to understand the culture was very different back then. It’s evident, from what’s been preserved, that the community of 19th century Lourdes was heavily religious by our standards, and far more aware of their environment because they were more connected with nature. In comparison, the perception of the average person in modern society is very limited, because we’re continually isolated from the natural, our senses are barraged with artificial stimuli and we’re collectively very materialistic.
My point is that a group of shepherd children in 19th century Europe, for example, would have noticed phenomena that a modern Westerner would have been oblivious to, and they would have more readily ascribed some religious significance to things they couldn’t explain. It’s my personal belief that St. Bernadette witnessed something at Massabielle – possibly the same optical illusion I experience there sometimes, or something genuinely paranormal – and her mind interpreted it as a lady in white. At a later point, others planted the idea she’d seen an apparition of the ‘Immaculate Conception’.

As for the spring Bernadette uncovered at the Grotto, it might be relevant to note that it was indeed special, in the sense it was a clean source of water, at a time when many people in Lourdes died of cholera from contaminated water supplies. Inexplicable cures do happen there, but the verifiable cases amount to something like ~100 visitors in several hundred million – statistically one is just as likely to be inexplicably cured in somewhere like central London.

I bumped into Ivan the Hungarian (not his real name) again on my return from Massabielle. There is (or was a couple of years ago) a group that would impersonate homeless people around Lourdes, and we’re discouraged from giving them money, but some people are genuinely in need, and I think we have a moral duty to at least do something for them.
Ivan spent some time in Britain as a care worker, but landed himself here after making a few mistakes in life. Among other things, I stop to chat and pray the rosary with him, and teach him how to do it in English. He’s joining a religious community in another part of France soon.

Lourdes #3: Gavarnie and the Spanish Border

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All sunshine and happiness today in Lourdes, finally! I had to go to Mass this morning, obviously, because it’s Sunday. It was in that ugly little post-modernist concrete structure called St. Joseph’s Chapel, but the morning certainly wasn’t wasted, as the always casually-dressed Fr. Mike, who I’d had a passionate debate with about Welsh history over a few pints last night, delivered a very inspiring and articulate homily about why many feel more comfortable asking Our Lady (and whichever saints) to pray for us, as we all sat round the altar.

I didn’t stay in Lourdes that afternoon. Declan, John and myself, along with a number of others, went south to Gavarnie,which is a settlement/outpost at the base of a giant ridge that’s essentially a wall between France and Spain. It’s the Spanish border, but crossing it would be like climbing Everest. I once attempted to make it there on foot, but obviously didn’t get very far.

Along the way we passed the Pyrenees National Park, several giant hydro-electric plants, and a bridge commissioned by Napoleon III on which there was some bungee jumping event. Apparently there’s a population of bears in the national park, and they almost went extinct in the late-1970s. I might bring Missy to Spain next year, and drive from there through the Pyrenees and into southern France.

Our rather small contingent joined several other groups for the torchlit procession, and it went very well.

Lourdes #2: Things to do on a Rainy Day

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There’s not much to do in Lourdes when the weather’s bad, which it was again for most the day. I visited the Maison Paternelle St. de Bernadette, which doubles as a small musem run by the surviving relatives of the Soubirous family. I was mistaken in previously thinking, because of the machinery on the ground floor and the bed next to the window, that the Soubirous family lived here prior to moving into the disused jail. The Maison Paternelle de St. Bernadette was actually loaned to Francois Soubirous by Bishop Peyramelle sometime afterwards, and I learned that the family occupied several mill houses before and after.

At the end of Avenue Paradis, there is the Musee Petit du Lourdes, which exhibits miniature dioramas and reconstructions of 19th century Lourdes. Apparently the creator spent the better part of a decade producing them. Two particularly impressive models are those of the Chateau Fort and the Notre Dame. The latter, I understand, is 1:20 scale, and was moulded from ~2 tons of material. I definitely recommend visiting this place.

After a few pints with some others from Wales, I stayed at Massabielle again until 02:00. It seemed I was the only person in the Domain.