Lourdes Day 5

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I wasn’t able to do much yesterday, as we needed to check out at 12:00, and the flight was due to leave late-afternoon. It’s delayed until ~02:30 this morning, but I don’t mind as I’ve found some decent quality absinthe in the duty free (only 55%, mon ami), and have made a start on that.

So… Lourdes was a mixed bag. I most certainly don’t regret coming here, and can understand why, for some of the people I’ve met, it was their 40th or so visit. Overall it’s been quite an experience – the Basilica, and the art and culture are unlike anything back home, and the sights from various positions around the Pyrenees were breathtaking. I saw a place where the least among us are treated as first-class citizens, which is a miracle. I walked miles south and saw the isolated French villages and mountain peaks crowned with snow that dwarf those of the Welsh valleys. Had the weather been slightly better, I would have gone there to view the night sky.
I cannot tell you exactly what St. Bernadette saw at the Grotto, or whether it was Our Lady, but I’ve seen a couple of inexplicable things in Lourdes that I’m reluctant to describe in detail or make any conclusion about, things that convinced me something is there.

But to summarise Lourdes as a tourist spot: If, like myself, you’re independently-minded, have a basic grasp of French and an abundant supply of money, Lourdes can be a very pleasurable stay. There’s just so much to like about the place and the locals, who always return a smile and say hello (actually ‘bonjour’). The staff at the Hotel St. Louis de France were extremely accommodating, providing immaculate rooms, very nice food and excellent service – I know first-hand how stressful the job can be, and I sincerely appreciate it.
I’ve probably mentioned there’s plenty of cheap and affordable merchandise religious items, but Lourdes is otherwise quite expensive. You might want to leave the gift shops until the last day there.

Now, I said the trip was a mixed bag, and there were a couple of bad sweeties in this one. About 90% of the others supposedly in my group were not the nicest people, to put it charitably, and multiple times I had to look after a severely disabled person they ostracised. A few other related things culminated in yours truly walking out of Mass rather abruptly yesterday afternoon, feeling more than a little disgusted by the hypocrisy. WTF they chose to behave like that in Lourdes, of all places, and during a Mass, is a mystery. That said, there were still a few wonderful people I hope to meet again there.

I will return to Lourdes at some point, but probably not next year, as I have the seeds of a plan for something a little more adventurous. When I do, I’m taking the flight through Amsterdam, or from London, and booking into a four-star down the road.

Lourdes Day 4: The Sound of Music Meets Bravo Two Zero

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As I had business outside Lourdes, I decided to go tabbing south through the Pyrenees first thing after my morning coffee, and join a road at one of the villages. There’s a cycle route that passes under the roundabout near the Pic du Jer roundabout, and it takes you miles deep into the Pyrenees countryside. At one point before arriving here I entertained the idea of reaching the Spanish border on foot from Lourdes, but that turned out not so easy.
I started out walking at a brisk pace, knowing I would typically cover quite a distance within several hours. It soon became pretty uncomfortable in the 26 degrees C, and a couple of blisters were forming about a third of the way in. As the ranges opened up I was tempted by curiosity to keep going… and going… and going.

Eventually I came within sight of the Spanish border, but it’s definitely much further ahead than it looks, and there’s no way to cross it without climbing equipment or through a main road many miles to the West (I think).
But what an impressive sight this was! Far off in the distance I could see mirages, and at the same time ice on some of the peaks. The strange thing was the temperature fluctuated by about 5 degrees C along the way.

Much later on, back in Lourdes, I dragged my sunburnt carcass to St. Bernadette’s old house, the place where her family lived before they fell on hard times – the place I almost forgot to visit – and there I met the owner, a relative of Bernadette. The resemblance was immediately noticeable, especially the round face and the eyes.
The house is actually quite big in comparison to what most people can afford today in Britain. Some of Bernadette’s personal items are on display there – a veil and several prayer cards, namely, and the bed in which she slept near the window. On the wall were pictures of the Grotto as it was before the Notre Dame was built. It turns out the ‘rock face’ was actually an opening into a small hill, on which the Notre Dame is now built.

Lourdes Day 3

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Rather than follow the itinerary, which isn’t quite going as planned, I’ll be doing my own thing for the rest of the week. The weather has finally changed for the better. The sun is out, and it’s quite warm without the humidity we’re used to in Wales – perfect conditions for exploring the Pic du Jer. The coffee at the Jeanne d’Arc and the hotel is also first class, and it’s not the weak ‘skinny latte’ dreck we have back home.

Underground Basilica and the International Mass
Every Wednesday at 09:30, the International Mass is celebrated at the Underground Basilica. This morning it was attended by several thousand, as expected, and a few of us watched the Mass from the perimeter.
It took about an hour or so for everyone to fall in, and another half hour for things to get started. Mass started out with the atmosphere of a convention, with each group in attendance being met with applause as they were announced. There was also another procession of 20-odd priests, bishops and deacons.
The big service for us could be on Friday, when Mass might be held at the Notre Dame itself.

Also managed to take another nice photo of the Notre Dame from across the river.

Pic du Jer
I overcame my fear of heights this afternoon by forcing myself to take the rail cab to the top – it slowly rattled up the steep gradient for about 2,000 metres, by my reckoning. A rough mental calculation during the ride (not accounting for the gradient) told me it would take at least fourteen seconds to crash if the engine and brakes failed near the top, but someone on the flight here reckoned we’d black out first if we were to descend at that speed.
From the upper station it was a short walk to the summit, which is marked by a giant pylon-like monument. A few metres away is the antenna mast, which I noticed was hooked up to rackmount kit that sounded a lot like a bank of Cisco 2600s. If nobody was around, I would have climbed the fence to see what they were.

Also from the summit, we get to see the whole of Lourdes, and the northern horizon. I didn’t think that part of France was so flat.

Looking south, we get a view of the Pyrenees mountain range, with the Spanish border far off in the distance. How much of this could I walk tomorrow, I wonder?

I didn’t fancy coming back down the same way, so I tabbed about 5KM across rocks to the base, and was absolutely wasted by the time I reached the hotel.

Lourdes Day 2: Another Day Near the Basilica

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Getting a coffee around here is tricky and not a little expensive. When one says ‘Je veux un cafe, sil vous plait’, an (expensive) shot of very dark coffee is served. I can’t believe I’ve made that mistake again. You need to specify coffee and milk: ‘Je veux un cafe et latte’, or more often a cursory ‘cafe au lait’.
Drinks are so damn expensive in France: 6 Euros for a double JD and Coke at the bar across the road, and 5 Euros for a much smaller one at the Jeanne d’Arc (the Pound-Euro ratio is roughly 1:1 at the moment). And I still have most the £7 bottle of rum in the hotel room, which mixes very well indeed with Coke.

Curiosities at the Chemin de Croix
From the Franciscan Order, who brought you the Nativity scene comes the outdoor Stations of the Cross. A recurring theme in Christianity is that God came to us as a human, and someone who interacted with people around Him as a man who knew what it was to be human. The Stations of the Cross and the Nativity scene are therefore equally important because they tell the story of Jesus at his weakest and most vulnerable, at times when he physically struggled and relied on the kindness of others. They were burdens He faced to become closer to us.

Each figure at the Chemin de Croix has been given a personality, as the Stations tell their story. For example, the Centurion on the left is always expressionless, while the soldier third to the right looks troubled and a little horrified looking at Veronica’s Veil. And throughout, you’ll notice that Our Lady is the one person who stays with Jesus throughout – the Apostles are nowhere to be seen.
The crucifixion scene looks decidedly brutal, not because of the way it was made, but the rain marks on the cross give the appearance of Jesus being crucified on rusted iron.

Something near the last Station caught my eye – a secret entrance to the ‘tomb’, about four foot wide, that’s been filled in with rocks. Nobody else seemed to have noticed it.

Further on there’s a cave, also largely un-noticed, with a statue of Mary Magdalene. Three of us entered and left an offering after the others had gone.

A Passage Through the Grotto
This was on the itinerary today, but I’ve already been Sunday night, and I’m not exactly 100% into the miracles/apparition thing anyway. However, finishing up my coffee at the hotel, I noticed the disabled lady was struggling to get her wheelchair thing ready to go there – she was left behind again, despite a visit to the Grotto being very important to her. Half an hour later, we arrived there to discover ‘our group’, such that it is, had already been through, but I managed to pull a few strings and get her into another queue manned by official volunteers before I continued my explorations.

I had a look through the upper levels of the Notre Dame. It appears big from the outside, but the interior is quite cramped. Mass there would be awkward with tourists filing in and out. I also went into the Notre Dame’s crypt, and saw a chest containing some of St. Bernadette’s remains, plus every square inch of the walls covered with plaques inscribed with ‘Merci’ and suchlike.

Chateau Fort de Lourdes
Now, the fortress-like building on the large rock near the Basilica. This is the Chateau Fort de Lourdes. Situated in a very strategic position, from which occupants could easily spot adversaries coming from any of the valleys, parts of it date from the late-8th century.

It took a good ten minutes’ fairly arduous climbing to reach the top from the entrance, and the circular steps inside the tower were very narrow. Unfortunately the view from up there was slightly obscured by the scratched perspex windows, and the rest of the Pyrenees range couldn’t be seen from that position anyway. I still managed to get some decent shots from slightly lower down, as it overlooks the Basilica.

The Chateau also has a small museum, with various random items and clothing from the 18th century, and there are other curiosities like several miniature buildings.

Update
Went to the Basilica this evening with the intention of watching the procession again. I’d forgotten my lighter (as I typically do), and since I couldn’t cross the Basilica to get another one, wandered off to the Grotto to light my candle there, offer my prayers and have a cigarette while nobody’s watching.
On this occasion I witnessed something very odd, right where the statue is. I could see it at different angles and from across the river. Why didn’t I notice it last night? Figuring it can’t be anything other than an optical illusion because the camera’s not picking it up, I went through the Grotto twice trying to figure out what’s causing it. The candles aren’t lit and the lighting definitely isn’t faulty. I’ll investigate this further.

Lourdes Day 1: An Escape from the City

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For several months I was indecisive about spending £800+ on a week in Lourdes with an itinerary that’s essentially a schedule of religious services around the Basilica. It’s probably more accurate to say I’m less religious than I’m appreciative and understanding of our tradition, and my reason for coming here is exploration.
A great+great+grandmother of mine, a Mary de Vere, lived in this region of France around the same time as St. Bernadette, coincidentally, and also spoke a combination of French-Spanish. Her father/uncle (it’s unknown which), Daniel O’Connell (a.k.a. The Liberator), would certainly have made his pilgrimage here, had he lived another 15 years.

My first impression of Lourdes: Even though I researched the place beforehand, it was still somewhat very different to what I expected. The first thing I noticed, passing through Tarbes, is that everything is so densely green, even more so than Wales. The climate is not much different, despite us being much closer to the equator this time of year. Also, Lourdes isn’t unbearably busy around the Basilica, and in fact there are hardly any tourists beyond a mile of it.

Now it’s true that, on first arriving, you’d think you’d pulled into a Catholic version of Barry Island, but that’s only the case immediately around the Basilica. The novelty of the shops wears off within a day, especially as everything else here is expensive enough. One item I just couldn’t resist buying was this Rosary of metal cubes:

Basilica and the Sanctuaires Notre Dame de Lourdes
The Basilica and Notre Dame are nowhere near as big as they appear in photos, maybe because they’re overshadowed by the Pic du Jer and the towering peaks behind the Notre Dame. After passing under the arches towards the Grotte de Massabielle, the scene is a lot more impressive, like a garden that stretches as far as the eye could see.

Last night I stayed there to watch the Marian Procession, which I expected would fill the Basilica with many thousands holding candles – that’s what you see in the press photos. Instead it was a much smaller formation of various pilgrimage groups – really couldn’t have been more than 4,000 people at a generous estimate – with the disabled up front. Nonetheless, I thought the Basilica and the Notre Dame looked very pretty.
Thankfully the paper things for the candles had the Ave Maria and the Latin Credo printed on it. I’m not a great fan of the Latin Mass, so I couldn’t recite the latter from memory.

Grotte de Massabielle
After the procession was done, I managed to pass through the Grotte de Massabielle at ~23:00, when I figured it would be quiet.
The story of St. Bernadette and the Grotto is widely known: Bernadette Soubirous, a local ‘illiterate peasant girl’ (as we are constanly reminded), was said to have encountered a series of apparitions of Our Lady here around 1850. One thing led to another, the Notre Dame was built on the Grotto and it became a pilgrimage site. Now it has about 5 or 6 million visitors per year, many of them hoping to be miraculously cured of various afflictions and disabilities.
Some hours ago I returned to fill a couple of small bottles (for a friend) without needing to queue. The Grotto is also quite small – the bit I photographed is basically it.

The plan was to attend Mass here this morning, but that didn’t work out because it was pissing down (still is, intermittently) and no matter where I stood, I was being prodded somewhere else by a walt who never did a day’s basic ‘brancardier’ wearing some kind of pseudo-military outfit moving various bits of equipment. Noticing a few others were watching from a sheltered position across the river, I decided to follow the proceedings from there.

What do I make of the apparitions and miracles? To be brutally honest, I feel somewhat indifferent, detached and skeptical, but, as you can see, I’m certainly not outright dismissive of the possibility that St. Bernadette experienced something, given what I’ve read of St. Francis, Thomas Aquinas and a number of other saints’ experiences. Personally I honestly don’t think everything in reality has a scientific or materialistic explanation. So, yeah. Many of us take it as given that inexplicable things happen on the rare occasion.
If there’s one very good reason to be skeptical about the Lourdes apparition, it’s the rather sudden increase in Marian apparitions approved by the Church over a period of 100 years from 1830, from around the time Miraculous Medals began circulating. If the medals were popular as they are today (I always wear one), that would disprove the claim that Bernadette couldn’t have known of previous apparition stories simply because she was illiterate. Also, it’s worth noting there was a widespread interest in spiritualism and the occult between 1830 and 1930, among both skeptics and believers. I also can’t ignore that, on the face of it, Bernadette seemed to have a reasonably strong motive for fabricating such a story, but I’ll keep the finer details to myself.

When Jesus, and later St. Peter, healed people, it was seemingly done in defiance of the prevailing idea that a person’s righteousness should be judged by infirmity and outward appearance, and maybe to make a point about human dignity. This point seems lost on those who take the whole faith healing affair too seriously.

Chemin de Croix
Moving onto the Chemin de Croix, this is a trail leading up a mildly-steep hill, along which there are the Stations of the Cross in the form of meticulously crafted sculptures. I might elaborate on these further tomorrow, as I could be doing this properly.
At the first station I saw three guys following the exhortation to ascend the rough stone steps on their knees, perhaps as some anachronistic form of penance. It’s the first time I’ve seen anyone do that in real life.

Underground Basilica
Also near the site is a giant underground basilica, dedicated to Pius X, and it was almost deserted this morning, apart from several tourists in the distance. I expected the Underground Basilica to be little more than a concrete-lined pit, but it’s actually very impressive and atmospheric, especially during a Mass. There are various pieces of artwork around the perimeter, which are difficult to photograph collectively because of the supporting struts.

Off to the side there’s a smaller chapel containing relics of John Paul II and a number of other saints – I couldn’t make out what the latter objects actually were. They looked like a set of quartz crystals with gold around the base.

Several hours later I attended the Procession of the Blessed Sacrament, having escorted a severely disabled person there – she was left to follow the itinerary herself by the group she arrived with last night. Back at the hotel I’ve noticed they’re no longer eating at the same table as her, and have been trying to get her to join my little group instead.

Anyway, back to the Blessed Sacrament thing: What basically happens at the procession is they bless and parade the ‘wafer’, which is from that point treated with reverence. We believe it’s the flesh of Christ in quite a literal sense, as had our predecessors since at least the AD 50s. Our reasons for believing that are hard to explain without dedicating a several hundred word essay on how Christianity presents a flesh and blood God to differentiate itself from earlier mythological religions, how Catholicism presents us with things we can see, hear and touch (which is why we have paintings, statues, saints and suchlike) instead of something abstract and distant, and also how the Church needed to borrow from Aristotle to justify the idea of transubstantiation.