This was my first time in Lourdes, and it has taken me days to reflect upon the graces that God and Mary gave us as a group, and me personally, during the week. I encountered Lourdes as a place where heaven is extraordinarily close to earth; whilst that sounds like an intense description, the atmosphere in Lourdes is familial, joyful, even soothing- I think that might be a contribution from the personality of our Lady.

We were signed up to be hospitaliers: helpers who are there to serve both the sick and healthy pilgrims at Lourdes. As it happened, I was unable to do this because I had only had two vaccines and we were required to have three. I was disheartened by this, but things turned out well as I was given another role as a chapel cleaner at the Saint Frai. The Saint Frai is a wonderful place dedicated to the welcome and service of sick and handicapped pilgrims; it is run by the Sisters of the Congregation of the Daughters of Our Lady of Sorrows, and I have just read that their charism is welcome and compassion- this is absolutely the atmosphere of the Saint Frai. I really enjoyed cleaning the two chapels, especially because our pilgrimage group had evening Mass in one of the two chapels almost every day. This also meant that my time working was spent largely alone with the Blessed Sacrament, which helped me to draw a little closer to the peace of Jesus in the Eucharist.

Our pilgrimage group was full of fascinating and lively people, and we got to enjoy mealtimes and times of prayer and reflection together throughout the week. This was a time where I heard about the special experiences my friends were having: they were helping pilgrims to take part in the washing rituals at the baths- the baths use water from the spring in the Grotto where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette. I think that one of the main graces for me in the week was getting to know my fellow pilgrims, and learning from them about how to embody two virtues associated with Bernadette: humility, and a strong recognition of one’s duty. We took part in the Rosary procession and the Eucharistic Procession as a group, and this was a beautiful experience. On a side note here, if you are like me and struggle to keep up with praying the Rosary sometimes, Lourdes is a place where Mary can help a lot with this- I know she helped me!

Alongside the theme I mentioned earlier of being alone with Jesus in the Eucharist, God opened up another avenue of prayer in my week as Fr William offered me a mini-retreat. I am very grateful to God for this because I was having a busy time in prayer, and I’d had an eventful couple of weeks running into Lourdes. The retreat was a space where I could explore a lot of this in a graced environment. I love reflecting upon God’s presence and activity in our lives, and after this time with Fr William I am excited to see what God will do in my life next!

Let me finish up with something that my friend and fellow pilgrim Alex said right at the beginning of the pilgrimage: ‘at Lourdes, you get the pilgrimage you need, not the pilgrimage you want’. This is so true. I expected my week to be full of non-stop action and energy; instead, much of it was spent in quiet places of prayer and in one-on-one conversations. I am very grateful for this, and I cannot wait to return to Lourdes to encounter more of the spring of life that our Lady has given us in this most precious place.

– Nathan Coundon