I first heard about Lourdes when I was about 8 years old and a catechist at a children’s liturgy group introduced the class to the story of St. Bernadette and the miracles of the spring that Our Blessed Mother revealed to her.
My excitement was unparalleled, and I was animated as I explained to the catechist that this was the answer to all my prayers.
My own father is disabled, and at the time he was incredibly sick. While the rest of my large family were all practicing Catholics, my father was not. What he saw as the ‘injustice’ of suffering is something that kept him from the faith, and now I was certain I had the answer.
We would go to Lourdes. God would take away all his pain and miraculously cure him. He would be overwhelmed with supernatural belief and immediately turn to God and become Catholic! I felt like I had won the lottery!
My enthusiasm for this plan was only slightly damped by the somewhat alarmed reaction of the catechist. When the class had ended, she asked me to stay behind and went to fetch the parish priest to have a chat with me.
The parish priest started by telling me that he had been to Lourdes several times himself. He described leading a group of pilgrims on the journey over land and sea all the way from our diocese to the Grotto itself. I listened enthralled as he told me how one of the women on the pilgrimage had been blind. When they had helped her into the water, she had wept with joy. She was overcome by Christ’s love for her, and she desired only that her own fiat would echo that of Our Blessed Mother’s in it’s simple sincerity.
“AND THEN SHE COULD SEE!” I added with enthusiasm.
“Oh no, she was still blind.” the priest replied. “But she had renewed her commitment to living Christocentricly.”
I was crestfallen.
“She still couldn’t see?” I asked. “Are you sure?”
I was hugely disappointed to hear that he was quite sure.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” he told me with a kind smile.
Although disappointed, at first, I still desperately wanted to go to Lourdes, and the story of the apparitions, and the miracles had a profound and lasting effect on me. My childhood after this was characterised by the belief that Our Lady would probably appear to me at any moment. Whenever I was somewhere beautiful, I would look around and expect her to appear. In Church I watched the statues carefully, sure that at any moment, one of them would speak to me. If Our Lady had ever appeared I had imagined the moment so many times, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been surprised.
Going to Lourdes with the Oxford and Cambridge pilgrimage was an incredible experience. I think I’ve (mostly) grown out of the expectation that Mary will appear to me personally, so I wasn’t disappointed when I didn’t see her, or any miraculous recoveries.
However, what I did see was something even more wonderful.
I saw people who had travelled from all corners of the earth, and who were incredibly unwell, sometimes close to death, radiant with joy as they flocked to the churches for Mass. The very place where their suffering is given redemptive meaning. I saw people with terrible deformities who were in excruciating pain, but who were completely at peace as they consciously offered up their suffering.
As I learnt more about St. Bernadette, and visited the places that she’d lived, I was interested to hear that Bernadette herself was not cured by the waters of the spring but suffered on beautifully until her early death.
Our Lady told St. Bernadette that while she couldn’t promise her happiness in this life, could give her happiness in “the other”. When I was little, I had assumed she meant in heaven. However, seeing the joy of the sick pilgrims in Lourdes, I wondered if the happiness of the ‘other’ life meant her spiritual life.
For the first few days in Lourdes, I contracted a vomiting bug. Although, at first, I was disappointed that I couldn’t be as helpful as I had wanted to be and frustrated that having come all the way to a place of healing, I was suddenly very ill; I can see that this period of illness was a blessing in many ways. It helped me to have compassion for the sick and the suffering, gratitude for my usual good health, and reminded me that the opportunity to suffer well is a gift.
Furthermore, the love that I experienced from my friends, who were so Christlike in their care for me while I was ill, is something that I will never forget or take for granted. A beautiful reminder that the gift of friendship, is a beacon of light in this vale of tears.
– Olivia Owen-Sinclair