A poor, sick, but happy girl was gathering firewood by a stream. It was muddy; in a cave. She was fourteen, gathering firewood for two parents and eight siblings who all lived prayerfully in one room of a small house. They were in Lourdes, a town by the mountains that bordered France and Spain.

Young Bernadette Soubirous in the grotto felt a gust of wind. From the dark appeared a little lady — ‘a dazzling light … a white figure’ — wearing a white veil and a blue girdle. The lady would reappear to Bernadette over the course of a fortnight with messages and directions on what she should say and do. It is these instructions, two hundred years later, that would underpin our work as first-year stagiaires on pilgrimage: a week of formation, service, and prayer in Lourdes. We were representatives of Our Lady, responsible for serving all pilgrims, young and old, who came to Lourdes to seek her love and healing.

Our Lady told Bernadette to drink the water of the spring, to wash in it, and to eat the herb that grew there, which she did. Pilgrims can now emulate Bernadette’s gestures by receiving the gestes de l’eau: three servings of the water from Lourdes in the hands. The pilgrim washes her hands with the first serving, washes her face with the second, then drinks of it, all before a statue of Our Lady. A woman may therefore wash her hands with husband and children, or with friends. They may pray together and face one another throughout.

The gestes de l’eau were introduced after the pandemic to replace full bodily immersion in the baths, which a pilgrim would otherwise do undressed, individually, with the help of trained hospitaliers. While bathing comes with an indescribable sense of restoration for a pilgrim, it is an experience that cannot be shared with the people closest to her on pilgrimage, since men and women are bathed in separate chambers, one after another. The gestes de l’eau can be received in groups, and we received them twice, altogether as stagiaires and as pairs of friends. In these quiet moments, only water and mumbling can be heard with God’s presence. There, He reminds us of our littleness and our need for His gentle love which is felt like cool water on skin. We remember that He made our hands and faces holy. He made those parts of our body to be loved. He made them to serve as instruments that make and witness the goodness of His work.

– Ye-Ye Xu