Our Lady of Lourdes: A Healing Pilgrimage

On February 11, 1858, in the small town of Lourdes in southern France, a sickly and impoverished fourteen-year-old girl named Bernadette Soubirous experienced the first of eighteen Marian apparitions at a grotto which would eventually become one of the world’s most popular sites of pilgrimage—particularly for those seeking healing through the intervention of the Blessed Virgin.  A century later, in the encyclical Le pelégrinage de Lourdes, Pope Pius XII wrote of how

Crowds . . . still surge into the grotto of the apparitions, to the miraculous spring, and into the shrine erected at Mary’s request. There is the moving procession of the lowly, the sick, and the afflicted. There is the impressive pilgrimage of thousands of the faithful from a particular diocese or country. There is the quiet visit of a troubled soul seeking truth. “No one,” We once said, “has ever seen such a procession of suffering in one spot on earth, never such radiance of peace, serenity, and joy!” . . . “O happy grotto, honored with the apparitions of the Divine Mother! Venerable rock which have sprung invigorating waters!”

img_0990The crowds of pilgrims continue to gather at Lourdes, and over Easter weekend in 2016, I was among them, seeking whatever forms of healing—of mind, body, or spirit—might be found there.  But this was only one stop on a much longer pilgrimage of healing which culminated in a kidney transplant on January 20, 2017.  I had been a type-1 diabetic for thirty years in August of 2015, when my nephrologist suggested that I start the process of seeking a transplant because my kidneys were failing.  Throughout the next year and a half, I went to appointments and tests and faced long periods in which I could do nothing but wait—and follow a very restricted diet, hoping to keep total kidney failure at bay until a transplant was possible.  In March of 2016, a recent acquaintance offered to pay for me to travel to Lourdes when he learned of my condition, and I accepted his offer, feeling open to the possibility that such generosity and faith could indeed open a door to healing. What follows here is not so much a cohesive theological essay as a few scattered reflections and thoughts gathered along the way, which I though I would share on this occasion.

  • The integration and power of the body, mind, and heart

In a fascinating cultural history of the development of Lourdes as a site of pilgrimage, Ruth Harris explains that “Rural pilgrims seemed not to distinguish between santé (physical health) and salut (spiritual well-being), and in their rites sought to break down the boundaries between the material and the spiritual.”[i]  While easily interpreted as a vestige of pre-modern superstition, such a perspective may in fact be truer to our human nature than a purely rationalist approach to the body and healing (as it seems contemporary medicine is beginning to recognize).

I wasn’t really expecting a “cure” for my kidney disease or diabetes from going to Lourdes, but I was open to the possibility—and aware enough of my own emotional wounds and fears to hope that I might find forms of healing in addition to the physical.  The trip itself—which involved a visit to St. Ignatius’ cave at Manresa and to the Abbé de Montserrat, a breathtaking drive through the Pyrenees, and a prayerful Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday at Lourdes—was exhilarating.  I truly felt different when I came home, and friends and family noticed this.  I waited to get tests done that would confirm whether there was any difference in my kidney function because, I reasoned, if it was all “in my head,” I didn’t want to ruin it.  When blood tests eventually showed that there was no physiological improvement, rather than a disappointment, the news felt like a powerful testament to the significance of the mind, heart, and spirit: it might be that the revitalization I experienced through my trip was all in my mind, but that didn’t make it any less “real” or powerful in terms of my physical wellness.  There is a deep and integral connection between how we feel in our bodies and the state of our spirit, and the recognition of this has been crucial in sustaining me through this process.

  • The patience—and anxiety—of a pilgrim

The early pilgrims to Lourdes—many of whom had been deemed hopelessly ill, others who came to serve the sick and poor—faced a long and difficult journey, first by train and then a several-hour trek across rocky or muddy terrain from the station to the grotto.  Then as now, travel could involve unforeseen delays, and the crowds made it difficult to access the waters that the site was known for.  My own travel to Lourdes—and the longer journey of which it was a part—also involved delays, setbacks, and frustrations.  I waited for the better part of a day to bathe in the piscines, only to be nearly trampled when the crowds got out of hand (I never did make it into the baths).  An abnormality on a preliminary ultrasound led to the discovery of a small noninvasive cancer that would require treatment and a three month waiting period before I could be “cleared.” When I was eventually cleared and listed for a transplant, I found that it would be months before potential donors could be evaluated—and even then there would be additional waiting due to the complexities of scheduling such a procedure.  One point that is often highlighted in literature on pilgrimage, however, is that the journey itself is at least as important and transformative as the destination.  There are no shortcuts, and often all one can do is wait through discomfort.  The experience of waiting, whether for a definite or indefinite time, can be filled with anxiety, but it can also be an occasion of freedom in letting go of the illusion that we can plan and control our lives, recognizing that sometimes delight and consolation can be found in unexpected detours.  Both the pilgrim and the patient must find their joy in this realization.

  • The symbolic and material connections between water and healing

Not only throughout Christian scripture, but across cultures and systems of belief, water is a powerful symbol of cleansing and healing.  But this association is more than symbolic: other towns near Lourdes were frequented by tourists seeking the health benefits of mineral waters there (in fact early speculators at Lourdes hoped to discover some property of the water that would explain the reported cures and justify a spa there, but found that the water was simply pure and inert).  Water is the basic and irreplaceable matrix of all life—and is particularly important to the role that the kidneys play in our bodies, filtering the blood of toxins and eliminating these through urine, maintaining the proper balance of fluids and electrolytes.  Though I’ve long been aware of the importance of water and the ways it is threatened in our world, this journey to Lourdes underscored its symbolic and spiritual significance.

  • The grace of friendship and community

Many accounts of the experience of Lourdes point to the extraordinary way that a community of solidarity is formed between those who are sick and those who are well.  Indeed, one of the most moving parts of my own experience at Lourdes was witnessing how, rather than being cast off or seen as burdensome, the aged, sick, and crippled are given a place of honor, assisted both by friends and by the official Hospitaliers of Lourdes.  In my own longer journey, I have been sustained and consoled by the care of friends and colleagues, and at times have been overwhelmed by the love and support of my community, especially leading up to the surgery itself and through my recovery.  As someone with a strong tendency toward independence, this entire process has been a humbling and beautiful experience of being cared for by others—which is in itself a kind of healing, a graced movement toward wholeness.

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A final point—for which I am still struggling to find the right words—involves the gift of maternal love.  Certainly, one cannot ignore the Blessed Mother at Lourdes; but in my own case, it turned out that my mother was my kidney donor—and so, in a very real way, my experience of renewed life and healing has come from her.  The intertwining of Mary’s yes to God and my own mother’s willing sacrifice has both deepened a Marian devotion and my relationship with my mom.  I hope to draw upon these experiences in my academic work, attempting to think theologically about healing and the maternal love of God.  And so my pilgrimage continues, as I heal physically and learn to live with and care for the gift of life which I received a second time from my own blessed mother.

[i] Ruth Harris, Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. (New York: Penguin, 1999), 293.

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