As a cradle Catholic, I have known Lourdes all my life in a certain sense. There is a shrine in France, they said, where the sick can still go and be restored through Mary’s intervention. The water in that spring is like none other; it can truly heal any illness, deformity, or affliction. From time to time in my life I had seen or received small vials of Lourdes water. It was to be treasured and used only in rare occasions of need. Lourdes was one of the more brilliant stars in the constellation of living legends that framed a Catholic childhood.
When I fell ill it was a gradual decline. At first it seemed like fragments of problems vaguely stitched together under the name “autoimmune disorder.” Hair loss, pain in my fingertips, a rash. In time, however, the disease accelerated and began to steal my strength; what began as never-ending fatigue morphed into actual muscle deterioration and loss. The occurrence of a surprise pregnancy halted any possibly effective treatment, and I observed a strangely inverse relationship between my daughter’s growing strength and vitality and my own bodily decay.
The process of enfeeblement took months, and there were times where I realized I had become strangely accustomed to this infirmity’s gradual hold on my life. I became entirely dependent on my husband for all of life’s daily activities and forgot what it was like to be self-sufficient or to care for or play with my children. Friends asked me, “Are you angry at God?” And I answered, truthfully, “No.”
I read accounts of the spiritual lives of the chronically ill, how they regarded this cross as a gift and a source of joy, and I recoiled. I was not angry with God, but I certainly was not overly pleased with him either. Physical atrophy had, in some measure, generated spiritual apathy. While I was not experiencing some dark night of the soul, I was not undergoing any kind of mystical ecstasy either. Instead, life in both material and spiritual form was just passing by as I watched, without much interest.
When my sister burst into our house one evening with the sudden and completely unexpected offer of a trip to Lourdes, the measure of my dullness is evident in that I was not excited so much as resigned. As a lifelong Catholic, and now a seriously ill one, I had no business refusing a trip to the most famous healing waters in the world. I do remember thinking that miracles were probably reserved for people very unlike me—either the incorrigible atheist who needed to be taught a lesson, or the holy mystic who was already receiving divine favors left and right. I, a mostly faithful and very average sinner, could not really expect much to happen.
I cannot say for sure if there was a moment of transformation on that pilgrimage. Was it on the tortuous bus ride to Chicago, where I felt impelled to pray a rosary for the first time in months and went all twenty decades without the usual impatience or boredom? Was it waking up to birdsong in a Dominican convent, the Pyrenees glorious in the morning light and the smell of a real spring (that is, a Pacific Northwest spring) reminding me I have been too long from home? Or, was it simply the fact of the Grotto itself, all the more unbelievable for looking exactly as it should?
In 1900, Henry Adams, struggling to put into words the enormous significance he read into the hall of engines at the World’s Fair, turned to the only other phenomenon he had encountered in his life that could compare to the energy and power on display in Paris at the turn of that century: the Virgin Mary. This scion of America’s greatest family, great-grandson of our second president, grandson of our sixth president, highly educated, culturally Protestant, and totally agnostic, fixed his gaze on the Mother of God as a matter of crucial historical weight. Specifically, Mary as present in her great cathedral at Chartres, or in her shrine at Lourdes. Reflecting on the poets and artists of his day, Adams wrote that:
St. Gaudens at Amiens was hardly less sensitive to the force of the female energy than Matthew Arnold at the Grande Chartreuse. Neither of them felt Goddesses as power,—only as reflected emotion, human expression, beauty, purity, taste, scarcely even as sympathy. They felt a railway train as power, yet they, and all other artists, constantly complained that the power embodied in a railway train could never be embodied in art. All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.
The mechanical power that was to drive the 20th century filled Adams with awe, and dread, and loss. The faith that built Chartres might be gone forever from his world, to be replaced with electricity and steam, the tangible engines of production and economic might. But in this moment Adams did acknowledge one place in the world where he had seen faith as true power:
Here opened another totally new education, which promised to be by far the most hazardous of all. The knife-edge along which he must crawl, like Sir Lancelot in the twelfth century, divided two kingdoms of force which had nothing in common but attraction. They were as different as a magnet is from gravitation, supposing one knew what a magnet was, or gravitation, or love. The force of the Virgin was still felt at Lourdes, and seemed to be as potent as X-rays.
Ruth Harris identifies the distinctive role played by the shrine in straddling modern and pre-modern worlds in her detailed and engrossing history, Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. In her account she pays special attention to the way in which the Grotto and the miracles surrounding it could not be reduced to the fashionable explanations of the time, particularly the idea that most of the complaints were hysterical episodes easily solved with the power of suggestion. Too many strange and startling events had happened here:
The way paralyzed people began to walk again after years of incapacity and suffering makes the historian confront the body not as a philosophical or linguistic abstraction but as an intensely corporeal reality, one on which the pilgrimage movement itself laid ever greater stress. In this sense there was a paradox at the heart of the sanctuary, for the more physical pilgrimage became—with its emphasis on disease and dying—the more spiritual it became as well, as if the assembled at Lourdes were obliquely aware of an attempt to transcend the mind-body divide of contemporary society (22).
As a message to the modern world, that mind and spirit are inextricable, that grace actively enters the scene to enrich and strengthen life itself, Lourdes is a singular and ongoing event. Its power made Adams pause in wonder, gave comfort to the crowds of believers, but also represented a challenge to those who longed to complete the expulsion of religion from Europe. Emile Zola, the naturalist novelist and champion of progress and reform for the republic, was transfixed by what he witnessed:
I went out for a moment . . . and the sight of the ill . . . of the dying children brought before the statue, of people lying flat on the ground, prostrate and praying . . . the sight of this town of faith, born of the hallucination of a little girl of fourteen, the sight of this mystical city in the century of skepticism . . . the sight of the Grotto, of the processions in the scenery, of this flood of pilgrims . . . This stirring of souls should be painted . . . Well, yes! The spectacle gripped me” (quoted by Harris, 333).
His novel about Lourdes was a bestseller, possibly indicating that its jaundiced depiction of miracles reversed and faith shaken was the dominant mood of the time. Or, perhaps the mere attempt to tangle with the mystery was enough to draw such an audience.
We live in a world that Adams saw in advance and Zola strove to bring into being. It is a world where faith is an effort of will, where material forces surround and explain away the phenomena with perplexing thoroughness, and where the act of going to church of a Sunday is a continual defiance of a society and a nation definitively oriented toward other goods. But at Lourdes, that sense of willing my own belief, of praying in spite of continual misgivings, utterly vanished. It is as true today as it was for Adams 120 years ago, that Mary is the power in that place.
This is evident from the moment you set foot in her domain, as the large enclosure at Lourdes is reverently named. The crowds of people I saw bore little resemblance to the tourist mobs so commonly found in Europe’s great cathedrals and former religious centers. Lourdes is not a historic site (even if the events there transpired shortly before America’s Civil War), it is a present reality you can see etched in the hungry faces in line for the baths and the lineaments of petitioners leaning on the Grotto wall. It is a reality that can be read among the pilgrims as clearly as it is written on the stones that form the walls of her many churches there: Merci, Marie.
Pilgrims gather to drink the water in innocent and simple trust. The Queen has told us what to do and we obey. They gather to bathe in the gifted waters because Mary’s intercession and assistance is forceful, powerful, effective. Paradoxically, this shrine feels most ancient because it is so recent; because the people who weep before the Blessed Sacrament and confess their sins and drink the water are acting as if religion were the most real thing in this world.
I was given a wheelchair to use for the duration of our stay because I could walk no more than a few feet at a time. Rattling around the cobblestones of the domain, my husband and I probably attracted some attention. Everyone comes to Lourdes for a reason, but in that squeaky chair I felt like a sort of wandering sign of the brokenness that unites Mary’s children as they come to her for help. When we arrived in line for the baths, everyone turned and gestured us forward—yes, yes, come to the front, clearly you need this, you must go in. It was so clearly not a sight to be seen, but rather an urgent necessity to be tended to.
In those baths there are attendants who assist the sick if need be and lead every pilgrim by hand into the water. I offered my nearly useless limbs to a woman who was my mother’s age, as she gently undressed me and wrapped in a sheet, then down into the water. T’en fort, she whispered again, and again, t’en fort. She commanded me to “look to the Lady”, a ceramic relief of the Blessed Virgin on the wall. “Tell her what you need. When you make the sign of the cross, we will begin.” Too weak to immerse myself, I waded in and stood as one attendant poured water over my head, another murmured a Hail Mary in French, and another said, St Bernadette, priez pour nous.
And when I asked her to heal me, leaning my head against the Grotto wall, I felt something that was not joy, but was not sorrow either. I prayed like I meant it because for the first time in a long time, I did mean it. My world was charged again, with God’s grandeur, with his grace, with the power of the Mother that He gave to all of us. I asked her to heal me not as a pious formality but because I knew she could.
I am stronger now, healing rapidly due to massive infusions of drugs and hours of physical therapy. I do not know if this improvement could be called miraculous by Lourdes’s fairly stringent standards. But I know that the movement from Adams’s feared world of mechanical force back into Mary’s world, of grace and prayer that is the real force in our lives, was nothing less than a miracle. I do not know if my body will ever be fully restored, but I do know that my soul was reborn in those waters.
The argument from fittingness has always been my favorite, placing the beauty of the thing in a kind of pride of place; and so I found it eminently fitting that Mary acted in this role at this time. She who is the Ark of the Covenant, who brought life back into the dead world, who housed the Word of God in her womb, brought Christ also back to my soul. It could not escape my notice, either, that my daughter’s due date was in fact February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Catholics learn early on the apologetics of explaining Mary to less enthusiastic Christians; the niceties of distinction that separate worship from adoration, hyper-dulia from latria, etc. Adams, disaffected Christian that he was, did not bother with correct terminology when describing Mary’s role in the life of faith. Untroubled by doctrinal accuracy, he lavished her with praise that skates on the brink of heresy and frequently topples right over the edge. Goddess, he named her, and in his ignorance this latter-day American at least thinks he hit on something closer to the truth than strict definitions permit. But perhaps Hopkins knew even better:
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.