28 May My Rebirth in Lourdes
by Cheryl Ann Smith
Naked. Vulnerable. Shivering. That’s how I found myself at the heart of our diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes.
We were approaching the end of our time in Lourdes, and it seemed that no one in our group was going to the Baths. Perhaps they’d all been there on previous trips, but this was my first time, and I somehow knew this would be the place of grace for me.
We had drunk deeply of the wine of celebration, especially in this 60th anniversary of Middlesbrough pilgrimage to Lourdes. We had had Masses of Jubilee celebration, of anointing, of reconciliation, Masses alone and with other pilgrims.
One of my highlights had been the candlelight processions, which saw pilgrims of every language joining in prayer and song. What a thrill each night to see a sea of light and to hear the roar of united voices singing, “Ave, ave, ave Maria.” The prayers and verses might be in different languages, but the chorus rang with one resounding voice.
Being in Lourdes was like stepping into the land of the Beatitudes, where life is lived in the counter-cultural way of the Gospel. In the world, the red carpet is rolled out for VIPs. In Lourdes, red carpet lanes are painted on the pavement to give right of way to those in wheelchairs, the VIPs of God.
In the world, we save money to take a holiday, to relax, and perhaps to pamper ourselves. At Lourdes, volunteers have saved money to come and work in the hospital, push VIPs in their wheelchairs, and tenderly meet their every need. Sometimes the only chance they have to pray at the Grotto is in the wee hours of the morning, when all is quiet.
The days of my pilgrimage had been filled with liturgies, prayers and beautiful meals. After the evening candlelight services, members of our group who had travelled to Lourdes by coach, relaxed together in the hotel lounge to deepen friendship.
But I knew more awaited me, and so early one morning in the pouring rain, I made my way to the Baths. With other women, I waited on a bench outside the Bathhouse, while I listened in amazed appreciation to a couple of Mexican gentlemen singing and praying for us.
Finally four of us were ushered into the antechamber, outside a blue curtain. Signs in different languages reminded us to prepare our hearts and to pray. I did not know what to expect, but I had a feeling I was about to discover why Our Lady called me to Lourdes. The blue curtains opened a crack and I was given over to a lovely woman who held a drape around me as I undressed.
And that was when I found myself naked, vulnerable, and shivering. Why? It was more than the rainy cold days we’d been experiencing, more than being in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position. It was more like standing in a new place interiorly, without defences, waiting to be reborn.
Suddenly the inner curtain parted and two women brought me to the edge of … a large bathtub! I had expected a warm pool. As the drape was removed, an enormous ice cold white towel was put on my bare skin. I gasped with the shock of cold. I was gently yet firmly instructed to descend three steps into the icy water and then to sit! How could I possibly endure this cold? I descended and sat.
In a flash, I was standing again, and numb. The drape replaced the towel; I was back in the curtained area, miraculously dry, yet needing help to dress. Then suddenly I was outside.
Thankfully, I could retreat to the adoration chapel. There it hit me: naked, vulnerable, shivering. Is this what a newborn babe feels as she leaves her mother’s warm womb? Or a tiny bird just hatched from the comfortable confines of the egg, with no feathers, no warmth? But with new life?
Still cold and vulnerable, I was not comfortable sitting in the adoration chapel. Yet something—Someone—urged me to sit quietly and to not fill the void with defences and “premature feathers,”—not to run out and find distractions. But to wait.
What happens after the miracle of birth? The babe is washed, wrapped in a warm blanket and placed on her mother’s breast. I had just been reborn, washed in the healing waters of Lourdes. I asked Our Lady to take me to herself, to feed and guide me in this new life. Clearly, this would take time to unfold, but I knew the journey had begun.
It is now a week since my return to England, and I am gratefully aware of a new peace, a new relationship with my mother Mary, an interior cleansing and new life in freedom. I sense that this is just the beginning.
Trials and sacrifice will always be part of an authentic pilgrimage. The cross will be presented. But ah, the grace that flows when we truly embrace the cross of the pilgrimage—nothing less than resurrection life breathed into our places of nakedness and vulnerability. We emerge clothed with God and the mantle of Our Lady. Ave Maria. Fiat.