Mon Dieu. 12C. I’m naked, bar a linen wrap, as two volunteers lower me into the sacred water for a 10-second glacial shockwave. I’m asked to pray to the Virgin Mary, but as I haven’t attended church in years, I mumble some inaudible homily like a forgetful thespian. I’m shivering. I exit the bath, passing a long queue of the less-fraudulently devout.
“Go drink at the spring and wash here,” said the Virgin Mary during the ninth apparition of Saint Bernadette in 1858. Since then, millions have done so, seeking miraculous cures at Lourdes in southwestern France.
A Lourdes pilgrimage is not a physical challenge of endurance. Pilgrims, both sick and healthy, typically fly here to spend several days performing various sacraments (rituals) for their spiritual nourishment. It’s also not exclusively for Catholics, as only a sixth of the six million visitors last year came for reasons of faith.
I decided to immerse myself in the Lourdes experience to see if I could sense some higher energy. Over the years, I’ve tasted the spine-tingling fervour created by spiritual pilgrimages — getting sensorially overwhelmed amid 120 million devotees at the Hindu Kumbh Mela in India, and hiking with joyous footsore pilgrims along the Way of St James in Spain. Yet none has ever proved an epiphany for some divine calling. Maybe a Lourdes pilgrimage will?
The train from Toulouse arrives after a two-hour journey into the Midi-Pyrénées. Lourdes’ 14,000 inhabitants live in the Bigorre region surrounded by green hillsides rising abruptly into magnificent snowcapped mountains, and from April to October, are joined by 15,000 pilgrims every year. The River Gave de Pau hurries from these slopes, scything between Lourdes’ two prominent landmarks: a 12th-century hilltop castle and the 128-acre Marian Sanctuary developed around Bernadette’s visions. My hotel is a five-minute walk from the sanctuary through narrow streets of souvenir shops flogging statues of the Madonna.
Here’s my first confession: the sin of scepticism. It’s a non-believer’s perspective of the phantasmagorical apparitions of Bernadette Soubirous. It is believed that in 1858, the impoverished, illiterate 14-year-old was gathering firewood in the Grotto of Massabielle when she saw the first of 18 apparitions in a six-month period, unbeknown to her as the Virgin Mary. During the ninth apparition, the Virgin Mary guided Bernadette to a sacred spring that still flows today. Initially, local inhabitants and the parish priest questioned her sanity until her 16th apparition sealed the deal. The manifestation announced in local Bigourdan dialect: ‘Que soy era Immaculada Concepcion’.
While Bernadette was uncertain what this meant, her bishop, Monseigneur Laurence, knew that fours years previously, the Vatican had ruled Mary to be of Immaculate Conception — free of sin. An uneducated waif like Bernadette would surely not have known this, and in 1862 the Catholic Church ruled that her apparitions were actual facts.
Unprepared for the ensuing celebrity, Bernadette was secreted away in a local convent before leaving Lourdes in 1866 to become a nun in Nevers near Paris. She died, aged 35, in 1879, after devoting her short life to caring for the sick. She was beatified in 1925 and canonised in 1933.
My unshakable scepticism, however, soon encounters a couple of problems on a well-walked tourist trail tracing Bernadette’s footsteps. I visit the wood-timbered Boly Mill where she was born and grew-up; Le Cachot (the jail) where her family rented a cramped room after falling upon hard times (around 1857); and her baptismal font inside the Sacré-Cœur church. In the excellent Musée de Bernadette, photographs of her exist, as well as items of her clothing, and period documents chronicling her apparitions.
Suddenly, I see her as flesh-and-blood reality. This doesn’t prove she saw the apparitions, but it’s clear she wasn’t some mythologically exaggerated biblical miracle-worker, sending down thunderbolts of lightning. It’s this kind of inspired image that instantly stretches credibility.
Equally disarming is a picture, in the museum, of Bernadette’s body in its crystal-glass casket in Nevers. She looks peacefully asleep. She was exhumed decades
after her burial and showed eerily little decay.
I enter the Sanctuary through a gateway at Porte Saint-Michel onto a long processional way towards a fortress basilica atop a limestone outlier off the Hill of Espélugues. Crossing a plaza that can accommodate 80,000 pilgrims, I squint into a sunlit-dazzled, golden, neo-Byzantine façade of the late 19th-century Basilica of the Rosary with its crowned dome.
Inside the cramped interior of the Crypt, the original church built above the grotto, is a tiny reliquary containing one of Bernadette’s ribs, over which an African lady lights candles and weeps. Another stairway leads to the Church of the Immaculate Conception with its sublime 1870s stained-glass windows depicting Bernadette’s 18 visions.
Below the Basilica, a queue soberly shuffles into the grotto’s wide cliff cleft. Hundreds surround it, kneeling and slipping rosary beads through their fingers; some snap selfies. The sacred spring bubbles away while pilgrims’ trailing hands continue to rub the grotto’s interior walls smooth. A six-foot high marble icon of the Virgin Mary is lodged in a niche above.
The grotto’s 3.30pm rosary service read in French and Italian is a serious affair. I can’t follow it so I wander instead to watch the pilgrims ebb and flow. There’s an air of jubilation as they march by with Christian zeal, bearing banners from France, Italy, Ireland, Poland, and faraway Côte d’Ivoire. Youngsters sit strumming guitars and singing bible songs. An American cardinal with a purple cummerbund delivers impromptu blessings to 100 Chinese Catholics from Tianjin — he’s still blessing away 30 minutes later.
Other customary rituals include processions. I join the nightly 9pm torchlight parade. An Italian group shoulders a palanquin bearing a Virgin Mary icon and leads thousands of pilgrims holding candles on a slow walk around the Sanctuary. Everybody seems happy; the positivity is palpable.
But my most poignant Lourdes memory is of the many malades (sick) and severely disabled pilgrims. Around 50,000 arrived from all over the world last year, staying in accueils, specially-equipped hostels inside the Sanctuary. The notion of miraculous healing emerged during Bernadette’s apparitions when a local woman with a withered hand drank from the grotto’s newly discovered spring and was instantly cured. “It was like an atomic bomb detonating upon a small mountain village of 4,000 people,” says Christelle Letard of Lourdes’ tourist office. Twenty cures were reported by late 1858. By 1908, one million annual visitors marked Lourdes as Europe’s trailblazing mass-tourism destination.
Yet the spring water possesses no significant mineral content whatsoever, unlike other thermal bath areas of this region. And out of some 7,000 reported healings since 1858, the Catholic Church has decreed only 69 miracles. Sounding like something out of a Dan Brown novel, I seek out Lourdes’ Bureau of Medical Observations, founded in 1883 by the Church to assess claims of miracle cures.
Its director, Dr Alessandro de Franciscis, greets me, announcing: “I am the only doctor in the world taking care of the cured rather than the sick!” He explains that the bureau has reviewed all reported healings at Lourdes. “The questions we have to ask is, was the person truly sick? Have they been cured forever? Is there an explanation for their cure?” It can take 20 years to ensure a claimant isn’t simply in remission. And then? Dr de Franciscis is not one to use the ‘m-word’. “Miracles are for philosophers. I’m a Catholic but I’m also a doctor. Only after years can we reach the conclusion a sick person who has visited Lourdes is cured forever and that it may be unexplained by current medical knowledge.”
So why do so many Lourdes pilgrims claim miracles? “Spirituality means a lot,” he replies. “There is evidence of strong bad emotions and strong good emotions affecting different areas of the brain. Lourdes is about much more than non-believers and believers. Research is showing the separation of science and religion is being challenged.”
The bedrock of any healing at Lourdes is the legions of volunteers, young and old. Their self-sacrifice is humbling. Outside the baths, Irishman Garry O’Farrell, 69, from Wexford, stewards the pilgrims. He’s paid his own way to volunteer here every year since 1990. “I could be on a beach instead of getting up at 6am to work all day. But at the baths, I see the real side of suffering, then witness pilgrims lifted by the experience of bathing. I get much more out of Lourdes than I put in.”
Nearby, resting in sunshine with two wheelchair-bound stroke sufferers is Lucy-May Hughes, 20, and 18-year-old Ena Rafferty. It’s their first visit, travelling with the 800-strong Armagh Pilgrimage supporting 160 malades. “We have children with us who have cancer; it’s very emotional,” says Lucy-May. “It makes you appreciate other peoples’ troubles. Helping them is special.” Ena adds she raised her £600 pilgrimage fee by making Easter hampers and selling sweets at school.
Throughout my final day, Lourdes jams with the annual International Military Pilgrimage adding 12,000 soldiers from over 40 countries. They wear the archaic ceremonial costumes of centuries past with golden epaulettes, pom-poms and plumes, and silver swords. The Swiss Papal Guard in their striped orange-and-blue pyjamas with cavalier-style helmets top this carnival of colour.
Jocelyn Truchet, 29, wears the dark-blue tunic of the French 13th Battalion de Chasseurs, trimmed with brocade and medals. He smiles easily but has a noticeable limp. Leading a team of six in Afghanistan in 2010 he was blown-up by an IED. With wry humour, he quips: “Only I was injured. The rest of them went flying.” Within 48 hours, he was back in Paris in a coma with a severed femoral artery and amputated leg. “I decided as soon as I could walk I’d go back into the army.”
He’s remarkably positive and has resumed skiing, mountaineering and written a book. “I’ve come to Lourdes to inspire others,” he says. How much had his faith played in his recovery, I ask? “During my evacuation, I learned the helicopter almost crashed in a sandstorm. It was as if a new life was determined for me and some other force was with me.”
Late that evening, a few candles flicker in the chilly quiet of Massabielle Grotto where several nocturnal pilgrims whisper prayers. If Bernadette’s visions were delusional, then this extraordinary pilgrimage that beguiles millions is nothing more than fantasy. It seems the real miracle of Lourdes, even for this non-believer, is the eternal sense of hope and faith.
7 spiritual pilgrimages
The biggest pilgrimage on the planet sees 120 million Hindus purifying their souls in the River Ganges on astrologically auspicious days. Next year’s begins on 14 July at Nashik.
2. Hajj, Saudi Arabia
Three million Muslims, dressed in white, join the great annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The faithful perform five steps including Tawaf, circling the Kaabba shrine in Masjid al Haram seven times. Next Hajj is 2-7 October 2014.
3. Mount Kailash, Tibet
Sacred to Hindus and Buddhists, pilgrims perform an arduous three- to four-day kora (circumnavigation) around the revered Mount Kailash. During Saga Dawa, witness the replacing of the prayer flags on the Tarboche Flagpole (25 May 2015).
4. Way of St James, Spain
Christian pilgrims annually hike a multitude of paths to reach the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, which contains the remains of St James the Apostle. The 750km French Way is the longest, crossing the Pyrénées and Northern Spain.
5. Stonehenge, UK
Pagan followers attend the mysterious 4,600-year-old Wiltshire stone circle to mark the arrival of the winter (21 December) and summer (21 June) solstices.
6. Kumano Kodo, Japan
Since the 10th century, pilgrims have visited Southern Japan’s Kumano Sanzan, or three Grand Shrines, which gained World Heritage status in 2004, to express ancient animist beliefs fused with Shintoism.
7. Western Wall, Israel
Jews from all over the world visit Jerusalem’s Western Wall — a remnant of the Temple of the Mount destroyed in 70AD, also known as the ‘Wailing Wall’. Male and female visitors must cover their heads.
When to go
Lourdes Sanctuary is open all year round, but its key highlights of daily processions and international mass occur between April-October. All activities in the Sanctuary are free.
Where to stay
Hôtel La Solitude: hotelsvinuales.com
How to do it
Four-night Pilgrimage Package, from £525 per person. tangney-tours.com
Published in the September 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)