I am writing this in a small hotel room in a similarly small French town in the heights of the Pyrenees Mountains at the border with Spain. Notwithstanding its size and remote location, it is a very popular place, with more hotel capacity than any other municipality in France save Paris, and which hosts around six million visitors a year from all over the world. The name of this small town is Lourdes.
Lourdes is famous because on 18 separate occasions in 1858, a poor young peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous experienced and interacted with visions of “a beautiful lady” who appeared in a niche high in the wall of an open cave (grotto) at Massabiele on the outskirts of town. When asked her name, the lady replied, “I am the Immaculate Conception," a title and concept the illiterate Bernadette could never have heard, imagined or understood, and which could apply only to the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Skeptical at first, local Church officials eventually accepted the validity of these Marian apparitions and established Lourdes as an important Marian shrine. The Massabiele Grotto is also the site of a spring, uncovered by Bernadette during one of the apparitions, the water of which is credited with many unexplained physical cures, some of which have been determined to be miraculous.
Inexplicable physical cures continue in Lourdes to this day, as does the very rigorous process of verification, evaluation and classification. Medical cases must be fully documented and a period of many years must pass before the cure is presented to the independent Lourdes Medical Bureau for scientific evaluation (the Bureau is composed of prominent medical professionals of all faiths and is not affiliated with the Catholic Church). Only after a cure is determined by that body to be “unexplained by current scientific knowledge” is it forwarded to the International Medical Committee of Lourdes (CMIL) and the Catholic Church for further consideration. The Church’s evaluative process is much like a trial, with one party laying out the case for a miracle while another (traditionally referred to as “The Devil’s Advocate”) arguing the opposite. Only after both bodies agree is the cure considered miraculous. To give a sense of proportionality: of the roughly 7,000 cases submitted to this process, only 69 have been certified as scientifically inexplicable miracles by both CMIL and the Catholic Church. The most recent Lourdes miracle occurred in 1989 and was certified in 2013.
Many come to Lourdes to pray and seek healing, whether physical, emotional or spiritual. Some are curious, some are skeptics, some are true believers. It is an unusual place. The town itself is physically unexceptional, save for the looming presence high on a hill of the preserved remains of a chateau-fort whose origins date back to Roman times and which was besieged by Charlemagne in 778. Hospitality and ever-present tourist-merchandising (think all manner of religious items ranging from tony to tacky) drive the local economy. But smack in the middle of it all is the Domain, 126 park-like acres of peace, quiet and contemplation, a welcome sanctuary from the noisy commercialism outside its gates. The Domain surrounds the Grotto and contains 22 separate places of worship.
On March 2, 1858, the lady said to Bernadette “Go, tell the priests to come here in procession.” Today there are two daily processions, the Blessed Sacrament Procession at 5:00 PM and the Torchlight Marian Procession at 9:00 PM. They are both beautiful, richly symbolic and spiritually enriching. While the former is most spiritually significant (Catholics believe that the consecrated Host, while in appearance bread, is in reality the true body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ), the latter is visually spectacular, with thousands of “pilgrims” walking together, holding candles and singing hymns in dozens of languages. It is basically “mobile prayer,” and it is a deeply moving experience.
Occasionally, when in procession, a stray gust of wind can blow a pilgrim’s candle out. No problem: there is always someone walking alongside who can help relight it.
Let’s reflect on that image for a moment. How often has light gone out in our lives? Where we find ourselves walking in the dark, incapable of self-re-illumination? Knowing we need help but unsure where to turn? Where there is always someone near us who can help, if we only ask?
Why is it often so hard to ask for help? Is it fear? Is it pride? We are surrounded in life by fellow travelers, walking on individual paths towards a common destination. There is wisdom and encouragement in their stories. And some believe God is an omnipresent companion with us on our personal journeys. All sources of abundant assistance, waiting only for a request.
Sometimes that gust of wind is a blessing in disguise, forcing us to accept the fact that we are less the author of our destiny, and more a participant. Requiring action, and shifting focus beyond independence and self-reliance to an acknowledgement of fundamental dependence on the support of others. Taking that step, responding to that challenge, reaching out for assistance, puts us back on track.
Re-lighting our candle by sharing the light of another: a small action with potentially miraculous results.