Lourdes: Yesterday, To-day and To-morrow

The Grotto.

All very simple, familiar, ordinary; a fragment of riverside rock.... Those who have never been to Lourdes are apt to think that a dramatic mise-en-scène has been devised there, and that the eyes of pilgrims, before their hearts, are caught captives. It has been said the site was well chosen in the Pyrenees, and that the place alone was something to attract tourists. Nothing could well be less true. A piece of rock blackened by smoke, carrying a few shrubs upon its shoulder, a white marble Virgin in a kind of natural shrine, a great many crutches and candles -- this is all the Grotto. None the less is this a mysterious rock; and in the sombre hollows the pilgrims' eyes go seeking for a trace of the Apparition the feet of which touched the branches of the wild rose-tree. This rose-bramble has been fostered and saved and propped by a little bit of trellis. This is the heart of Lourdes. There the pilgrim forgets the churches and their poor splendours; forgets the perpetual voice of the Gave; forgets the mountains which watch over this peaceful French country. "There are no more Pyrenees."

For many years now, mankind has gathered here; faith reawakened has hastened hither, unchecked by the cold indifference of the in-credulous world. And the Blessed Virgin is always there, pale under her marble veil; and the whole world acclaims the name of the little town, more famous now than many a capital. The course of the Gave has been diverted at this point, and its old bed covered in with bitumen. The space is not large. A few hundred persons can just find room; but the human stream never ceases. On pilgrimage days it is a scene of perpetual movement. An iron grille closes the entrance to the rock. Besides the middle gate there are two smaller doors at the sides to aid in the coming and going of pilgrims when the Grotto is crowded. In summer Mass is said and Holy Communion given at an altar within. Thousands of tapers never go out by night or day.

The niche, the shrine of the statue, is a few yards up from the ground, low enough to be seen without effort. The rose-bramble is the only living witness of the Apparition; it reaches towards the feet of the statue. Above the marble head are the words enamelled: Je suis l'Immaculée Conception. The sculptor (M. Fabisch) has done his best to reproduce the vision from hearsay. And he has succeeded in giving to the marble something of a soul that shall speak to them that pass by. The sight of this statue standing white and erect makes a strange impression. The unseeing eyes seem to be the centres of some imaginary light. Through the mere matter the pilgrim seeks if haply he may seize something of the living and veritable Apparition. Best of all is prayer here on the quieter days of the year. Overhead flit the flock of white clouds in the blue. Quarter by quarter the melancholy carillon plays its phrase: Parce, Domine, Parce.

For many and many a year to come, perhaps for many a century, Lourdes will be a centre of story, of romance, of controversy, of some kind of literature. The novelist of the day -- of many a day -- will take his inspiration from this spring; but no pen, perhaps, shall completely tell the thoughts of a pilgrim in this little corner of the Pyrenean chain where the child, the little untaught shepherdess, received the vision of the Virgin. Let the tourist pass upon his way. He may follow the gorge that leads Pau and see a great deal of splendid scenery; mountains white with snow, and valleys full the mystery of shadow; inaccessible places, and untrodden. And when night draws on he will be conscious of an impulse of expectation; something strange and something great should come. Such scenes seem to await an Apparition. But at Lourdes there is nothing whatever like this. The hand of man has altered nature. The Grotto looks almost artificial. But in that ordinary scene, on the banks of the babbling Gave, where a few sheep passed by, and village children picked up dead and broken wood for their homes, spoke Mary, Mother of Christ. The clergy were the last of all to go to the Grotto, and no preparations were made to draw the crowd.

On the left of the Gave stands a block of Pyrenean grey marble, graven with the words spoken by the Blessed Virgin: "Go and drink of the fountain and wash in it." Three conduits gather the water into a basin, whence it runs into the Gave. Near by is a marble pulpit. A little further, a large plaque of marble bears this inscription:

In the year of grace 1858, at the Grotto at Lourdes called Massabielle, in the hollow of the rock where stands the statue, the Holy Virgin appeared to Bernadette Soubirous eighteen times: on the eleventh and on the fourteenth of February; every day flom the eighteenth of February to the eighth of March, two days excepted; on the twenty-fifth of March; on the seventh of April; and on the sixteenth of July.

The Holy Virgin said to the child: "Will you do me the favour to come for fifteen days? I will make you happy, not in this world, but in the next. I want great numbers of people to come to this place." {1}

During the fifteen days the Holy Virgin said: "You will pray for sinners." "You will kiss the earth for sinners." "Penance! Penance! Penance!" "Go and tell the priests that a chapel is to be built here." "I wish to have processions in this place." "Go and drink of the fountain and wash in it." "You shall eat of the grass that grows close by."

On the twenty-fifth of March the Virgin said, "I am the Immaculate Conception."

Between this marble plaque and the basins the water of the spring is turned into a long marble reservoir where pilgrims wash themselves. Opposite rises the hill of convents -- la Colline des Monastères -- which are six: Franciscan, Carmelite, Dominican, the convent of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, that of the Sisters of Nevers, and the Hospice of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows. To the right of the Grotto is an alley planted with trees where pilgrims may seek shelter from the heat of the sun or may take their food and rest.

Upon the Place of the Rosary Church is a building called the Pilgrims' Shelter, containing two large halls, one on the ground floor, the other on the first storey. Entrance into it is free. Mention must be made also of the beautiful house, behind the Basilica, inhabited by the Religious who act as guardians of the Grotto, the Bishop's house, and, a little lower down, the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalen in the Spélugues grottoes. Mass is said there when the holy places of Lourdes are thronged. Above these grottoes is the Calvary. Marked on the mountain side by great wooden crosses for the Stations, this Calvary and its Via Crucis overlook both town and Basilica. Here take place the torchlight processions. The road is supported by arches of masonry --another of the great works of Lourdes.

Quiet as are at ordinary times this remote town and its solitary sanctuaries, on pilgrimage days the whole region swarms with life. The crowd comes and goes in meeting streams of processions, their multicoloured banners floating in the wind. They pray aloud. The Litany mingles with the cheer, and Miserere with Te Deum; and above the thronging heads pass the shoulder-borne stretchers of the sick whose eyes are fixed upon the Grotto. The scene is indescribable. Then is the unique Lourdes seen in all its character.

Night comes. One hour of silence has passed by Lourdes, and is over. The bells begin; the Cross goes by; behind it come thousands of people, every right hand holding a taper, every mouth speaking the salutation of the Angel: Ave Maria. Their ranks form and unfold, and soon the long train takes the mountain. As it goes up the light goes with it, and soon a shining serpent clasps the height from base to summit. Then come their voices from the top. Voices from below intone their answering hymns. Presently the stars move downwards; the Cross goes by; and soon the Grotto of the Apparition seems to take fire, so intense is the meeting of torches and tapers.

Not yet are the pilgrims weary. Midnight, flying from the belfry of the Basilica -- Parce, Domine -- finds them on their knees. And then begin the Masses with the first hour of the new day; and so every day, for month after month.

Close to the Grotto are the baths. Nothing could well look more commonplace. They look as though some pains had been taken to keep away every impressive or exciting sign. The light is low and rather reflective than direct. The walls are bare and cold. A little image of the Blessed Virgin in the glass of a window alone adorns the place. A curtain divides the chamber in half. On one side is the place where the sick are unclothed, and a small number of persons can occupy it together. The other side is for the bathing. In the centre is the basin, fed by two large taps through which the water is changed three times every day. In this water bathe the sick, whatever their diseases. Contagions, infections of all kinds enter the water alike. The pilgrims have no fear; nor, indeed, is there a single case on record of sickness contracted at the fountain of Lourdes. This, assuredly, is no inconsiderable thing. A sceptic might well hesitate to bathe after a sufferer covered with ulcers. Yet during the months of August and September annually it is by thousands upon thousands that such sufferers, and others like them, are to be counted. The women have two bathing-places the men have one; in each are three baths. The sick are bathed by bearers -- a corps recruited from all classes, without fees; volunteers never fail during the pilgrim season. According to the nature of the malady a patient is lowered into the water by means of a sheet or of broad straps passed under the back and under the legs, four persons holding the ends. The sheet is for those who must be handled still more gently. Before the immersion, while it is taking place, and after it, prayers are offered. The friends of the patient may choose the first prayers; next, when he is ready for the bath, he is asked to recite an act of contrition; while he is in the water the following invocations are said, each three times:

Blessed be the holy and immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us.
Our Mother, have pity on us.
Our Lady of Lourdes, heal us for the love and honour of the Holy Trinity.
Our Lady of Lourdes, heal us for the conversion of sinners.
Health of the sick, pray for us.
Succour of sufferers, pray for us.
Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.

First Apparition of the Blessed Virgin to Bernadette Soubirous, February 11, 1858

When the patient is able, he joins in the prayers. The dumb, the paralytic, those who cannot speak for weakness, pray with their suffering eyes. Some struggle to join their hands. Faith kindles a light in the lean faces furrowed by bitter pains, resolute with resignation. The looks of consumptives especially are appalling. Theirs are faces that intimidate and disturb. There lie the consumed figures with the skeleton apparent, under the long gown that covers them. Their hands cling to their bearers. They are laid in the cold water, and they lie, condemning themselves, as it would seem to a speedier death even than their faces promised, while their attendants pray. Hundreds of voices are storming Heaven with prayers. Shouts go up. Men fall on their knees with their arms out in the form of the Cross of Christ. It is an enormous effort of desire. The sick man is raised again -- cured? Ah, not always. Sometimes, indeed, with new and incredible health in his face, sometimes with the same agonising hope, sometimes with the peace of a profounder resignation. We are assured that there is never an increase of fever of coughing, or of any other symptoms of implacable disease. Most touching of all, the uncured are seen to drag themselves upon their faithful knees to pray at the Grotto.

Protests have, of course, been made against this treatment of lung disease, and had there ever been a case of resultant increase of illness it would have been thoroughly published by the protesters. Still more indignation has been professed in the case of sufferers from rheumatism, who come to Lourdes also in great numbers and cause themselves to be bathed in the spring. Sometimes their cries of pain are heard by the imploring crowd, who grow excited in their prayers. The rheumatic patients, like the rest, do not suffer. They are quick to give thanks to Heaven, even if their pains are unhealed, that they have not found new suffering instead of the health they hoped for, and death in place of life. And the march past goes on. Strange maladies and horrible follow one another; all that flesh has to endure in deformity and misery. All go to the spring, and wash in it. The doctors watch them all, examine them, stethoscope them, take notes, write reports.

When, indeed, the miracle is worked, there is about a minute of silence, veritably a minute of fear. The poor people dare hardly believe. They have a new fear, a fear of death, believing they have almost seen God. It is the fear of old. That minute of silence must have been lived through to be understood. Faith here deals not with dogma and the unseen. It is face to face with fact and matter.

In the morning until six o'clock, and in the evening from seven o'clock until nine, the spring is reserved for the prayers of those who come not to pray for the healing of disease, but to offer up some other petitions. The water is changed at eleven, at three, and at six o'clock.

Opposite to the baths is an old building used as an office for examinations. Here assemble the physicians, and here are registered their certificates. No case is admitted -- at least officially -- to the baths without a medical certificate. This precaution is intended for the prevention of fraud.

And round this scene of human tumult stand the everlasting hills, built upon with monasteries whence the bells, answering one another from so many belfries, call to perpetual prayer.

This is Lourdes: a centre of anxious crowds, the sanctuaries gathered about the miraculous fountain, the mountains, and the mountain passes. The day and the night being done, the pilgrim pauses to look at it all once again. And before his mind's eye comes the little scene in that valley years ago: the Gave running with its clear waters, little Bernadette with her hands joined and her eyes upon the hollow of the rock, the child who beheld the light of Heaven and the Figure that it clothed. During all these long years many legends have been devised concerning Lourdes; much has even been done to get the place suppressed and effaced. But it flourishes. It lives prosperously, at the gateway of the beautiful pass that leads away to Pau. Its churches are splendid with offerings, and crowds follow one another to the hollow rock that is unadorned save by a little ivy, a few wild flowers, and the sun of the South.

1 The French of this last sentence is extremely colloquial.

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