Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Dressed down and not expecting visitors

"Pilgrim: when your ship, long moored in harbour, gives you the illusion of being a house; when your ship begins to put down roots in the stagnant water by the quay: put out to sea! Save your boat's journeying soul, and your own pilgrim soul, cost what it may!" - Helder Camara


I am not sure that it will be possible to explain about Lourdes. I do not understand it. I don't think anyone does. Helder Camara describes something about the need to be disturbed, and my experiences of Lourdes are certainly disturbing, uncomfortable even, but they are not negative. The faith of the crowds in Lourdes is raw, unrefined and primitive. There are no airs and graces: it is a family affair - Catholicism dressed down not expecting visitors. The vulnerability of humanity is displayed for all to see - not just in the sick, but also in the faces of people praying through every event of the pilgrimage. The faithful seem to forget to hide their emotions - fear of flying, nerves over travelling, homesickness, loneliness, depression, repression, guilt and exhaustion all make a public appearance on the journey to the grotto. Relief, joy, exuberance, forgiveness, hysteria, serenity and contentment find their expression too in the rituals, prayers and companionship of the people. That which is ordinarily hidden, buried deep under the illusion of respectability seems hung out to dry in Lourdes. All of a sudden you realise you are in a society which has no secrets, no subterfuge, no camouflage: human life here is emotional and messy.


With all of this comes a sense of disorientation. You wander around thinking 'what the hell am I doing here?' Swept along on the waves of the crowds for a while you can just watch and wait, listening carefully to all the seasoned Lourdes pilgrims talking about perplexing prayers, liturgies and rituals which are part of the daily routine: baths, stations, confession, torchlight procession, blessed sacrament procession, adoration, benediction, mass. Your senses are bombarded with the physical experience of prayer: the perfume of incense, and the smell of candles buring, people intoning the rosary, singing Ave Maria, the sound of running water the sight of millions walking, talking, kneeling, standing, sitting, pulling, pushing, praying. Whatever, you might be thinking at the time you begin to realise you are involved somehow in this drama. The sight of a young woman kneeling at the grotto in the dark, and cold pouring rain sometime around midnight brought me the one question that bothers me about Lourdes. It was freezing and the wind was blowing, and there was a positive flood on the ground. I was busy trying to figure out how I could get back to the hotel without being drenched to join the rest of the pilgrimage for some late night drinks, but there she was with an extraordinary display of piety. What on earth did she want? What do any of these millions of people want? Somehow or other my understanding of Lourdes has got to be related to the answer to this question. The strange rituals of Lourdes are all expressions of how people are wanting - hungering and, in the end receiveing. More on this later, I am going to try and figure a way of reflecting about some of the experiences I had one by one. I am not sure I will reach any level of understanding at all, but it might be a laugh to try!


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