Thursday 30 August 2007

Learning through water

" Stars and blossoming fruit trees: utter permanence and extreme fragility give an equal sence of eternity....The vulnerability of precious things is beautiful, because vulnerabilty is a mark of existence." - Simone Weil

Without a doubt the strangest experience of Lourdes has got to be the baths. Last year, when I travelled to Lourdes for the first time, I had had visions of a picturesque pool in the shade of a grotto cave. People would be able to sit out all day and hop into the water to cool off when they felt like it - a bit like a religious trip to the beach. The waters of Lourdes were, in my fictional landscape, very similar to the pool at Bethsaida in John 5.

However, I was to be re-educated about the baths of Lourdes. These baths were organised with military precision, and it is hard to describe their appearance with any sense of charity. At best they resemble a cattle market crossed with a 1950's swimming pool, and to be honest, they have a very similar aroma. But their lack of aesthetic appeal does not appear to damage the power that the baths have on the pilgrims who drum up the courage to surrender themselves into the care of the Hospitalitie de Notre Dame de Lourdes.

For the record the history of the baths puzzles me, because I cannot work them into the original story of the instructions given by the Virgin to Bernadette Soubirous. Those instructions were:"Go and drink from the spring", "Go and tell the priests to build a chapel here", and "Have the people come here in procession". I guess these three things are what is at the heart of the rituals, bizarre as they come, which take place in Lourdes. But, drinking from the spring is not quite the same as jumping in, is it? But the story goes that one of Bernadette's friends, who had a dislocated shoulder plunged her arm into the little spring that sprung up in Lourdes and was miraculously cured. From there on, I guess people came with all sorts of needs for healing and so the tradition developed of people being bathed. Anyhow, the symbolism of completely immersing yourself is more powerful than just dipping in your toe.

When I was baptised as a child it was my mother who dressed me in white, and held me to comfort me, calming my nerves. In the baths of Lourdes it is possible to understand that, through reminding yourself of your baptism, you are guided once again into a position of vulnerability and become compelled to trust in a new mother/child relationship. The handmaids who help you to undress and dress, who clothe you in white like your mother once did, call on the intercession of Mary, the Mother of God. They calm your nerves, reassure you and care for you. The complete strangeness of the experience creates a need for you to trust rather than fear, relaxing into the care of Mary as you once were cared for in the arms of your mother.

This is a ritual of healing and re commitment, but there is not doubt that taking a bath at Lourdes is a nerve wracking process. Even the second time around you are not quite sure what will happen next. Waiting in line you cannot see the next step of your journey, people issue instructions, but they rarely explain anything. When you finally move into one of the cubicles to change you are not sure what might be ahead of you, and you find yourself waiting, wrapped in nothing but a blue cloak doubting your own sanity for letting yourself getting anywhere near such a bizarre situation. But the handmaids who care for you, and wrap you up in white, pray for you and lead you into the baths are gentle and considerate. Their discreet consideration of your body is a reminder of the complete physicality of Christianity. It demands that people accept their whole selves, body and soul I guess the process reminded me that our physical bodies are as important as our spiritual lives. Still, it is impossible to go through the experience of the baths without feeling completely vulnerable. For many people who come to Lourdes, especially those who are sick, the experience of the baths is poignant because their needs are made central. Lourdes revolves around the weak and the ill - those who are ordinarily marginalised are central to everything that happens, their needs are thought about and prayed for.

It is difficult to have the presence of mind to pray for anything during the experience of the baths, but it is easy to trust that whatever you are in need of will be given to you. And, after taking a bath two years in row, it is possible to say that it has done me no harm, and may even done me some good. I know that many people who read this blog will think it very strange, and I think it very strange myself, but still, I think it is an accurate reflection of what I have thought based on where I have been, and you can't say fairer than that.

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!


Tuesday 21 August 2007

Cloister Prayer

This is the badge I am going to use for posts which talk about prayer.

Thank you Ellen you took this picture somewhere is France. It is really very excellent indeed.

Sunday 19 August 2007

Cloister Reading

Please find this icon on the left to direct you to thoughts about good books and poems that made me think.