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.

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