These thoughts are not from me. They are from a friend who came to Lourdes with me. But, I heartily agree with them, they are well expressed and I couldn't do better myself. This is what Lourdes feels like when you spend the rest of your life trying not to look weird.
There is something about Lourdes, something special, and everyone who has been there seems to know it, but none of us seem to be able to isolate quite what it is. I think that it is probably responsible for the number of people who return there every year, and a lot of them do.
When I was there last year I remember one of the talks by the Prior Provincial of the Dominican Province. In it he said that people come to Lourdes for different reasons - some people are bullied into it: I was certainly one of those people. I did not want to go to Lourdes at all. I had absolutely no desire to go there, no desire to go on pilgrimage and couldn't for the life of me see why I should give up a week of my precious summer holiday to go somewhere I did not want to go - however good the company! A ruthless and prolonged operation was put in place by several well loved, but bloody minded Dominicans, and when some well loved but bloody minded family friends joined in it proved too much, even for someone as stubborn as me. In a moment of weakness I caved into the pressure, and spent the next few months regretting it intensely. By the time I capitulated the team that had amassed to get me there was fairly large, but there were two people, the two original members, who I held particularly responsible. Although now I am more grateful to them than I can ever verbalize, in the time leading up to the pilgrimage I sincerely wanted to slap them every time they grinned at me, reminding me of their success and my failure.
I realize now that I was quite scared about going. Quite what i was scared of I am not sure, but I suppose that it had something to do with a general attitude I had towards the faith at the time. I believed, there was no doubt about this, but it had taken rather a back seat. I went to Mass every Sunday less because I thought I had to than out of habit. I wanted to see people there, and because, this is what we did on Sundays. A week full of Mass going and a kind of intense religiosity seemed a bit more than I could handle.
But, there is something special about Lourdes and by about a week after I returned I was ensuring that i could go back there the following year, insisting that that family holiday had to be arranged around it. I have spent the last year wondering what that something special is, wondering what it was about that place that touched me so deeply, that changed me so much. I had been wondering and pondering but, to no avail - all I could tell you was that there was something about that place. I knew one of the reasons that it was special to me was because of what happened to me there. I changed in Lourdes in a radical, but probably mostly imperceptible way. I had my own conversion experience, my own little Damascus. But, I also realised that whilst this made Lourdes a special place for me, it was a consequence, not the source of the 'special something', the X Factor. Then, after an entire year of wondering, on my last night in Lourdes this year, I returned from one last solitary late night trip to the grotto and the adoration chapel, and it hit me. Things are, quite frankly, simpler in Lourdes.
In Lourdes, if you want to go an pray in the middle of the day, you just get up an go to the nearest chapel. If you want to go down to the grotto in the middle of the night you can. If you want to spend time before the Blessed Sacrament there are at least two places you can go. You can spend hours sitting quietly in a chapel or in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament if that is what you want. You can go to Mass daily (or even twice if you feel so inclined and the opportunity arises) and it is not a problem. It is absolutely fine. Unremarkable even. You will not face snide or despairing comments, you will not be teased. You will not have to glaze over the hour or so you spent sitting at the back of Church when you give an account of your day. You may even run into someone you know who is also down in the grotto for a late night visit! This is a place where you can run into every type of religious habit under the sun, and see a Bishop in full regalia praying next to you. This is a place where you can spend a week wearing your rosary hanging out of the pocket on your jeans, attached with a carabiner, and not get a single odd look.
Living in a country where being a Catholic is to be definitely in a minority, a world where the outward sign of religion is often deemed unnecessary, ostentatious and sometimes inappropriate, Lourdes is a breath of fresh air. In the words of the two bloody minded, but well loved Dominicans: 'Here, it is OK to be Catholic'. In Lourdes it is simpler.
It is true that its is not always meant to be simple. We are warned explicitly that it won't always be simple. Indeed, we are even meant to be joyful and grateful when it is not. In his sermon on the mount Christ says: 'Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven' (Matthew 5: 11 -12). In the words of St. Peter: 'If you are reviled in the name of Christ, you are blessed because the spirit of glory, which is the spirit of God, is resting upon you.' (1Peter4: 12). Put simply, we will find it difficult, hard, challenging. In his rule St. Benedict realized this, exhorting patience in the events of 'hardships and unjust treatment' (RB 7.42), and that was in a community of monks.
However, I do think that there is something to be said for one week, every now and then, once a year say, when things are easier. One week when we are fairly sure that we won't be reviled, persecuted or have all kinds of evil uttered against us falsely. One week in which it is not only OK to be Catholic, but actively encouraged. One week when it is easy. I think that if it is easier in this one week to do these things then we will find ourselves spending more time in prayer, listening longer, harder, and more intently to God, hearing more clearly what he is calling us to be and do. And, whether intentionally, consciously, or completely by accident we will find ourselves converting, turning back to God. We will find ourselves attending to the pleas of the prophet Jeremiah: 'Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn again to the Lord you God.' This one easy week refreshes and rejuvenates us, it gives us back the confidence, the strength, and quite possibly the inclination to go back home and continue the practice of our faith regardless of the reaction we face.
One week of simplicity not only reminds us why we are willing to face the music at home. It reminds us why, deep down, we don't really care about the music.