by Andrew Pacholyk MS, L.Ac. (excerpt from Soul Satisfying Journeys)
Since the time I was 14 and saw the movie, The Song of Bernadette on television, I was always enamored by the incredible life of Saint Bernadette Soubirous, who, from February to July 1858 in Lourdes, France, reported 18 visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Now, 34 years later, my partner brought about this life long dream, booking us on a flight to Paris. On the eve of my birthday, June 21st, 2010, the summer solstice, we arrived in Lourdes. For the first time, we were going to see the grotto and springs I so often thought about! From the airport, we took a taxi for about a twenty minute ride through the French countryside. The stunning Pyrenees mountains raised there gracious heads seeming to pierce the low hanging clouds. As we rounded a bend we approach the village, the little town seemed to grow and grow. The taxi dropped us off at the hotel along the main street.
We quickly checked in at the front desk and the clerk directed us down the street to the basilica. We would wind our way down the cobblestone street passing a mired of souvenirs of the Blessed Virgin, rosary beads, bottles in every shape and size to gather water from the spring, posters, statues, dolls, toys and even bags of almonds and chocolates made to look like pebbles.
As we rounded the last bend going down the hill, the sun pierced through the clouds as our eyes became fixed on this huge basilica, framed by the Pyrenees on one side and the sloping path to the river and grotto on the other. My only reference was seeing Cinderella’s castle in Disney or when Dorothy and her friends came out of the forest to see Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. It was a magnificent site! The sun hit the top of the church just as the bells began to toll 4pm. As we got closer we could see the large castle fort on the top of a hill to our left and the Gave de Pau river racing under the bridge in front of us. The street was a buzz with many people seeming to have the same reaction as we did.
The basilica, is actually called The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes or most commonly known as the Domain. The Crypt was the first of the churches to be completed in the Domain and is today among the smallest. Bernadette’s father worked on its construction and was present at its official opening, The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, also known as the Upper Basilica, was the second of the churches to be completed and consecrated in 1876. This beautiful and very impressive, Gothic style, sanctuary emerges directly from the rocks of Massabielle directly above the grotto. The Rosary Basilica is the third church to be completed, in 1899. Its architecture was done to reflect Byzantine times. A dome tops the open circular nave. The exterior dome is graced by a dramatic gilded crown and cross, a gift from the people of Ireland in 1924. Facing this grand structure you can find a depiction of the Luminous Mysteries, which were added to the traditional fifteen by Pope John Paul II in 2002.
Making our way past the basilica on the right, the grounds slope down to a gentle river below. On the left we found the waters of Lourdes. Lourdes water flows from a spring discovered by Bernadette. This original spring was found in the grotto where Bernadette was asked by the Blessed Virgin to dig in the ground and drink from the water of the spring she found there. At first there was nothing but damp mud coming from the ground, but, the water came forth and the stream became increasingly clean. As word spread, this water was given to medical patients of all kinds, and numerous miracle cures were reported. The water now flows at 40 litres per minute and is collected in a cistern, and dispensed by a system of taps near the grotto. Everyone is free to drink it or collect it in bottles or other containers to take with them. The original spring can be seen within the grotto, lit from below, and protected by a glass screen. As we came upon the springs we only had a small pint size water bottle in our bag. Tonio immediately ran to a tap and filled the small water bottle.
We proceeded to the grotto, waiting in line to be one of the hundreds of people to walk by and admire the place where Bernadette saw the Blessed Virgin. As we entered the rocky cavern like grotto, we ran our hands along the cold damp stone, imagining what the experience could have possibly felt like! I can recall simply saying the Hail Mary prayer over and over again, chills running up and down my spine. Walking out of the grotto, we walked along the baths and candle stations admiring all the hundreds of candles lit in prayer and hopefulness.
That evening we participated in the Procession. The Blessed Sacrament Torchlight Procession is held daily at 8.45 pm. The procession began at the open-air altar in the Prairie, and was led by a priest carrying a monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament. Throngs of people followed the illuminated statue of the Blessed Virgin carried on the shoulders of 6 men from the grotto to the steps of the basilica. The focus of the procession was the rosary. All five decades were recited, in a variety of languages. The night was slightly damp and there was a rainy drizzle, but everyone’s candles stayed lit. There was a final blessing in Latin, and then an invitation to exchange the sign of peace with everyone around us. It was an overwhelming sense of love that was felt, as every person there was drawn to this magical place for the exact same reason!
The following morning, we were up for the 6 am mass. The morning air was crisp with a slight dew in the air. On our way out of the mass, we found ourselves in the middle of a sea of nurses, priest, nuns and workers from around the grounds. They were all chatting or laughing after mass in every language you could imagine. Rosary Square seemed so empty compared to the day before, now with just the mass attendees and us. I remember an overwhelming sense of peace that flushed over me. Staring at the magnificent surroundings and the attendees and open space, it created a sense of calm I still refer back to as my “peace of Lourdes”. After mass, we had breakfast in town near the Italian hospice. We were up early for mass, so now it was only about 7:30 am. We were enjoying a wonderful French breakfast of cafe au lait and croissant, as we began to see the beginnings of a parade of the sick, each one being carted down on stretchers, in wheelchairs, in four wheeled wagons, all in one straight line down the hill! We finished our cafe and out of curiosity followed the procession down the hill. As we did we found ourselves going into a mammoth underground structure.
The Basilica of St. Pius X, known as the Underground Basilica, is the largest and most controversial of the Domain’s churches, as well as the largest church in France. Designed by Pierre Vago and completed in 1958, this modern, concrete building, is almost entirely underground. When full, it can accommodate 25,000 worshippers. The inner church was sparsely decorated and not at all as ornate as the basilica above, yet it had its own charm! A concrete altar in the center of the structure and chairs streaming out in four directions from this point, made it the focal point of the room. Banners of the saints and those waiting to become saints hung above the crowd. The church was full of worshippers and in the center, all the sick we had followed in there for mass. We stayed for another service. After mass, we strolled back through the crowds of people milling about and the throngs of new people coming over the bridge for the first time to experience what we just did the day before. Our time at Lourdes was up. It seemed like there were so many more things to do and see, but that would have to be saved for the next visit.
Once back in the states, I was talking to several friends, colleagues and patients about my trip. After my recollection of the trip, it seemed that the first question from everyone was “did I experience any healing miracles?”
These were my miracles from Lourdes:
-Whenever I find myself stressed, since my trip, I close my eyes and take myself back to my “peace of Lourdes”. The overwhelming sense of calm I received that day in Rosary Square, after mass, was a gift I took with me.
Tonio filled a tiny little water bottle up at the springs because it was the only bottle we had at the time to pour water into. We knew there were so many friends and family who asked us for the healing waters, we bought 23 little bottles for holy water. That night in our hotel, we started filling our little bottles from the pint bottle we had at the grotto. We thought there was no way we could fill all 23 bottles from the small one we had. As we poured out water, the water in the little bottle seemed to multiply to the point that it filled EXACTLY the 23 bottles we bought for others right down to the very last drop! I remember we looked at each other in absolute disbelief!
-Since 2003, the airlines only allow 3 oz of liquid on the plane per passenger. With not even thinking about this at the time, we were going through security, when they pulled me from the line and asked to check my bags. This has probably happened to me three times in years of flying. The security guard took my bag apart apparently searching for something that showed up on the x-ray machine. After two security people went through my bag, they appeared satisfied and let me repack the bag they had just gone through so vehemently, never seeing nor saying anything. After the incident, I was perplexed. What made them stop me? What made them want to go through my bag so thoroughly? Then it finally dawned on me, perhaps it was the 23 bottles of water, which they never discovered! I realized what a blessing it seemed to be and made sure the minute I got home, I would distribute this Lourdes water to those who prayed for me to bring it home!
Update: October 15, 2011: It is still dark as Tonio and I hike in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The pre-dawn air nips at my cheeks and fingers as we take brisk strides uphill along the shale and dirt path. Our journey takes us along the Vieux Crosses or Way of the Cross. We are in the town of Lourdes, fulfilling a wish we were unable to accomplish on our first trip here. The pitch black sky is still ablaze with the most brilliant of stars as we reach an area called the bend. It is called this because it is the transition from the steep climb to a sharp turn on the mountain pass. It seemed almost on cue, that the minute we reached the dangerous curve, the moonlight washed the spot in front of us with her light, as if it were a spotlight filling the curve in front us, protecting us from the perilous edge. Even though the moon this night was but a crescent, it was enough to make us both stop and stare at each other in amazement.
Below us, we could see the sleeping valley, anticipating dawn’s first light. As we looked to our right, the first Station of the Cross lay before us. Up two sets of steps, we stood before the larger than life-sized cast iron statues, sculpted by Parisian artist, Raffl. The steps bring you face to face with Jesus as he is condemned to death. The light wind blowing over this verdant mountain, left an eerie, unsettled feeling in my mind, as I stand before these incredibly life-like creations. Tonio had the urge to touch the hands of Christ as his hands lay folded in front of him. I could see Tonio’s face change as he did this. As we turned away from the station to walk down the steps, Tonio told me he received a message. Christ told him, “be not afraid, I am behind you. I am with you now and I always will be. You have nothing to fear.” I could see the light in Tonio’s eyes as he relayed the message to me. I sensed great relief within him.
We climbed higher and higher, admiring the spectacular stations as we go. There is a part in the trees. In the distance, is the recognizable blue cross at the top of the Pic du Jer mountain, standing guard over all of Lourdes, Tarbes and the Pau Plains in the West. Again the moon gets our attention. It’s her feminine energy that reminds Tonio of his mom. He immediately tells me about his thoughts of her. Left to be cared for by his grandmother at age 5, it would be 25 years before they would reunite in peace and love. We then turned to see behind us, Station VIII Jesus Meets the Pious Woman of Jerusalem. The statue is of a woman with outstretched arms holding her child up to Jesus. Tonio is instantly moved. He begins to cry uncontrollably. His heart is heavy. I can feel his sorrow, but yet I also sense a feeling of relief or understanding. I hold on to him strongly. My arms wrapped to support him! It is one of the few times where I felt like a rock for him to be able to really lean on. I was honored to be able to hold him with not only my arms but my strength in love. I never felt more strong and secure.
Tonio’s tears fill his eyes and streamed down his face, as he replays his childhood and adult life over in his head. This cathartic and cleansing walk we are journeying on is necessary and welcomed. I could feel it was going to be a life changing event for him, and it meant everything to me to be with him, especially now.
At the top of this mountain is Station XII, Jesus Dies On The Cross. “Father in your hands I commend My spirit”. This breathtaking work of art is not only the pinnacle of Raffl’s work, but it’s natural setting on the mountain is unsurpassed!
We then begin our decent downward. I hold Tonio tight as we carefully step our way down the mountain path. The rocky road fans out toward the bottom and brings us to Station XIV, Jesus Is Laid In The Tomb. Portrayed by a deep crevasse in the rock, the black tomb is in the background. In the foreground are the statues of onlookers and Christ being layed to rest. Perched up on the cliff’s edge, we step up to the ledge to get a closer look. As Tonio touches the rock, a piece naturally breaks off and fits into the palm of his hand. Significant for him, this teardrop shaped piece of limestone appeared to be a gift from the mountain and the Way of the Cross. We make our way down along side the mountain. We are behind the upper basilica. The sun is just starting to rise as its fingers of light pierce the valley and river before it. The first warmth of sunrise embraces the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary and church of Saint Bernadette. It is one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever experienced!
I have included a musical tribute to go along with this article. You can also find my hand created incense with prayer cards from Lourdes, Holy water from the grotto, crystals associated with the Virgin, and a special Lourdes Pocket Stone.