|the grotto and spring at Lourdes, with sanctuary up top|
Outside the throng chants. The ladies are firm but gentle. They pull us one by one through heavy curtains, into a chamber of marble and concrete. Their movements are carefully choreographed. One holds up a blue fabric sheet, another motions that now was the time to strip off our clothes.
The ladies do not speak a language I understand. I do not know what to do, where to go next. They wrap the blue fabric around my body, carefully covering everything. My turn comes. One takes my by the wrist and pulls me along through another curtain, to another team of ladies on either side of a long marble tub. My blue wrap is removed, and a cold, wet sheet is wrapped around me as I descend into the frigid spring water.
A lady pats me reassuringly on the shoulder. I kneel in the water when I am supposed to sit. The ladies tip me backward, but I don’t go under all the way. They do not snicker. I am not the only beginner here. They must do this a thousand times a day.
Women who cannot speak, walk, hear, or see, and women who do those things too much. Women with missing limbs, failing hearts, broken spirits, withered breasts and scattered wits. They’ve seen us all.
We come to Lourdes for health and grace. We come looking for something we don’t deserve. Most of us don’t really expect to get anything but wet.
But you never know. The walls of the church above the spring are covered from floor to ceiling with marble plaques engraved with words of thanks, a century’s worth of testimonies to answered prayers.
In another time and place, the bath-house ladies would have been priestesses of of a water goddess. But at Lourdes the goddess is the Virgin Mary, her apostle is St. Bernadette, a local peasant girl who saw the virgin in a vision at this spring a bit more than a century ago. Bernadette drank the dirty water, she washed her face in it. A neighbor touched the water, and her withered hand was made whole. It did not take long for word to spread.
A building campaign was arranged, a huge train depot installed to connect this remote mountain village to the French rail network. Lourdes took off, the hoteliers and souvenir dealers moved in, and the town is now a Catholic Disneyland. (The shrine complex itself is remarkably restrained, taste-wise. I shudder to think what it would look like if Lourdes happened in, say, Ohio.)
Everybody loves a miracle. Everybody wants one. And almost everybody loves their mother.
Everyone at Lourdes swears they do not worship the Virgin Mary. They worship Jesus, her son, they say. But it was Mary who showed herself to little Bernadette. Mary’s image still is everywhere at Lourdes, with Jesus appearing only in the occasional altar crucifix, or as the bonny baby in the arms of his Most Holy Virgin Mother.
In the Catholic world, God the father is so distant, so furious and judgmental. Jesus? So much guilt attached to him – he was so nice, and he died horribly, and every time I sin it’s my fault, all over again. But Mary? Oh, Mary, mother mine, sweetness, kindness, staying God’s angry judgment, crying the same tears every parent cries! Mary is someone truly human, a simple girl, a humble wife, and a mom… without any of the sex and blood and bodily fluids. What’s not to love?
It's heresy to say so, but Mary is the female aspect of the Holy Trinity. Nobody seems to really know or understand what the Holy Spirit is supposed to be… no one really connects to doves much. The original Trinitarians gave Christians a wholly masculine god. But the believers said No. We need a goddess, thank you. And Mary looks real good to us. And so she is, or so she has become, to both Orthodox and Catholic believers, and a whole load of Protestants, too.
In the hard-shell pietist Protestant world I grew up in, Marian devotion and Lourdes-type shrines were viewed as the worst kind of idolatry, cynical priests milking money from superstitious souls looking for magic in a mountain spring.
But the Bible is full of stories of healing springs. Baptism itself is a healing spring. I thought a long time about taking the waters at Lourdes, if it is something I should do. And the scripture told of a woman who simply reached out and touched Jesus' robe and was healed, and another woman who Jesus sent away as unworthy, who stood up to the very Son of God and said "No! I need grace, even if I am not a chosen one!" And Jesus gave her what she needed, and wished the Chosen had such faith. I am not a baptised Catholic, not a "chosen one" in Lourdes terms. But I am a needy soul. Maybe even a superstitious one.
And at Lourdes, the superstitious souls smile. They let one another go first at the English-language confessionals, and make sure everyone has a scripture-verse card written in his own language. Jolly children open the taps for elderly nuns, and help them fill their Blessed Virgin-shaped jars with blessed spring water. The handicapped roll right up to the front of the line in specially provided gurneys and wheelchairs and chariots. Uniformed ladies and gentlemen open special gates for them. They lower them into the healing waters. They hold their hands when they cry out from the cold.
We don't deserve it, but they let us go first. They make sure we understand. They open the taps for us. When we stand naked and vulnerable, they do not laugh at us. When we cry out, someone takes our hand.
And that is what Christianity looks like.