Yesterday we went to Lourdes.
Sherry and I had been there once before quite by accident and not having the expertise that Peter Sills brings to this Pilgrimage. He had no intent for us to do anything but simply experience it up close. A photograph won’t/can’t do it justice. There are hundreds of thousands of people here on any given day. One Sunday a few years ago we attended Sunday Morning Mass held outside in Vatican Square in Rome. Someone estimated that crowd at being 60,000. That was small compared with what we saw at Lourdes. Close to half the people we saw were either being pushed or pulled in wheel chairs designed especially for this place. There are people with all sorts of infirmities and physical conditions. Some are matters they have lived with since birth, some the result of accident or illness. I stood on one of the lower balconies of the huge church complex that is built here and took this photograph.
Peter told us as we were driving in that this is the third most highly attended Pilgrimage site for Christians in the world. Over time an airport had to be built to accommodate those who wanted to visit. There is a higher ratio of hotel rooms and stores selling religious memorabilia than even in Rome.
We spent several hours walking from one end of the huge plaza that extends from the church toward to town. As we walked and looked and noticed and tried to see, I was filled with a combination of cynicism and awe. Clearly there are people profiting on the misery of others - or their loved ones. You can buy a candle to burn in the grotto for anywhere from $2 to $150. Also, it is clear that people, some in obvious despair and pain, have come here or been brought here hoping for a healing of some sort. In conversation with another person on this journey I heard the comment, “Well, there is spiritual healing in addition to physical healing.” I know that. I also know that many of the people I saw here came not for spiritual healing but for a true miracle of being restored to full physical health.
I compared my experience at Lourdes with the experience we had just the night before. We had gone to another Benedictine monastery. The monk in charge of receiving us was so warmly welcoming. He saw to it that we were served refreshments including samples of the chocolate made by the monks here. It is one of the ways they support their order. The “chocolate factory” is quite large - we saw it on our drive out.
After this welcome, we had time to walk the grounds of the Abbey, including the small but wonderful cloisters. There has been a church at Tournay from the earliest of times. Suppressed during the Revolution, the monastery was re-founded in the 1950s by Benedictine monks. So, the Abbey Church is not old at all. But, it was built to acoustical perfection.
The monks invited us to join them for Vespers. We entered the church. We had not been told that it was their custom to begin each vesper service with a silent sitting meditation of thirty minutes. I knew something was up when I saw one of the monks pull out a meditation bench like the one I use at the beginning of the service. We were in for something different.
After the thirty minutes of silence, they began to chant the service. Though there were fewer than forty monks it sounded like there were many more. Deep, rich male voices doing what they feel is their calling to do. For healing and wholeness, I will take this kind of experience over the religious commercialization of Lourdes any day.
What heals you? What brings you wholeness? How do you seek it out and affirm it?
Being in the sacred spaces we are getting exposed to on this Pilgrimage is one door for me. The other, of course, is joy and humor. So, I will add this one other personal note. (I am not clear, given the schedule that is before us for the next few days, when I would be able to post another blog.)
On Tuesday we visited the Cathedral Saint-Bertrand. It is located in a hilltop village. It is a massive Romano-Gothic cathedral and is noted for its beautiful enclosed paneled choir and cloister. This choir will easily hold sixty or more monks chanting and singing services.
Each choir stall is hand carved in the most intricate and distinctive detail. The care and craftsmanship that went into creating this massive wooden structure is amazing. I took numerous photographs all around the choir. There are hand carved depictions of Jesus being tempted by Satan, of Adam and Eve leaving the garden and many, many more. These are three dimensional carvings perhaps a foot in height. They are all around the choir. Each choir seat is hand carved and each is different from the other. On the panel that would be behind each monk some saint or biblical scene would be carved. I just had to take a picture of this one. I’m calling it St. Steve Jobs because, whoever this saint is, he is clearly caring an iPhone. Not bad for something dating from he 12th century.