The following article was published today in local newspaper the Mourne Observer. In it I detail some experiences of my most recent pilgrimage to Lourdes and why I continue to make such a pilgrimage annually. Perhaps there will be some within that resonates with your own experiences…
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” (2 Cor 4:16) I heard these words from St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians just over a week ago before heading off on my annual pilgrimage to Lourdes with the diocese of Down & Connor. Even though the context of hearing these words was during a Netflix binge the importance of them was not lost on me. Every day each of us is one step closer to death. We do not know the day or the hour in which God will call us home. This is part of the Christian life. While this is not something which should necessarily cause us fear, it should at the very least challenge us to ask ourselves; if today were the day in which God calls me home then am I ready to meet Him? This is something I have written about before and I must admit I find this process rather cathartic.
These words were on my mind as I made my pilgrimage to Lourdes this year. My role in the pilgrimage is as part of the Brancardiers team (adult male helpers) who work closely with the Handmaidens (adult female helpers), doctors and nurses in the Accueil Notre Dame de Lourdes where we accompany and assist the pilgrims who stay in the hospital for the duration of the week. Every year I see many familiar faces who have been going to Lourdes for much longer than I have and a number of new faces. There will be those who are unable to attend the pilgrimage physically for a multitude of reasons ranging from work commitments to the greatest barrier: death. The experience of Lourdes is not an easy one.
Having made the pilgrimage some twelve times I left Belfast under the impression that Lourdes held no more surprises for me. I would do my work and the pilgrimage would be a week of giving of self to others with no presumption of receiving anything back. I was mistaken. The pastoral theme for Lourdes this year is “Merciful like the Father” which ties with the ongoing year of mercy. I must confess I have not really engaged with this jubilee year and have been experiencing something of a dry spell in relation to my private expressions of faith for some time. I have been finding it nigh on impossible to pray, to read spiritual texts, or to find any sign of God’s presence in my life. Don’t get me wrong; I know God is with me always and I believe that my desire to please Him does in fact please Him. However, I have not experienced the joy which I previously felt for this lived relationship. Anyone who has experienced this will know that this is deeply painful. My heart has been bitter and full of resentment for others.
This year there were some stand-out moments of the pilgrimage for me. The first took place in the Acceuil chapel during a celebration of the Eucharist purely for the Acceuil pilgrims and staff. Our chaplain Fr Thomas McGlynn was delivering a homily on Mary the mother of Mercy. The Gospel was that of the Wedding Feast at Cana (John 2: 1 – 12) and particular attention was drawn to the words of Mary in that passage, “Do whatever he tells you.” Fr Thomas explained that these days in Lourdes are truly blessed ones in which we could draw ourselves closer to Mary and in doing so draw ourselves closer to Jesus. We could receive God’s Mercy which is offered freely. God will take all of the dross in our lives and transform it into something we never thought possible, if we just let Him in.
Throughout the week I was able to witness other people, people who I had thought of as strong and totally in control expressing their own need of Mercy. This is a remarkably humbling experience. I should also point out that I have learnt that this need of Mercy is itself a testament to the strength and control of such a person. As the pilgrimage came to a close it was while sitting at the Grotto that I realised that I too am in need of God’s mercy. Suddenly all of my experiences of Lourdes gathered together and stitched themselves into one giant panorama which seemed to be laid out in front of me. I saw the people I have helped, the ones who have passed away that I have prayed for, I saw the moments in which I have gone the extra mile for others and stayed up through the night with them. I saw gratitude in the eyes of our pilgrims, as well as accepting that I had been a salve for the pain of others at a variety of times. I looked to the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and finally understood why it is that I continue to come to Lourdes; I want to love other people. It’s just that simple. Suddenly I wept and felt what I can only describe as the thumbnail of God cutting through the pain and resentment which surrounded my heart and stripping it away bit by bit. Those bits which will prevent me from Love are no use to me and more importantly I have no desire for them anymore. From here on in I only want to be an agent of God’s Mercy to others. I can and will be Merciful like the Father. I know that my life on this earth is a brief one but it will be filled with such wonders and marvels that I must write them down because they are truly worth remembering. Yes my outward self is wasting away, but I do not lose heart, because my inner self is being renewed day by day. As our wonderful choir sang so beautifully at the Grotto of Massabielle: “Praise the Lord my heart, my whole life give praise. Let me sing to God as long as I live.”