But as I walked down the streets of Lourdes, there was very little signage and not a lot of people on the streets. So where were the rampaging people on their pilgrimages? Where were the faithful flocking. That thing up on the hill looked really far and uphill to boot.
I thought my hotel was supposed to be near the grotto. What had I gotten myself into? Oh and I look up and all I see is a big sign for the health center (urgences) Emergency room! Now that one big sign.
I ignore it and see a little sign that says "grotto" well since there can't be two grottos in Lourdes, I follow that.
Lourdes is a tiny town full of hills and twisting roads, like they just followed a goat trail. But the grotto had another "official" name which, sadly, I didn't note.
I saw this big iron gate, a large boulevard and a large cathedral at the end. This had to be it. Like I mentioned, there wasn't a lot of people. It was oddly very casual, there were people with name cards that actually just had a flag, so if you have a question, said personage could speak the language of that flag.
I just wandered around, I had a list of things I had to do as instructed by mom. Now, my trip never started out as some kind of religious pilgrimage, I was just going to backpack Europe. I'm one of those cafeteria Catholics and well, frankly, in the last couple of years, I wasn't having anything they were serving up.
But I'm good with just flowing. So I think I've seen at least one church in each city I've slept in. Rome and the Vatican was a big disappointment, but I was still geared up for Lourdes. After all, it was about a little girl who the church initially didn't believe. Funny, a bunch of men didn't believe a female, sounds familiar doesn't it.
So I kept walking, following the signs for "grotto" I was told to make sure I got some blessed water. As I walked passed the ubiquitous retailers of all things religious, I saw a lot of bottles for sale. I mean jugs meant for the blessed water. So I had bought some to take back to my mom.
I don't know what I was expecting, but I didn't expect a a wall with a bunch is spigots and people jostling around them to fill up their various bottles. A sign said something about doing the water something. I didn't know what I was supposed to do with it so I stood and observed. People cleaned their faces, made the sign of the cross, washed themselves while their lips moved (assuming with prayer) basically whatever you wanted.
I chose and empty spot, ran the water and did the sign of the cross, ran the water through my hair, after all this was the water that had been attributed with miraculous healing. I dug deep and sincerely did what I thought I needed to do for my ailments. I did sprinkle some water around my forehead and eyes, didn't splash them directly, but I hoped it would help. And I put some on my throat, you know, The Cough. I saw people drinking the water from their bottles. So I thought, why not. I didn't care about filtration systems, I took that leap of faith, cupped my hand beneath the spigot and drank. The water was cold, refreshing and sweet. In short, it lived up to its reputation. I waited a beat, I was dehydrated, and I drank some more, drinking deeply. My tummy didn't rumble or seem disturbed by anything.
Then I went on, I saw a sort of staging area and like every good tourist, I saw people standing in line and lined up myself.
It was the line to the grotto and I couldn't believe that there wasn't the craziness that was the Vatican. The signs had mentioned solitude - there's a view of a big Hotel Solitude right as you walk down the boulevard, and suggestions on how to pray quietly in solemnity.
I followed the line and it wasn't 2 minutes before I was IN the grotto. The walls had been worn smooth my the millions of hands who came to worship and touch the rocks. The spring that burst from the Lady's instruction was closed off by a glass wall, flowers of worship was laid out on the ground around it.
Then continuing on the semicircle walk, a deeper part of the grotto where the rocks continued to seek with water was being guarded by two men, I felt it was too solemn of an occasion for me to play roving reporter. But then I noticed when I walked out of the grotto that is was very near the location where they put a statue of the Mother Mary. But that's just my observations.
There were no expensive audio tours, no laminate high res posters with explanations or directions, there was only the "grotto".
I kept moving on, I wasn't seeing anyone hawk rosaries and I needed to get a rosary for my mom and my friend. So I approached someone and I was about to asked about the rosary when he asked me "baths?"
I asked in French if he spoke English and he waved another man over who asked me if I was there to visit the baths. I had read something but I was unsure but I said yes, and he directed me somewhere else.
The men and women were segregated as well as children. I went in under the direction of nuns one who held a thick cotton cape around me as I was told to take EVERYTHING off. Ok, I was going with the flow so I did it. I had committed and I wasn't going to back off now.
Plus it isn't like at the gym where I automatically compare myself to the toned personal trainers. I was surrounded in great solemnity and warm smiling, reassuring old ladies. It was seriously, like when grandma used to prepare me for my nap.
I walked through the drapes and faced a stone rectangular pool that looked just big enough for one person.
I was lend tenderly, my arms guided by strong hands to take the two steps down carefully. Before I took the last step into the pool, I was asked if I wanted to pray and I nodded. I prayed with my eyes closed, consumed by the feeling of something so completely out of my comfort zone. Then I was guided into the pool and told to sit.
Well, it was REALLY REALLY cold water and putting my feet was something but sitting? Actually I was worried as they walked me all the way to the front of the pool that they might dunk me in the freezing water and thoughts of pneumonia drifted into my head.
Then I think my brain froze because I tried to kneel in the water and then a gently, but firm tug of war ensued between myself and the ladies holding me because they were trying to get me to sit but my knees were under me and the next thing I knew, I skidding unto my butt and the ladies' grips tightened to keep me from falling backwards which led me to semi floating in the pool as I watch the towel I had been wrapped in gently float up and I feared full frontal absurdities.
There was a part of me laughing inside my head as I was lead out. But the larger part of me was crying tears of joy. You see what I had done wasn't some blind dogma. I had committed to trusting these strangers and guiding me into doing something I was not prepared for. It was ice cold water, there was no towels, so I dressed wet. But everyone had to do it that way. I did something I had never ever thought of doing. I undressed in front of people in the middle of southern France. Who knew?
Then I walked out absolutely touched by the reverence each woman gave to each visitor who wanted to go into the baths. Plus, I was surprised by not having to wait. I didn't even have the chance to sit down and contemplate. It just happened.
Next was submitting my petitions. I wrote them in sheets from my moleskin diary. Odd that at times I was tempted to mail it back to myself, but now it came in handy. Then I went back in line at the grotto, the wait a little longer, ten minutes and dropped my petition in the box and added a donation of €5 it was the least I could do. Their request for donations were for the to carry out their mission to help the poor and the ailing. To continue to renovate the area. And it wasn't heavy handed at all. So I gladly gave.
Then I bought rosaries from the one official souvenir shop all the way at a side entry. No one was in there! But I rather buy from the official retailer so the proceeds can go to the church. I asked how I could get them blessed and was told to just ask a priest after a mass or go to the confessions where there are priests and just ask.
After the fiasco at St Peter's at the Vatican, I was a bit leery of any more confessions, but so be it. But when I went there, the confession area was closed for lunch and wouldn't reopen until 2:30.
So I timed my lunch into the schedule, took my time eating at a little cafe and strolled back to the area once more. But as I strolled around I saw a priest in his black habit and his name tag showed an Italian flag. I didn't know how to address him, I didn't think it was Padre, I thought that was Spanish.
"Monsieur, excuse moi." I called out to him.
He stopped and looked at me.
"Parlez vous Anglais?" I asked.
He shook his head "No." And he started to walk away but I quickly I pulled out my bag of rosaries and said in English, "I just want a blessing for my rosaries."
He saw what was in my hand and asked "benedicto?"
I switched to Italian, "si, benedicto" and I attempt to pull them out of the bag, which at this point was bursting."
He smiled, shook his head an covered my hand, he didn't want me to take them out. Then as one hand was laid on my bag of rosaries, his over hand made the gestures as he blessed my rosaries. I was so glad. Then his hand waved to indicate he was finished.
I said to him, "Grazie Padre"
He smiled chucked my chin and said "ciao" as he walked away. If you saw my face, you'd have sworn I just met Elvis or someone, One Direction, whatever. That's when I made the observation that when I would see a priest walk by, everyone looked at stared like he was a rock star. As was the same in Rome, they were rock stars.
Then I had an internal debate, confession or not after all, I had gotten them blessed. But I did have another one that I was going to get for my father. Yes, mom was the strict catholic one but my dad who was brought up as a Seventh Day Adventist just recently converted to Catholicism because he said. "Under my religion, you will go to hell. Under your religion, I will go to hell. So I'll just join you." As he had said decades ago, causing near apoplexy for my mother, when she accused him of leading us(his kids) to hell, "at least we'll go as a family."
I committed to going to confession so I could get his rosary blessed. I've been very transparent on this blog, but if you think for one moment I'll tell what I confessed, you'd be crazy.
But what I was looking for was someone who would listen and absolve me of my sins. My mortal and my venial sins. Someone who would be loving and kind as I believe God would be should he speak to me. After all, they are supposed to be God's representatives on earth right? So why not act like it? I'd been search so long. And I found him, Father Joseph Callipare.
I walked in and he looked stern. So I said "bonjour" he replied "you know this is an English confession?"
As I knelt in the prie-dieu "I know but I've been saying Bonjour everywhere." And he smiled and I knew I was going to be ok.
The Vatican priest who refused me absolution was a blessing in disguise. If he had accepted my confession, I wouldn't have met Fr. Callipare and I'm so glad I did. He listened and gave me new perspective. I had mentioned how once I asked for a blessing and a priest asked brusquely, "Why?". Fr. Callipare explained that when you ask for a blessing after a mass, each mass is ended with a benedictions plus if you took communion then you have the best blessing of all. So you can ask for a priest to pray over you for whatever special occasion you want, but it's different than asking for a blessing after you just got one.
Then when he told me to say an act of contrition, I literally read from a pamphlet they had outside of the confessional just for that purpose! He smiled and said "Say what ever one you want."
Then I asked for the special prayer for my dad's rosary. His eyes swept up, and I explained that my dad had converted from Adventism to Catholicism and he said he knew of the Filipino 7th day Adventist because there are quite a few of them.
And he did the blessing, taking my dad's rosaries in his hands and asking that he be blessed as he says his prayers.
All in all a great day for my faith. I still may not agree with all the dictates and dogma of the church, but I'm so very glad to see those that can see past the dogma and attend to the very human faithful.