It was cold, very cold. On a quiet, weekday morning I stood on the side of a lonely highway, shifting my weight from one foot to the other in a little jig, rubbing my gloved hands together, watching cross-eyed over the point of my nose as my exhaled spirit transformed into mist. I was headed west from the city of Nice in the South of France, up into the Pyrenees, on the French/ Spanish frontier.
At eighteen years old I was suffering just the right amount of financial neediness, recklessness and youthful faith in immortality, to find hitch hiking the perfect combination of extreme sport and practical method of transportation.
It had come to pass that I was finally leaving France behind and I had promised my very Catholic Mother that, before I did, I would make the pilgrimage to Lourdes to fetch some holy water. For those of you who do not know, Lourdes is considered a holy place and is said to be where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous. Many people from all over the world, suffering various ailments, trek great distances seeking a miracle. Bathing in the natural spring water of Lourdes, is proclaimed to have miraculous healing results.
I was not seeking healing and my faith was more than questionable, but I'd taken on the role of pilgrim out of a love for my Mother and her deep desire to possess some of this magic water for herself and all her family (and in part, I'm sure she thought, to remedy me one day when I am afflicted with something as a result of my wayward living).
It took all afternoon and into the evening with three zealous, local tour guides who argued passionately between themselves about the accuracies of the other's information and then further through the night in a cute, little Deux Chevaux (2CV), as old, as little and as yellow as the old man driving it to get to my destination. He was a delightful fellow who had lived in the region his entire life. He was born in one of the marvelous villages, literally carved into the very mountainside we were driving through.
If you have ever tried to sleep on top of generator, you will have some sympathy for the kind of night I had before the little old man delivered me to the town center of Lourdes. I vibrated out of the tiny car, unfurling into what can only be described as a white slurpie. I hadn't thought about the snow (only the 3rd time I'd ever seen the stuff in my life and this probably being best described as sleet anyway). If the journey had started out cold, it had rapidly progressed to freezing and wet.
Standing in the middle of a wide and empty intersection, I took stock of my surroundings. Not a soul in this place for the soulful was wandering the streets, the townspeople still in slumber. I found my way into some narrow backstreets of the ghost town and, noting the smell of coffee, followed the aroma to where it led me. A small cafe with an, "Ouvert" sign hanging in the window welcomed me open armed.
Like a scene from "Amelie," the few scattered patrons eyed me curiously upon entering. Seating myself at the counter, I ordered a cafe and pain au chocolat and made the necessary inquires as to where it was exactly that I could obtain this, "Holy Water." As if rattling off an old and familiar text, the waitress informed me where the cathedral was and that it did not open for at least another four hours. She suggested activities, one of which was a cinema that would be open in another hour and a tourist shop up the road.
I realized then, how unprepared I was for this mission. Water -- to capture water, one would need a vessel to put it in. I hadn't thought of that. Fortunately, in the tourist shop recommended me, I found shelves of clear, tall, plastic bottles for sale; All of which were shaped in the likeness of the Virgin Mary, her blue crown the cap which could be unscrewed to fill her body with the holy elixir. I purchased a dozen of these and, noting a broad selection of rosaries, figured I'd please my Mother by gifting her one. Having always had unusual taste, I naturally selected the single rosary, different from all the others. It qualified as a wall sculpture, with wooden beads a little smaller than golf balls and a cross that you could possibly have hung me on. There was no other way to carry it but wrapped several times around my neck. When I left the store to begin my journey toward the massive, Cathedral grounds, I was Jesus in the Twelve Stations of the Cross.
Arriving at the Cathedral grounds, under the weight of my cross, I also realized that I had no idea where to obtain this holy water once in the grounds. I guess I had assumed there would be a well of sorts or even a tap. Off in the distance at a rectory-like building adjacent the cathedral, I made out a queue of people forming. It was reasonable to assume that this is where the well would be. But when I arrived, there was no well. Instead, there were two, massive, copper doors with huge, brass crosses fixed to them. They were closed.
Milling outside were about thirty people in varying states of ill health. I sat on a stone bench next to a Mother in a sari and trench coat, nursing a baby with something "I couldn't identify what was terribly wrong with it." There was an old, African man in a wheel chair with long, skinny, exposed legs and eyes sealed shut. There were two little old ladies in bonnets, clinging to each other for dear life. All around me was suffering and hope and there was I - the faithless - in Christian bling. I didn't know what we were all waiting for, but I dared not ask, feeling guilty and fraudulent (an usual Catholic pass time, only on this occasion, quite valid).
Eventually, one of the doors scraped slowly open and a miniature nun in full habit and as ancient as the Pyrenees themselves, shuffled out. She ushered us all in. It was an enormous, cold, stone room with high ceilings and curtains drawn and arranged in such a way, so as to create separate rooms all throughout. We were divided into groups of five, according to gender and again, I did not feel I had any right to ask what was going on. Some people were shedding silent tears of joy and anticipation. The collective energy of hope was almost palpable. This was entire families' life savings spent on airfares, accommodation and per diems in a final leap of faith, in a final attempt to stave off death. I started to cry too.
Inside a curtained-off room with four other women and one baby, the mini-nun asked us to undress. I went to Catholic girl's school, taught by nuns. It was not in my nature to say, "No" to any nun. One by one the women would disappear into an adjoining room when summoned and returned naked and soaking wet.
Finally it was my turn. I stood shivering at the end of a long, natural stone bath with steps leading down into the watery depths. A nun flanked me at each side and I was looking directly ahead at a statue of the Virgin Mary. The nuns drew me into the water and once I placed my foot on the first step, I instantly realized that this water, this spring water was flowing directly in from outside, from the snowy exterior. I gasped and went numb as the nuns took hold of my head and completely submerged me.
When I cam up for air, all I could hear was, "Embrassez les pieds de la Vierge!" I waded forward, barely breathing and kissed the feet of the Virgin Mary as requested before turning and running back up the stairs and into the room where my clothes were. Desperately seeking a towel, especially for the mass of bum-length hair I possessed that was now thoroughly saturated in ice-water, I soon discovered that it was not kosher to wipe the Holy Water from your body. I redressed and, on the verge of hypothermia left the building, empty bottles and giant cross in tow.
I roamed the beautiful grounds for some hours and after several other, unexpected event attendances that morning - each more darkly humorous than the last - I finally found the stone wall in which water seemed to seep freely, and where taps were conveniently mounted for filling your vessels with this most revered of liquids. I lay down on the ground then, under one of those taps and I drank until I could drink no more. The dutiful daughter, I filled each of my twelve Virgins with water, sealing in the hopes of millions under the little blue crowns.
6 million pilgrims visit Lourdes each year in the hope of healing body, mind and spirit. I was just one of them, one seeking peace of mind for her Mother.
For more information on Lourdes, please visit http://www.lourdes-france.com/