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Tuesday, 10 February 2009


On a cold morning, 11th February 1858, a fourteen-year-old girl, who lived in a disused prison cell next to the town's cess pit, went out with her sister and a friend to gather firewood. When her sister and a friend came to a stream, the girl, named Bernadette Soubirous, who suffered from asthma, was reluctant to take off her shoes to cross the icy water. As she deliberated about what to do, she saw, high up in a niche of the rock (where it was common to dump the town's sewage) a vision of a beautiful lady. Bernadette did what any Catholic of the era would have done, and pulled her rosary from her pocket. The Lady (as she called her) prayed with her. Thus began the miracle that is Lourdes.

I first went to Lourdes when I was 17 and the impact it made upon me was tremendous. The place appealed to everything spiritual and aesthetic - from the sense of holiness to the sheer beauty of the scents of the River Gave, the coffee, the countryside, the mountains, the sounds of the bells and chants and the water frim the spring and, above all, the love for one another - the sense of all that is beautiful. I went back 9 times. Some people return from there remembering only the ridiculous way that the merchants appear in the Temple. It's true. You can buy Our Lady of Lourdes ash trays and cigarette lighters, and sweets made from Lourdes water, and garish flashing images and all kinds of tat....if you want to. Or you can smell the river and sense the Grotto at midnight, with only the scents of burned out candles, the moon, the mountains and the beauty of a million undeciphered tongues murmuring prayers.

One time, I was there at the gypsy pilgrimage and, staying high up in the mountains where the gypsies camped in their beautiful caravans and lit bonfires and carried their statues of flowers down to the Grotto next day, was beyond belief beautiful!

My one difficulty with Lourdes now, is this: it's hugely controversial and might step on some toes. While I was there, there was a great sense of the able-bodied feeling good for helping our neighbours who were suffering. There is also the message that suffering is a good thing and something that God wants.

If that is so, how come Jesus spent His life healing people? More than that, telling people that their own faith had healed them. There isn't one single instance in the Gospel where He said that suffering was good. On the contrary, He implied it was solely the result of our own sense of sin. Rid yourselfnot of the sun but of the the sense of being sinful, and you are healed. God doesn't see us as sinners - crikey, what kind of Father/Mother would think such a thing of their child? That was Jesus' message. The distorted message of Lourdes is surely that suffering somehow pleases God. Bizarre??? What kind of God would want that? Never.

Miracles happen there. I have seen them happen and it is truly beautiful. It's so interesting that the whole area is around a site of even more ancient mystical springs and other beliefs. There is something truly wonderful about that place. It brings people of every nation together in a way I never seen anywhere else. The music, the scents, the feel of it all and the whole atmosphere are just lovely.

Bernadette's asthma, I think, could have been cured, had she not had a mind-set on it somehow being pleasing to God, and how He/She would only reveal Herself to someone who had to suffer for it in all kinds of unpleasant ways for the rest of her life.

If you have the chance to be in Lourdes, please inhale that scent of the river and grass and find your own way and your own sense of that lovely place....

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