Thursday, June 21, 2012

Operation Lourdes Final Day

We actually began our last day in Lourdes the evening before with an 11:00 p.m. Mass in the Grotto followed by Eucharistic Adoration. Strong winds blew out the tower of candles which sits always before the Grotto and caused a column of incense to swirl about the altar and permeate the place with its sweet odor. A dramatic ending to the evening service.

One last morning in Lourdes and time to say au revoir to this holy place. We had just enough time to stop in the Museum of St. Bernadette and see some relics of the saint...her shoes and the veil of her habit as well as some autographed letters.

Then we stopped in the underground Basilica of St. Pius X which was built in 1959 for the centenary celebration of the apparitions. Said to be one of the largest buildings of its type, it will accommodate in excess of 20,000 worshippers. Its massive concrete structure stands in stark contrast to the more ornate places of worship here. Fifty-eight concrete pillars support the oval-shaped structure and its walls are adorned with Stations of the Cross and back-lit stained glass series of the Rosary.

A final bittersweet visit to the Grotto and we were able to receive communion one last time on this hallowed ground. While we're sad to leave this place, our final encounter here is a fitting reminder that Our Lady calls us to herself only to draw us closer to Christ.

We are now in Toulouse and will soon be on a plane heading home. A huge music festival is in full swing outside our balcony... Not exactly like the torchlight procession in Lourdes and the Marian chants of that first night but a lively celebration nonetheless.

I am grateful to have shared this remarkable trip with my dear friend, Kathy. We prayed, laughed, walked, ate, reflected, studied maps, laughed some more, shopped, attended masses, reconciliation, walked the stations, worked on Rosaries, explored the path of St. Bernadette, and so much more. After sharing close quarters together for eight days we decided we must truly be soul sisters because at the end of this pilgrimage we are still best of friends! I am thankful for the Willis Family for sharing her with me this week!

Now as I conclude my chronicles, I want to thank you again. I am forever grateful to each of you that have supported me on this pilgrimage - financially and spiritually. I will never forget your generosity just as I can never forget this experience. I feel as if I have left a little part of me in the Grotto so I'm sure to be returning there often. And just as I did this week, I will carry you in my heart as I go!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Operation Lourdes Day Seven

Remember that fourth message of Lourdes? Participation? That lesson was reinforced early today when we rode up on the "lift" with the celebrant for morning Mass. Since this was my same friend from yesterday who offered me absolution, I could hardly turn down his request when he asked me to do the reading. So, despite the glaring absence of my comfort zone, I was open to the Spirit and Participated! At Mass, the priest declared it to be the Mass of the Holy Spirit, but it seemed the Spirit had gotten a jump start on His day!

Later, It had been suggested by a friend that Vespers with the Carmelites was another experience not to be missed, so we mounted the hill behind the sanctuary for the short walk to the Carmelite Monastery nestled on the hill overlooking the Grotto. We were not disappointed. The atmosphere was serene in the rustic Chapel and the sisters' prayer was simple and pure. Although I couldn't understand their words, the rhythm of their prayer seemed unusually familiar!

Tonight, like every night at Lourdes, the evening concludes with a torchlight procession which begins near the Grotto and snakes around the sanctuary ending in front of the Rosary Basilica. After having witnessed the spectacle from our hotel balcony the first day of our stay, we were excited to join the multinational throng and join our voices to theirs in the recitation of the rosary, which is said in as many languages as there are pilgrims. The long line of malades in their wheelchairs and stretchers, who lead the procession just behind the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, is a humbling testament to faith, hope, and love. All faces, even the most pitiable, radiate a beautiful joy and happiness.

Having retired for a last visit to the Grotto for the night, I was again struck by the lesson of this impossible place. Over 150 years ago, in this forsaken and filthy little grotto, a "beautiful lady" appeared to a simple 14 year peasant girl. This unremarkable but tenacious little girl steadfastly repeated to authorities the two commands given her by the lady...that people should come to the place in procession and that a chapel should be built there. Despite every difficulty, Bernadette's fidelity to Our Lady's message ultimately borne remarkable fruit with thousands walking in the daily torchlight processions and the many millions that have come to this holy place. As for the chapel, I look at the magnificent Basilica that rises out of the very rock in which Mary appeared and am simply overwhelmed by its grandeur. All of these riches were borne out of the faith of a child.

I am reminded of the Sunday gospel reading which began our week in Lourdes...that of the mustard seed. How perfectly Bernadette, and the legacy of this place, reflects the meaning of that parable. In my own life, the mustard seed of love for this place was planted in my heart through my mother. And it was the love of several 14 year old children, such as Bernadette, that watered that seed when they conceived the idea of sending me here and brought it to fruition. I am deeply humbled and forever grateful to each of you for your love and generosity. I can't wait to see the edifice that springs forth in my own life from this seed, but it's growing, dear friends, it's growing!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Operation Lourdes Day Six

They say that the message of Lourdes may be summarized by four words... Poverty, Prayer, Penance, and Participation. Today we've experienced all four.

Temperatures are cool again today, so after a morning drizzle, it seemed a perfect day to tackle the outdoor Stations of the Cross. While Lourdes actually has three different Stations of the Cross, the main one follows a path up the Espelugues Mountain, just behind the Church, for about a mile to the Calvary. The Stations consist of life-sized dioramas in cast iron overlaid with bronze. As you can see from the pictures below, the Stations are exquisite in detail. After walking the somber and difficult path to Calvary, we were rewarded for our effort by a refreshingly cool breeze at the empty tomb.

The path down the mountain turned us out unexpectedly near the "piscines" which is where pilgrims go to bathe in the healing waters of the spring from the Grotto. It was on February 25, 1858, that Our Lady told Bernadette to "Go drink at the spring and wash yourself there." And since then, there have been long lines of "malades" and others waiting to be dipped in the water. Today, the line was surprisingly short. A little nervous about the protocol for the bath, I was fully prepared to skip the piscines altogether. But apparently, Mary had other plans! With no excuse remaining to bypass the bath, we waited less than ten minutes before being ushered into a changing area where you undress completely and are assisted into the bath. Humility...and healing. Healing for me and for all those heavy on my heart. Having just celebrated a fifteen year anniversary of being cancer-free, suffice it to say, I was overwhelmed with feeling for all those currently battling physical as well as spiritual or emotional illness. Words cannot describe the moment, nor will I try, but the grace was momentous and I will treasure that experience forever.

Walking out of the piscines, we stopped in the Adoration Chapel. If Mary's presence is alive in the Grotto, Christ's presence is even more palpable in that space. We silently prayed in that beautiful and reverent space while the rosary was being recited across the Gave before the Grotto. Its hard to describe how powerful prayer is here in Lourdes. And as I have promised, I have carried each of you in my heart every step of the way.

Because the act of drinking and washing with the water of the Grotto should be accompanied by the Way of the Cross, Confession, and Communion, we stopped by the Reconciliation Chapel before leaving the sanctuary. We found English speaking priests present and available for reconciliation and so were able to get yet another cleansing...this time an inner bath!

Poverty of spirit, Prayer from the heart, Penance of mind and body, and Participation in the life of the Church are the very heart of Mary's message to Bernadette at Lourdes. It's a call to life-long conversion, to a living-out of our Baptismal commitment. So today, I'd like to share with you this prayer given to me at the piscines...

God our Father,
It is through Mary, the most pure Virgin, that your Son has come to us, the Source of Living Water.

Help us to answer His call, in coming to purify ourselves at the Source of grace pouring from his heart, And of which this water is a sign and reminder, so that there may live in us the new creature, that we became in Baptism.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Operation Lourdes Day Five

It has been in the low 60s with a fine mist of rain most of the day. While it might sound less than ideal, the weather has actually accentuated the prayerful spirit of this holy place. In stark contrast to yesterday's deafening roar from the 800 or so motorcycles in the Grotto's annual motorcycle procession, the streets are relatively quiet. Most striking, however, is the still constant flow of pilgrims to the cave of Massabielle.

Words can't describe the emotion at the Grotto...seeing a wedding party enter the Grotto for a blessing on their marriage...young parents presenting their babies for Mary's blessing...older parents lovingly rubbing water from the cave on the face of their adult disabled child...and "malades" lifted from wheelchairs and carried into the Grotto to touch the walls of the cave and helped to make the sign of the cross before the statue of Mary. Rain does not deter such as these.

It's impossible not to be moved by the obvious love and devotion always on display at the Grotto. The rain does not interfere with the rosary which is recited everyday at 3:30. Old women and men can still be found on their knees, others in wheelchairs or even stretchers. And it does nothing to dampen the ever-present sense of peace and joy.

For us, it has been a perfect day to add our prayer to theirs. We have remembered each of you in prayer and are so grateful for the opportunity to serve as your emissaries before the Blessed Mother. Thanks to modern technology, even though I'm in a foreign country, I am thrilled to still be receiving prayer requests from so many friends and family and some I haven't heard from in years. And if the faith of these humble people is any indicator, I know that she is listening!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Operation Lourdes Day Four

Wanting to take advantage of the beautiful weather, we decided we would walk in the footsteps of St. Bernadette today. We headed toward the Grotto to begin our journey and were surprised to discover that Mass was being celebrated there. No doubt who our tour guide is as she literally led us to Christ at the start of our day!

After Mass, we headed out of the Grotto and into the town of Lourdes. Our first stop was the little Cachot where Bernadette lived at the time of the apparitions. To say it was a humble dwelling is quite the understatement. A former prison deemed too unsanitary for the worst of criminals, the little one room hovel was the Soubirous residence after the family fell on hard times. Before that, until Bernadette was ten years old, the family lived in the Boly Mill, where her father ran a successful business. That was our second stop on the walking tour.

Next we visited the Parish Church of the Sacred Heart which houses the baptismal font used for Bernadette on January 9, 1844, when she was only 2 days old. It still holds holy water so that pilgrims can dip their fingers into the bowl by which St. Bernadette became a child of God. A refreshing dip to be sure!

Last on our tour was the old hospice and school run by the Sisters of Nevers. That is where Bernadette made her First Holy Communion when she was 14. She boarded there for six years after the apparitions and before leaving for Nevers in 1866 to enter religious life. Nevers, France is where her body still lies incorrupt but, as that is about 700 kilometers away from Lourdes, it wasn't on the walking tour! Although we were told many more facts about the hospice, our tour guide spoke no English so those details were lost in translation!

We treated ourselves to a nice dinner where we sat outside overlooking the Gave River. We were entertained by a young boy who was fishing off the bridge. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see him reel in a big catch!

As the day draws to a close we go to bed exhausted...9 miles of walking... but hearts filled with many graces and deep love for Mary who continues to lead us deeper into her Son's heart!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Operation Lourdes Day Three

Today on this Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary we were able to join other pilgrims in praying the rosary in the Grotto. We were praying in English and they in French, but all with one heart. The diversity of the people here truly make it feel like a heaven on earth. So many beautiful smiling "malades" which are what the infirm pilgrims are called.

The Grotto marks the spot in the cave of the rock of Massabielle where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette eighteen times in 1858. Since then, millions of pilgrims have gathered there together in prayer. We walked into the cave and saw where Bernadette dug out the original spring from which healing waters continue to flow for the physical and spiritual blessings of the faithful. We were also able to pray in the very spot, marked in the pavement, where Bernadette prayed when she first saw the "beautiful lady".

Afterward we stopped in the Rosary Basilica which is built against the rock of the Grotto. Around the Church there are fifteen chapels dedicated to the mysteries of the rosary, beginning on the left, each adorned with spectacular mosaics depicting the individual mysteries. The fifteenth chapel contains mosaics which represent people involved with St. Bernadette and the apparitions. In the upper wall of the sanctuary there is a large mosaic of the Virgin Mary with outstretched arms bearing the inscription "Par Marie a Jesus" (through Mary to Jesus). What a blessing to be able to pray to Our Lady in such a place!

Finally, we concluded our day with an English mass being held in one of the countless chapels here in Lourdes. With rapidly dropping temperatures and an ominous looking sky, we grabbed some "take out" and hurried back to the hotel to enjoy a picnic on the balcony. And now from that same balcony as the sky grows dark, we are enjoying the sights and sounds of the several hundreds of pilgrims that are participating in a breathtaking candlelight procession which occurs every night at 9 pm. All the pilgrims carry candles and process from the Grotto toward the Rosary Basilica, reciting the rosary and singing Ave Maria, and honoring Mary with their song and prayer.

A day filled with wonder and delight! I still can't believe we are in this holy place all thanks to the love and generosity of my wonderful Class of 2012! Keep your own Light of Christ burning brightly dear friends! Continued prayers for each and every one of you...

Friday, June 15, 2012

Operation Lourdes Day Two

It has been a long day of travel! We arrived in London and were able to find our gate that would take us toToulouse, France...only to find it was running about an hour behind. Having fasted from sweets for 100 days in thanksgiving for this marvelous opportunity, I was ready to indulge in something decadent! We certainly had time on our hands. We found a little coffee shop that offered cappuccino and well as some amazing chocolate delights. And so the blessings began!

We boarded the plane and arrived in Toulouse thirty minutes before our train to Lourdes departed...we didn't make it to the train station on is a bad combination for you...too little sleep and not fluent in French! Yet, God was with us every step of the way! We somehow were able to communicate where we needed to go and were informed that we would have to wait until tomorrow. But as she was checking her screen, she seemed surprised to discover that another train was headed in the direction of Lourdes. We had fifteen minutes to spare! Divine Providence is a wonderful travel companion!

As we rode the train through the beautiful countryside and into the lush Pyrenees Mountains we could only rely on our faith that we were headed in the right direction. As much as we tried to remain calm and trust that Mary was with us every step of the of us couldn't help but feel a little anxious about whether or not we would find our hotel before the sun went down. You can guess who the nervous one was...

We reached Lourdes at 10:00 P.M. Lourdes time...4:00 P.M. Indy time. We thanked God once again and dropped into bed. Tomorrow, after what we hope to be a great night's sleep, we will journey to the Grotto! Until then, continue to pray for us as we continue to pray for you.