In the early afternoon of Wednesday, February 27, I stepped out of my hotel and walked the half mile or so down winding streets, over the river and past the shops filled with religious paraphernalia, and into the complex that includes the Lourdes Grotto and the baths.
It’s no St. Peter’s Square, but it’s quite a place. And, unlike St. Peter’s, very quiet. This is the off season, I know, but these were pilgrims, not tourists. People seemed both relaxed and quietly purposeful.
The church that towers above the grotto was built on top of the slopping rock that forms it. There is something quite moving about seeing a man made structure inseparable from nature.
I sat for about 20 minutes on a front bench by the Grotto, watching people enter it and walk through it, many reaching out to touch the stone surfaces that are darkened by the oils of millions upon millions of human hands over the past 160 years.
It was moving, though I was not nearly as interested in relics as I was in the spiritual yearning those relics represent to people.
After taking it in for a time, I walked the 200 feet or so over to the long one story building housing the Lourdes baths.
The sign said the next session was at 2 p.m. There are ten or eleven formal entrances to the baths. That morning there were two entry doors open. One for women and one for men.
At 2 o’clock, a casually well dressed man stepped out and invited the 20 or so men waiting on benches to step forward, and ushered the first six inside. I was seventh, and took a seat on the long bench immediately outside the door.
Around eight or ten minutes later, the first man walked out, and the gatekeeper stepped out and gestured to me to follow him in. I took no more photos. You can Google it.
The man led me through a small sort of ante room, pulled open a curtain, and invited me into a bricked space with three chairs on either side, with hooks above them for clothing and a shelf running along the wall.
Five other men either sat undressed and waiting, or putting their clothes back on. No one but the gatekeeper spoke. He quietly asked me if this was my first time, and I nodded yes. So I assumed there are people who do this more than once. I was instructed to undress except for my shorts, and have a seat.
There was a passing thought of my relatively expensive sun glasses and iPhone and wallet; then I laughed and hung up my clothes and sat down. I was barefoot with my feet on the stone floor, but was surprised to find that, while it was cold, I was not uncomfortable.
There were a total of five men involved in the process, the “gatekeeper” and a freindly man between the outer door and the curtain covering the dressing cubicle, and behind the second curtain covering the pool area, three more, one who stood behind me and wrapped a wet thick black cloth wrap around me and tied it off at the waist.
I didn’t really give a second thought to my nakedness, as I was alternately focused on how I wanted to phrase my purpose for being there, and being a bit leery of the act of being immersed in what I’d heard was “ice cold” water.
Two men were there to assist me into and out of the water. One asked me what language I spoke, and I said English, he welcomed me in English.
I was asked to step onto the first stair of the pool, my feet in the water up to above my ankles. It was very cold, but not “icey” as I had dreaded. The three men- I’m not sure, prayed? recited?…. incantations that I had heard previously through the curtain as I waited my turn.
“What do you want to ask for,” one of them them asked me. I mistakenly began to speak it out loud, and he smiled and said, “No, to yourself.”
And so I did. There are so many ways I could have said it, so many concerns I could have voiced, and so many things I could have asked for. I chose a psalm I remembered from long ago.
“Lord, please cleanse and heal my heart, and renew my spirit,” I thought.
The two men on either side of me then led me down onto the next stair and into the pool, not quite waist deep, and had me hold onto one of two metal bars attached to the wall. Then they instructed me to kneel.
A little “ah wow!” escaped me as I settled into the cold water. Held by either arm, I was then pulled slowly back until I was under water except for the very top of my shoulders and head.
Strangely, it wasn’t nearly as shocking to my system as I had imagined; I had fantasized not being able to breathe. But it was cold enough that, though the men were speaking something, I forget what it was.
Less than two seconds later, I was pulled up and gently helped back up the steps.
The man who had wrapped the black cloth around me gestured for me to turn toward the wall away from them and take it off. I pulled on my boxers, turned to the three men who had assisted me and said quietly, “mercie beau coup.” “You’re very welcome” came the reply in English.
I was not and am not seeking a miracle by the simple act of being immersed in cold water, but rather seeking to solidify my committment to change and renewal I’ve been dealing with for sometime now. To turn away from a way of being that was laced with fear, anger and an arrogance that I could handle the problems of this life without guidance from my Creator, the One who gave me this life.
The expense and time of my travel to Lourdes was a sacrifice to something far more important that any trip; the act of humbling myself and enduring the cold immersion my way of underscoring my willingness to place my free will beneath my Creator’s.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, one of the giants of the Italian Renaissance, acknowledged his reliance on God in a sonnet, saying “My unassisted heart is barren clay, that of its native self can nothing feed.”
For so long I scorned my Creator’s assistance, wanting no part of the obligation and responsibility it entailed. And when I did acknowledge his power and glory, it was only to ask for something. Never to give anything.
Spanish poet Antonio Machado describes, I believe, the result of that way of being in his brief and profound poem, The Wind, One Brilliant Day.
Machado speaks of God (“the wind’) appearing one day and bestowing on him the gift of the smell of jasmine on his soul.
Then God asks for something in return.
“In return for the odor of my jasmine, I’d like all the odor of your roses,” God tells Machado.
And Machado can only reply that he can not give God what he asks for, because, “I have no roses; all the flowers in my garden are dead.”
God does not reply except to say, “Well then, I’ll take the withered petals and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.”
God then leaves Machado, who ends the poem in tears, asking himself, “What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”
I was entrusted with a garden. A wondrous place within me that thrilled at the beauty of this world. As a boy I heard the rustling of spirit ever moving through this physical existence.
But a long time ago, pain and fear overcame that spirit, and I thought it had whithered and died. But it hadn’t, just retreated to a place deep within me beyond my reach.
As my own inner garden whithered, I plodded on in the foolish conceit that I could handle things on my own, that I was in and of myself enough in this world, all the while ignoring the withered petals and yellow leaves scattered at my own feet.
For now I can only say that I’ve come to acknowledge that gardens can’t grow in barren clay. Last week in Lourdes, I humbly asked for God’s assistance with regrowing mine.
I wait to be asked what I can give in return.