The summer of 2008 was to be a particularly busy season at Lourdes, as it marked the 150th anniversary year of the apparitions of Mary. I was assigned to work in the Piscines (Baths in French), where thousands have traveled to bathe in the same healing waters that have flowed freely since 1858. There are 17 baths in all, separated for men, women, and infants. The volunteers arrive at 8:15 in the morning; long lines of people begin forming as early as 6 a.m. We start each shift by praying decades of the rosary in English, French, and Spanish. The words of the Hail Mary in French — “Je vous salue, Marie, pleine de grâces” — still echo in my mind.
There is an otherworldly feeling within the walls of the Piscines. The entire experience was an emotional overload, to say the least, that ran the gamut from humility (witnessing an international devotion to Our Lady) to joy (being hugged and kissed by many pilgrims after their immersion into the water) to strife (carrying stretchers with paralyzed children into the baths.) The intensity of trying to lift a person properly while maintaining a reverent demeanor was only part of the challenge; oftentimes the other volunteers didn’t speak English. Words like si and oui became invaluable, as did gracias and merci. I found that nodding my head in obedience worked wonders, even when I didn’t understand what I was agreeing to. The rumor among many of the older generations was that the younger “Americanos” were lazy, so I worked even harder. I was lucky to be reprimanded only once — by a stern and bossy directress who slapped my hand and spoke very good English when she said, “I detest gum chewers!” I fought back tears and considered not going back the next day. Then, I met Annalise.
Annalise was my directress on the third day in the baths. As I walked towards piscine #4, Trident-free, I couldn’t believe that my boss for the day had spiked hair, a shade of red that seemed almost volcanic as it erupted into a cascade of purple bangs framing her round face. A music teacher from Holland, Annalise was in her mid-forties and spoke three languages. Her uncanny resemblance to Cyndi Lauper contrasted severely with the starched and solemn majority of directors, and it was admiration at first sight. Annalise embraced me as I walked into her room. When I confessed to her my fear of being “not holy,” and told her of my many screw-ups from the previous two days, she reassured me that soon I would have the job down. “I’m a sinner,” she said matter-of-factly. I smoke, I’m divorced, and sometimes I even have two boyfriends at a time: one for Monday through Friday, the other for weekends!” Instantly, I adored her. In fact, she became my hero. “I’m probably going to hell,” she said. I protested this, but Annalise just laughed. “I only volunteer at Lourdes two weeks a year; I sin the other fifty!” Because of her, I no longer felt like a misfit.
I also met Rosa, a beautiful Italian woman in her early fifties. When we met for the first time, there was an instant sense of recognition. Rosa was tall and thin, and had a meticulous yet gentle approach to the work. She wore glasses and navy blue Crocs, an endearing part of otherwise solemn attire. Rosa patiently mentored me in the proper way to lift pilgrims in and out of the water, going so far as to say “Prego!” after one difficult shift, even though I was still struggling. By the end of the day, it was as if we were family, despite her few words of English and my vague comprehension of Italian.
When I was assigned to work with her in the children’s baths on my last day, she clapped her hands and kissed me on both cheeks as I entered the room — as if we were teenage best friends who’d just found out they’d be in the same homeroom. To this day, I miss her. In my mind’s eye, I can see that August afternoon where, without words, we immersed infants into the Lourdes water. I would never again be the same after that.
At night, I think about Rosa, and the hundred or so other women who worked and prayed together in those stone baths as earnestly as soldiers in battle. I remember the faces of women from France, Italy, Spain, Croatia, Holland, and Ireland who at this moment are united by the bonds formed in those baths, and who right now are praying to the same Mother who led us there in the first place.
At the end of the week, we wrote down our prayer requests and left them in the Grotto, where they would be prayed over at mass and eventually burned.
“How then, would Mary receive them?” I ask. My roommate Karen, a young French teacher from California, answers, “Mary doesn’t need to read our requests. She already knows what’s in our hearts.” It was then I remembered Mary Poppins, the magical nanny, and how she’d received her children’s request even though the paper had been incinerated. My roommate thought this analogy was a bit far-fetched; truly, one can’t compare a Disney character with the Mother of God. Yet, I couldn’t help but see evidence of the miraculous in both. As children, we’re able to accept miracles without question, as Jane and Michael did. As adults, it’s much harder. Too often, the burden of proof becomes just that — a burden. One of the miracles I experienced in Lourdes was the realization that miracles are indeed possible, however rare and elusive they might seem.
In the aftermath of my pilgrimage, I tried to explain the miracles of Lourdes to people back home. It wasn’t easy. How can you explain that which is inexplicable? I decided to stick to the facts. I bought 75 postcards of Lourdes, and wrote the same three words on each: Mary was here…
Originally published May 6, 2009.