Last fall, needing a break from the regular distractions and hustle of daily life, I jumped on a plane and hightailed it to Paris with a fabulous friend. I was excited about the trip. However, I remembered thinking that I hadn’t been on a religious retreat in more than seven years. I had gone through a lot of transition — multiple cross-country moves, new jobs, earning my graduate degree, and lots of love gained and lost. So, clearly, I was overdue. When I discovered how easy it was to get to Lourdes from Paris, I decided that it would be great to get some QT at a place where the Blessed Mother had been — where she appeared to St. Bernadette and where miracles have officially been recognized by the Catholic Church by praying “ad Jesum per Mariam” (to Jesus through Mary).
Getting to Lourdes from Paris by train was easy. But as a type A extrovert who had never traveled alone, my mind went a mile a minute and I was nervous. Who would I talk to? What would I do? And, what if some crazy person decided to mug me? It was at that moment I realized — I was on a retreat. And, it was time to let go and let God do His work. As soon as I finally did just that, the Blessed Mother provided for me in so many ways — from caring for the silly minutiae that made traveling by myself in a foreign country uncomfortable to the big details that I was discerning. During this time, and even today, I referred to our Blessed Mother as the most awesome micromanager.
When I walked onto the grounds at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, I was struck by how lovely everything was. There’s no way to possibly detail the beauty of the grounds juxtaposed against the mountains that surround the Sanctuary. I was inspired by all of the pilgrims — praying, lighting candles, and practicing their faith so reverently and openly. And, while everyone was there with their own intention, each pilgrim gladly contributed to being a part of an evolving, make-shift community at Lourdes. Two examples where this community really came alive were during the Marian and Blessed Sacrament processions at midday and in the evening. I especially loved watching the Marian procession at night from the overlook — seeing the candles of hundreds of people bob and weave, hearing prayers and songs in all languages, and watching everyone follow a beautiful statue of Mary still brings happiness to my heart.
In typical type A fashion, I definitely had plans for how I would spend my time. But, those plans dissolved into what my blessed “Micromanager” designed as my new itinerary. My original time-sensitive agenda dissolved into an even better version of the pilgrimage that I had planned for myself. On the first day I was there, I wasn’t aware of the schedule of English language masses. I thought I had missed the only opportunity to go to mass in English. So, I decided to go to adoration and attend an Italian language mass later that day. Twenty minutes later, I was joined by English-speaking pilgrims from the Middle East and their parish priest. He ended up celebrating mass in English, and I was able to join with them — what a wonderful treat!
Also, at the time I went to Lourdes, I was struggling with whether or not I had feelings for a friend who currently works in Stuttgart. As such, my blessed Micromanager allowed for me to meet two young men also from Stuttgart who took me under their wing. To be honest, I almost accidentally set one of them on fire during the candlelight processional. (I’m known for being a klutz.) Anyhow, once we made it past that snafu, we talked, prayed, and over beers on my last evening there, they gave me clarity on what I needed to do with that situation. I took their advice and it was absolutely the best resolution that could’ve occurred.
Of course, also on the Blessed Mother’s itinerary was some much needed quiet time by myself in prayer. By opening myself to the Holy Spirit during this pilgrimage, many of my random thoughts in prayer were confirmed, and some were even directly answered. Specifically, my friend, Kim, who had traveled to Paris with me, asked me to pray for the soul of her father who had recently passed away. I did so in the Grotto late in the evening. My prayer was that her Father be at peace and at home in heaven. As I was praying, I felt this peace, and in my mind, I had no doubt that he definitely WAS at home. A second later, my phone vibrated and it was a text from Kim letting me know that she arrived back to her home in New York City. I immediately picked up the phone and told her about my prayer and let her know she wasn’t the only one who was at home. We both teared up.
Also on the itinerary were things I didn’t actually plan or want to do, at all. I met two women from Australia — a mother and her daughter who suffered an accident that left her in a wheelchair. They came to Lourdes seeking healing for her legs so that she could walk again. They actually are still friends to this day and became travel companions throughout the rest of my time in France.
Up until this point, I had actually planned not to participate in the piscine’s (aka holy baths). I wasn’t sick, and I didn’t think I had enough trouble in my life to merit or need the healing waters of Lourdes. I was just there to be on retreat and to pray. But Lisette’s mom told me to come along. So, of course, I obliged.
The VIPs of Lourdes are those that are sick and in need of healing. So, while I thought I was obliging in order to help, the wonderful volunteers helped Lisette out of her wheelchair and into the piscines with ease. As I stood there, I knew in my heart that I was led there for a reason, and I knew what I had to do.
Going into the piscine was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. The water was ridiculously cold, but felt aerated and soft. And the volunteers that help you are so modest and are there to pray with you. As I submerged into the bath, I felt the Blessed Mother’s love. Though there was a crowd of women waiting to go into the piscine, and the whole process of going into the water was only just a few minutes, the moment was incredibly personal and I felt like I had been there for a long time — like no one else was there with me except the Blessed Mother. When I emerged, I was chilled, but the water quickly evaporated — I didn’t even need a towel to dry off. (Apparently, no one does — this water is holy, indeed!) I was recharged and energized and I left feeling free and completely alive. It was like the peace and freedom of baptism and the ultimate confession wrapped into one.
The beauty of this pilgrimage for me was that I was able to take all that fills up my daily life, leave it behind for a period of time, and use that time to listen and to be still. Honestly, once I made the commitment to spend time in pilgrimage, the Blessed Mother stepped in to organize and help me. I gained so much grace, direction, and answers. In the hustle of daily life, sometimes it’s difficult to really find space to listen with your heart. As I type this, I can think of about half a dozen times since I’ve been back that I didn’t take time and, instead, quickly rushed to the wrong decision, got angry with something or someone, or got frustrated with God’s timing. The time you spend on a pilgrimage is truly the best assimilation for what a good spiritual life calls us to do every day — to seek God continuously and everywhere, not just in formal places like church. I know, easier said than done. But, this pilgrimage for me was the best way to remember that. And, that experience continues to fortify me to this day.