For many Catholics, Marian apparition sites are tightly linked to the idea of healing. The places where Mary came to Earth are usually viewed as holy ground, charged with the promise of heavenly power and divine intervention. Nowhere is this more true than at Lourdes, France, where in 1858 Mary appeared repeatedly to Bernadette Soubirous, a young peasant girl. At Mary’s instruction, Bernadette dug in the dirt, uncovering a spring. Thousands of medical miracles have since been attributed to the spring’s healing waters; of these cures, sixty-seven have been officially recognized as miracles by the church. With 5 million visitors a year, Lourdes is one of the largest pilgrimage sites in the world.
It’s also a site that prompts reflection about what, exactly, it means to be healed. Not everyone who bathes in the springs at Lourdes ends up being physically cured. Though modern pilgrims recognize this fact, they come nonetheless, as if challenging the notion that there is only one kind of healing. Is there something in the mere act of making the journey that offers spiritual comfort? Does the acceptance of one’s illness or infirmity constitute its own kind of miracle? Apart from physical cures, what are the other, more subtle kinds of healing that Lourdes provides?
For Andrea, an eating disorder activist, Lourdes has been a life-giving place on many levels. The thirty-five-year-old was raised Catholic, and grew up with admiration for the lovely image of Mary that was celebrated during May processions. “I remember she was so beautiful that it made you feel all warm inside,” she says. In high school she drifted away from the church, only to reconnect with it when she was nineteen. With the help of a mentor and supportive church community, she “fell in love” with her faith and with Jesus, though she struggled to truly understand Mary. At this time, Andrea was also in the grips of another, more severe struggle: She was battling anorexia, an eating disorder that would prove very difficult to overcome.
In the summer of 2000, Andrea’s good friend Dianna was dying of cancer, and made a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Andrea explains that Dianna was clearly hoping for a miracle. “I, on the other hand, prayed the novenas for her along with the parish, my rosary in hand, with great skepticism,” she recalls. “I always felt people created what they wanted to see and hear within the great apparitions of Mary.” Returning home from Lourdes, Dianna was still very ill, but Andrea was inspired to see how graciously she accepted her inevitable death. Dianna also brought a special message for Andrea. “She told me that as she was at Lourdes in the baths, she had a vision of me working there. She then made me promise that I go minister in her name after she passed,” recalls Andrea. “I wanted only to bring her peace at this time, and agreed.”
For nearly a year after Dianna’s death, Andrea dragged her feet about keeping the promise. Finally, the nudging of a priest friend inspired her to make it happen. Friends donated frequent-flier miles, and Andrea raised funds and arranged lodging at a convent. The logistics of the trip were complicated, but Andrea was motivated by the memory of the support that Dianna had shown her during her struggles with anorexia, the disorder that was still a part of Andrea’s life.
When Andrea arrived in Lourdes, she immediately understood why Dianna had been so adamant that she make the trip. “It was a magnificently special place,” Andrea says. “My first day as I walked along the river path covered in leaves towards the grotto, I could feel a peace I never knew.” Her work assisting the pilgrims at the grotto spring would also be a new experience, not just for Andrea but for the Lourdes community: It was the first time a woman had been placed in that particular job. “I knew right away this meant something, and I knew Dianna was by my side.”
Andrea vividly remembers the sights and sounds of her first day at the grotto. “For two and a half hours I watched people come and pray before Mary. I helped them walk through this ‘cave’ of sorts, paying their respects, their sincere gratitude. They stared up at the statue with glistening eyes, they passed their worn rosary beads along the water-dripped rock, and they carried their candles and mumbled in their own foreign tongues, ‘Thank you, dear Lady, thank you.'” Witnessing this devotion, Andrea felt the distance between herself and Mary slip away. “I began to pray to Mary from that day forward,” she says. “I asked her questions, sitting in silence for the answers. I asked others about their devotion. I reread all the stories of her in the Bible. I found a friend.”
It was upon returning from Lourdes that Andrea began her own journey of healing. It wasn’t easy; years of anorexia had taken a physical and emotional toll. But the power of Lourdes, and the memory of the friend who brought her there, helped sustain her. “I had a severe crash at one point, and upon returning to Lourdes had some serious prayer time and reflection with Our Lady,” Andrea explains. The fruit of this experience was her decision to embrace the philosophy that Dianna had always believed: “Fight. Fight for life. Choose life. Live life … because you are loved.” Andrea now returns to Lourdes yearly, a pilgrimage that helps her reconnect with Mary’s strength and inspires her to pattern her own life after that fierce resolve. “This woman, this amazing, strong woman had a voice,” she says. “I promised myself to always use my voice.”
Though Dianna’s pilgrimage to Lourdes did not result in her own physical recovery, it opened a pathway for Andrea’s healing journey. Now, in her work as an activist speaking out on eating disorders, Andrea is using her voice to reach others. She knows that Mary is supporting her in her own struggles, just as she supports millions of other people on their unique journeys. “Mary is many things to many people. That is what is so special about her,” she reflects. “She is what she is meant to be for each person. This is why she has so many titles. This is why we never stop asking the great questions about her.” Andrea explains that she does not feel called to visit any other apparition sites; Lourdes was all it took for her to connect with Mary. “I know who she is for me, and this is what we each need to discover,” she says. “Our faith journey is no one else’s, but our very own.”