Destinations

Winter Is Coming: Why You Should Consider A Pilgrimage to Lourdes

In search of miracles amid winter in Lourdes.
IMAGE LOUIE B. LOCSIN
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A deep sense of quiet fell over me as I looked out the taxi window at the snow-covered scene. The stillness was overwhelming. The houses seemed uninhabited; no smoke curled up from any chimney. It was as if a white blanket had been thrown over the village, putting everyone in a deep sleep. This was not the same Lourdes I visited over 30 years ago.

When my sister heard that my husband and I were spending the holidays in Barcelona, she insisted we make a side trip to Lourdes, France, for the then-150th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady to the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous. “You simply have to go now. After all, you were named after Our Lady of Lourdes,” my sister said, driving the last nail of guilt on my conscience.

To my great surprise, my husband, who is not prayerful and yet takes the power of prayer for granted, as though it were a birthright, readily agreed. He was thinking the same thing. There were a few things he wanted and Lourdes was the best place to get them. His only misgiving was how to get there with the least discomfort.


Making the travel connection from Barcelona to Lourdes was neither easy nor cheap. If we went by rail, we would be traveling almost an entire day, including three transfers and some almost-impossible-to-catch train schedules. If we went by car, we would have to hire a car and a driver because my husband and I do not trust each other’s driving.

I was shocked at the quoted prices of car and driver, coupling that with European toll fees. It would be cheaper to fly, even business class. But I didn’t want to waste time going in and out of airports, flying to Paris and still ending up taking the train to Lourdes.

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We were meant to see Lourdes this way, stark and silent, devoid of distractions, in the unrelieved whiteness and piercing cold, with nothing but the place itself to work in us whatever is its “miracle.”

To her credit, our travel agent never stopped trying to find a solution. This “search” was still going on two weeks before our scheduled departure. Not one to give up either, I emailed the consulate in Barcelona and the embassy in France. But everything remained up in the air. Doubt started to set in. Maybe we were not meant to go to Lourdes; perhaps it was crazy to cross the Pyrenees in the middle of winter, an extraordinarily harsh one at that. My husband said that Walter Benjamin had tried to do that and died. I didn’t ask who Walter was. My husband tends to come up with names and I never know if they are real people.

Still, I persisted (my father called me Jack when I was young, after the Jack built hollow block, because of my hardheadedness). I could not miss the 150th anniversary of my patron saint. Faith, hope, and a good travel agent finally found the best way to Lourdes.


Ryanair. Twice a week it leaves London Stansted Airport for Pau, a small city at the foot of the mountains where Henri Bourbon, founder of the royal line who traded the Protestant religion for the Catholic faith for the French crown, was born. Pau was a forty-five-minute flight from London. Luckily we had London in our itinerary.

So we flew out of Barcelona to Munich and up to London and rested there for two days in subzero weather—starting with a friend’s apartment that she had closed almost a month before. It was a good preparation for minus-15 degrees in Lourdes.

Daily Mass—in French—is held here. My husband and I, with frozen hands and numbed feet, joined these “cold warriors” twice a day.

At the Pau airport, a taxi took us to our hotel, which was across the train station, not too far from the town center and a short walk to the Lourdes Grotto. The Best Western Beausejour seemed the only hotel with a couple of stars to its name open in the whole town.

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It was midday, yet it seemed like the place was just waking up. The hotels were shuttered, their doorways dark. Cars parked by the roadside had four inches of fluffy snow on their roofs like marshmallow icing.

After checking in, we added more layers to our already bundled selves and stepped out. We didn’t have a clue as to where anything was and what there was to do. And judging from the blonde lady with a mild British accent who manned both the front desk and the adjacent restaurant, we wouldn’t be getting many suggestions from others in the town.

We had a singular objective—the Grotto. There is a point in our lives when we feel the need to step on the “brakes” and ask and answer questions repeatedly set aside for a less busy time. Maybe we keep busy so we don’t have to ask and to know. But when we get into the category of “been there, done that,” there is no putting off the questions: “What then, and what now?”

There is yoga, of course, or transcendental meditation; there are a variety of things on offer out there but my husband, never pious or prayerful, nonetheless always says, “There is a Catholic way of doing spiritual exercises, and even if it is not as fashionable, at least you get graces when you do it that way.” You never know when he is serious or just being his usual sarcastic self. Still, when the nagging feeling hits you, then it’s time to shut yourself off from the noise and bustle and turn to the silence that can only be had in prayer.

It is astonishing that Lourdes makes no bold claims of sure miracles. It is all just offered, take it as you find it, and make of it what you will.

So off we went, my husband and I, to look for the Grotto, like the Magi, except that they followed a star while we followed the arrows that said “Grotto.”

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You can tell, from the shops along the way selling identical plastic bottles, rosaries and religious icons, that you are on the right path. Most of the shops were closed for the winter, and that was a blessing, less distraction. Down at the end of the road we glimpsed the Grotto. 


Crossing a stone bridge spanning an energetic river, we stood before two huge iron gates flung open as if extending a big welcome. Beyond them was a big rotunda, all covered with snow; a modest cross stood in the center. At a distance was the back of a tall white statue of the Crowned Virgin, whose white robes complemented the cloudless bright blue sky. She faced the Basilica of the Rosary with the gold mosaic of its façade sparkling in the nippy winter air.

Still, when the nagging feeling hits you, then it’s time to shut yourself off from the noise and bustle and turn to the silence that can only be had in prayer.

The roads leading to the Basilica were lined with bare trees whose thin branches had a piping of snow that sometimes showered a passerby below.

Treading carefully so as not to slip on the ice and end up truly in need of healing, we made our way to the rear of the Basilica. Our attention was focused on the need to take the most careful steps, completely cutting off past cares and anything else but the place and the purpose for which we had come.

Water taps lined a granite wall. Here flowed water coming from the spring that St. Bernadette had dug up. Hands and faces must be washed before praying. The cold bit into our wet hands, making the act of washing them more meaningful. Some people filled gallon containers, others the small hollow plastic statues of Our Lady of Lourdes. The Grotto, otherwise known as Massabielle, is so simple as if no art could add to its sanctity. It is a modest-sized and shallow cave. The spring (covered by thick glass) dug by St. Bernadette is behind the altar. Some people thumbed their rosary beads with their gloves off in the freezing cold; one stood unselfconsciously with outstretched arms; still, others knelt on the cold, wet stone. Some ran their hands across the rock face, worn smooth by millions of hands, stopping now and then to press their lips against the icy rock which seemed to cry from the condensation of warm breath. A cleft above it housed a modest statue of Our Lady.

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Despite the cold, a handful of people prayed in the open area where we had taken our seats after brushing off the snow. Daily Mass—in French—is held here. My husband and I, with frozen hands and numbed feet, joined these “cold warriors” twice a day.

We were lucky. Despite the small number of visitors, the Baths were open. We sat on long benches while waiting for the doors to open. Women sat outside one door, men outside another. We women were a strange mix of nationalities—an African lady and her five-year-old daughter, a young French woman who started to sing songs to entertain the little girl, some Spanish matrons, and myself, a Chinese/Japanese-looking Filipina. Here we all were, assisted by young and old French volunteers, some of us unable to understand their language but all of us feeling right at home in the same faith.

A deep sense of quiet fell over me as I looked out the taxi window at the snow-covered scene. The stillness was overwhelming. The houses seemed uninhabited; no smoke curled up from any chimney.

My husband had come with hotel towels, but these were pulled off him when he tried to dry himself after emerging from the bath so he wouldn’t catch a cold. “That’s part of the miracle,” an old Irish priest told him testily. “It dries by itself in seconds.”

Every morning my husband and I would rush to attend the English Mass at the Chapelle Saint-Gabrielle, a tiny chapel by the side of the Basilica. A priest from South Africa (though he looked Irish) gave the most inspiring homilies. It may have been the intimacy of the chapel or the fact that we knew all those present had left a warm bed to be there, but whatever the reason, his Masses put us in the presence of God.

It is astonishing that Lourdes makes no bold claims of sure miracles. It is all just offered, take it as you find it, and make of it what you will.

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People thought it weird for us to go to Lourdes when only skiers go to the Pyrenees. It was strange to come to a town almost empty of inhabitants. It is stranger still that we went when there were no huge candlelight rosary or eucharistic processions, when no sick people were being wheeled by the hundreds to the Baths, no mass of devotees coming from all parts of the world, chanting prayers—all the spectacular things that multiply the fervor and cut deep the moving experience in our minds. That was the Lourdes I saw thirty years ago.

But I think this was the best way for us at this time. We were meant to see Lourdes this way, stark and silent, devoid of distractions, in the unrelieved whiteness and piercing cold, with nothing but the place itself to work in us whatever is its “miracle.”

This story was originally published in the April 2009 issue of Town&Country.

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