The obvious question remains: what happens when a pilgrim comes to Lourdes and doesn’t receive a healing? I’m reminded of a story told to me by a friend. A college student had traveled to Lourdes to pray for her mother who was dying of cancer. The young woman went to confession and attended mass. She brought back water from the spring. But after she returned her mother died, and in her bitterness the young woman lost both her mother and her faith.
Lourdes, like all genuine holy sites, is a place of power, and that power can be used for good or ill. It’s tempting to think of Lourdes as a magical talisman, a spot where all one has to do is collect some water and say a prayer and all will be well. Life doesn’t work like that, of course, even in places where the divine seems very close. It is a mystery why some receive healing at Lourdes and some don’t, no matter how deep and genuine their faith.
But what a pilgrimage to Lourdes can do is help us look deeply inside ourselves to find where our wounds are. In the long journey to the shrine we are given time to think and reflect on the state of our lives. This is where I have gone astray. This is where I need healing. And once we arrive, once we are standing shoulder to shoulder with all the other pilgrims who have journeyed from afar, we can feel a kinship that goes deeper than words, and experience a sense of peace that passes understanding.
That wise Irish priest gave me another clue to help understand the mystery of the shrine. “Lourdes is a place of paradox,” he told me. “The first paradox is that suffering people come here from all over the world, and yet this is not a place of sadness, but of joy. The second paradox is even greater: in the grotto, light never penetrates, but still a bright light shines forth from it.”
On my last day in Lourdes, I thought of that light often. Everywhere around me I could see candles, which are a central part of the pilgrim traditions at the shrine. People buy them to be burned at the grotto as a sign of their prayers and petitions. Candles are also held by pilgrims during the famous evening processions, when thousands of people hold them aloft as they sing hymns of praise. The ribbons of flickering light winding through the darkness are an apt metaphor for the beacon of hope that Lourdes provides to the world. Even on those gray February days of my visit, that light shone brightly in the faces of the pilgrims I met at Lourdes.