When I told a friend who has traveled many times to France that I was planning to visit Lourdes, her reaction was both surprised and a bit concerned. “Lourdes?” she asked. “You might find it….off-putting.”
My friend, it turns out, had toured Lourdes some twenty years before. The visit had not gone well. Her most vivid memory, she said, was of the rows of shops selling every conceivable sort of Virgin Mary-themed merchandise. “Are you sure you want to go there?” she asked, clearly not wanting me to be disappointed on my first visit to a country she loves.
I assured her that I did indeed want to visit Lourdes. “Well, perhaps I would view it differently today,” she said. “I went to Lourdes when I was still estranged from the Church. Maybe it would be different if I went back now.”
As I journeyed to Lourdes a few weeks later, I often thought of her words. I prepared myself to be disappointed by this holy site, the most famous healing shrine in the world. But what I found was not disappointing—rather, Lourdes to me was intriguing, at times perplexing, and always fascinating. Years later, my thoughts often drift back to that small town touched by forces much larger than itself. Like many of the pilgrims who journey to the shrine, I continue to ponder the mystery of Lourdes.