The dismal drive up through the drizzly autumn weather on the winding mountain roads that led to Lourdes would have been enough to depress even the most upbeat band of cheerleaders. However, the sight that met their eyes when they took that final turn into the town was something to behold:
The Sanctuary, as the main church in Lourdes is called, is located above a shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who in 1858 appeared to a young Bernadette Soubirous, a rather poor fourteen year old miller’s daughter who at the time was out gathering firewood with companions that included her sister.
In front of the church there is a sizeable area, surrounded by poplar trees and benches, shaped a little like a miniature Hippodrome at which they disembarked from their bus. Due to their drive up having been pleasantly interrupted by a cheap yet excellent lunch in a dineresque restaurant called a “routier” it was by now dusk and it was rapidly getting darker by the minute as several hundred or possibly even thousands of the faithful had gathered to form a candlelight procession. Round and round the circuitous path they walked, in quite an orderly fashion and eventually the milling crowd began to wind its way down an embankment road that leads to the shrine which is located at the entrance to the grotto where the apparitions – all eighteen of them – had apparently taken place, just over a hundred years ago.
Although Ken was not of a very religious persuasion, he had respect and admiration for the people who were. His home life back in Rangoon had not necessarily included any regular attendance of chapel, communion services or Mass. Too wrapped up in their lives had his parents been to set him the kind of example to which he might have aspired.
Nevertheless, while growing up in the relative comfort of an expatriate middle class existence, his life had been dotted with episodes of adversity. So once in a while he would slip into St. John’s Catholic Church on Bo Sun Pet Street, not far from his home, whenever the opportunity arose. When facing any kind of personal struggle or even when just feeling somewhat sad at any time he would sit down quietly in a pew at the back and basically just spend a little time with Jesus. Quite often Mass would be in full swing, as it were, and this would dictate where he sat, away from the proceedings, which he felt he really ought not to involve himself in, out of respect for the good pious congregation that was going about its daily business of the Mass.
At other times it would be just him by himself, sitting alone as the only human figure in the room. He would gaze up at the figure of Christ hanging on the cross, which returned his gaze with the kind of eyes that seemed to follow him as he would get up and pace back and forth, moving around the church in a pensive, harrowed state, trying to deal with whatever it was that he was dealing with at the time. At first Jesus had appeared to him as an inanimate object – the wooden sculpture that it was, physically. But over time, he would find strength in him. He found it soothing for the soul to be able to just share what he was going through with someone who would simply listen and not try to take his troubles as some sort of problem that needed to be fixed – and fixed right now, as is the way among men.
This man was different. Indeed as he had been able to pick up from the Mass liturgy over the years, this was not a mere man.
A quick smirk crossed his face as he caught himself reflecting on this and ended as a long smile as it occurred to him really how much solace and true peace this had brought him. There were periods of his life when simply dropping by for short visits to St. John’s had given him the ability to get more grounded. His times in churches had calmed him down when the strife had depleted his energies. Sore and hollow he has sometimes entered the heavy wooden doors, the portals to these sanctuaries and as a kind of therapeutic effect on his worried soul, these visits of despair indeed had given him some kind of hold, some direction, and the strength to pick up the pieces, gather himself, and move on.
How ironic it was then, that after having actually met the great Mother Teresa herself back in Calcutta, that he was now once more drawn to a place of worship, of such optimism and hope, but most especially of faith. Holding their candles high, with such a sparkle of life in their eyes, the pilgrims circulated the path that wound round the piazza and strode with so much confidence, singing “Ave, Ave, Ave, Maria” repeatedly and ending in such sweet harmonies on these simple notes that it could not but uplift even the most sorry of doubters.
As if an unspoken instruction had been issued in advance, most of Ken’s group of travelers simply joined in and merged with the crowd. They let themselves be swept along in this mood of soothing and almost trance-like wandering, with the whole crowd finally gathering outside the grotto, some of them lining the steps that lead down from the church which was built atop the rocks that surround the grotto. Many were holding rosaries and saying prayers quietly as the majority of the crowd burst spontaneously into hymns that had been well practiced over many years, singing to the Blessed Mother, a large illuminated statue to whom stood erected at the entrance. They felt truly at peace as Mary was peacefully watching over the scene, with a benign inclination to the neck as if to bow meekly in a gesture of gratitude for such veneration.
All this walking was quite invigorating and made everyone hungry for supper, for which they walked on to one of the older, somewhat dilapidated hotels of the pilgrim resort. Due to their late arrival, as it was now past nine o’clock, the staff laid out a simple mixture of local fresh produce for them: carrots, celery, tomatoes, cucumbers and hearty, crusty baguettes. What was most enthralling were all of those soft gooey cheeses that the French are famous for, which were laid out at what the head waiter proudly referred to as “ze cheese station”. These kinds of delicious Brie and Camembert creations were nothing like one sees, even in a fine up-market delicatessen. These were purchased directly from local dairies and farmers. The sweet overpowering flavor coming from the ripeness of the fruit and vegetables and the combinations of some sweet pears and tart apples was washed down with glassfuls of local wine. Added to that were handfuls of walnuts and mouthfuls of bread ripped off the nearest baguette, dipped in the soft cheeses, adorned with a local spicy sausage reminiscent of the salami they had enjoyed over the past week or so in Italy.
As they dined on this second simple repast of the day, Lynn leant forward and looking Ken directly in the eye, so intently that it made him pay full attention, she told him that she wanted to go to morning Mass in the Basilica the next day, an idea that was actually not all unappealing to him. So after such a hearty rather picnic-like supper they withdrew straight to bed in order to gather their strength for the next days’ exertions, which after morning Mass was to include a short hike up into the Pyrenean Mountains.
And so it was that at nine o’clock the next morning, not having needed much in the way of breakfast beyond a cup of coffee and maybe some orange juice that they arrived at the main entrance to the basilica, having walked there from their hotel which, although as already noted was of the rather shabby chic variety, did have a very good central location within walking distance to just about everything in town.
Some of the artistic components of this enthrallingly beautiful building of the basilica would have impressed even a layperson, not necessarily an expert in matters of church architecture, but what seemed to just stop many a pilgrim right in their tracks, striding purposefully on their way to Mass, was an array of crutches and walking paraphernalia, even Zimmer frames hanging on nails and hooks on the wall. These had accumulated over the years and considering this was the 103rd anniversary year of the apparitions. When he remarked on this, Lynn explained to him that she had read that theologians had surmised that God would grant physical and spiritual healing only to those who truly believed in him in the depths of their hearts, but that the healing was something that would come at so unexpected a time, that the person receiving the physical healing would be lifted up even higher in their spiritual healing.
At this he felt a bit left out, but immediately realized that it should not be for a the reason of such a simple notion as feeling excluded that people ought to become followers of the Catholic Church. It was not as if he had any apparition of his own, but he realized that if he wanted to spend any amount of his life with Lynn, he would have to make this kind of thing a part of his life. He wondered if he was even qualified to become a Catholic. Surely there would be some sort of instruction or training that was needed.
He was arrested in mid-thought by the splendor and beauty of the building, as they moved through the entrance and on into the main room. A plaque informed them that just a few years ago the oval Basilica of Pope Pius the Tenth had been consecrated to commemorate and celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the first apparition. This was one of the largest rooms he had ever been in, he was not sure if even the magnificent splendor of the Hagia Sofia could rival this. It was not so much any impressive costly marble or fancy facets of the room that moved him so much as the sheer fervor with which everything was being done. This was Ken’s first ever experience of what was clearly a High Mass. The priest would pause ceremoniously in the middle of the proceedings to spoon more of the lit embers onto the incense, which the altar boys swung around the room so very generously, enshrouding everything in swaths of smoke that to Ken symbolized the Holy Spirit, though later he found out the rising incense is actually meant to represent the prayers of the faithful rising to Heaven.
He respectfully did not partake of the communion wafers or of the wine that he had learnt are only to be dispensed to the faithful in good standing with the Church.
The homily was delivered in several languages, which extended the duration of the Mass to almost two hours. But this was not a problem, as the attendees did not seem to want to leave, quite content to remain far beyond the time when the ceremonial part of the event had concluded. In what could be described as waves of wellbeing they were filled with the warmth of the good messages passed on to them by the priests who clearly felt at home both in English and French, as well as German and a few languages Ken did not recognize. The incense that had filled even this large cavernous hall began to subside, hanging in the air for an eternity before finally dissipating. The organist played various fugues by Bach and some very mesmerizing melodies by lesser known composers, which gave this room a magical mood of sheer bliss and contentment second to none.
As they slowly, pensively filed out of the depths of the building, the brilliant sunshine that met them outside was almost as exhilarating as what they had experienced within. Ken had not felt such elation for a long time. Who would have thought that he actually would find this kind of joy in a little country town nestled in the mountains of the Hautes-Pyrenees….
At the agreed time of eleven o’clock they were picked up near the church for a spectacular scenic sunny hour’s drive to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, which also known as Somport. So engrossed had the conversations on board the bus been, that when they were getting off at their destination, Ken looked around their mountainous surroundings and was delighted to get one of Lynn’s loudest snorts of laughter when he said: “Some port, this is….” with emphasis on the word “port”. After a light lunch they were to ascent the first mile or two of the most popular way to walk the route of pilgrimage known as The Way of St. James, or as the locals referred to it “El camino” or just simply “The Way”.
Not having packed anything in the way of thermal wear for the majority of the group the hike amounted to not much more than a brisk walk up the hill, but quite soon they felt how special this trail was, not just judging by the intoxicating upbeat mood of the fellow hikers whose walk was going to be one of up to 500 miles over the next few weeks, but also by the sheer beauty of their surroundings, craggy rocks jutting up out of the rough terrain, the steepness of which took their breath away very quickly. This had them looking for a place to rest and regain their composure and a perfect solution presented itself to them in the form of a chalet-style café off to the side of the trail from which they could see for miles around. It had a small terrace jutting out over the slope with a view back over the dark green rolling French Basque piedmont and valleys below. Fortunately the sun persisted as the weather was markedly improved over the rain they had driven through up to Lourdes the day before.
After taking it all in for much of the afternoon, some of their co-travelers updating their travelogues or simply reading quietly with their feet dangling off the deck, our two lovebirds sat in the back corner of the terrace, lapping up the remainder of the day’s sunshine. Before long, however, the coolness of the late autumn evening set in and they returned down the steep slope, into the village of Saint Jean. They soon forgot the chill that had belayed the air as they mastered the downhill drop which was indeed so steep that the jarring to their knees was almost painful, and their thighs felt like they were going to explode from the intense burning sensation that this return hike was giving them.
Fortunately they had not ventured too far up the hill, so before long they were back on the bus, leaving just as night was beginning to fall for the drive to Biarritz, to arrive in the dark of night and literally pour themselves into bed on board the Orca, exhausted from the last few days’ exertions.