Lured to Lourdes


Travelling through the Lot and Gironde in divine weather, unseasonal for early September, was a pleasure. A landscape of vineyards, sunflowers and fruit trees, the panorama from the terrace of the gite, Moulin de Vent, where we dined alfresco and drank the produce of the region as the sunset on most evenings of our vacation.

Driving south to Carcassonne the road signs warned of slow lanes for heavy vehicles, ‘vehicules lourds’ while the destinations offered Toulouse, Tarbes, and Lourdes, where a heavy presence of Catholic pilgrims can be found in all seasons. This Mecca, oops, Lourdes is the worlds most visited shrine for miracle seekers able bodied or disabled. For the blind, the deaf and dumb, crippled or gullible, this is the place.

Las Vegas has bling and a promise of riches in this life, Lourdes offers miracles and blessed bling to ease the passage through this ‘valley of tears’ to the heavenly home: Glow-in-the-dark icons, alabaster statues, water bottle virgins, Grotto mints, onyx rosary beads, Monopoly, featuring the Stations of the Cross, and Holy Water Utility. Oh yes I’ve been there.

My favourite aunt, who was crippled from childhood, was a regular visitor to the shrine and the healing promise, returning home with a treasure chest of Catholic paraphernalia but no miracles. Maybe her devilish sense of fun, gambling for pennies and sneaking cigarettes with us kids, and telling fireside stories of cloven-hoofed strangers while puffing on a mother-of-pearl cigarette holder barred her from divine intercession.

So my visit to Lourdes, though brief, was in solidarity with my aunt whom I knew had crossed these streets and been wheeled along the Boulevard de Grotte to the Basilica and the revered site. The abiding image that replays when I think of that visit is the single file line moving slo-mo, passing into the Grotto and each to a man, woman, and child raising a hand to touch the rock.

Animism is alive and well in the Catholic Canon.

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And it came to pass…

ray.3Holy Mary Mother of God.

Whoa there Little Donkey. Mother of God? What? If Mary is the Mother of God and Jesus is the son of God that makes Mary Jesus’ Granny, right?

Remember the virgin birth.

Oh yes. Single, probably teenage, girl hanging out with an older man, as was the norm and still is in parts of the middle age of politicians and ageing celebs, is in the family way. A myth is born or a mytheth. Young Mary has had a visitation from an angel. The story catches fire and spreads throughout the region while Joe, the cuckold, gets off his ass, puts Mary on and runs for cover with his expectant charge. Of they go down Egypt way and you know the rest or will by the end of the month.

In fact most of us were versed in this mythology from a very early age and remarkably those in not so early age still believe it. Burning Bush, angels, parting the sea, walking on water, loaves and fish, Satan, and of course, for the dyslexic, Santa. It is not exclusive to Christianity that God or the gods should have sexual congress with a human, Greek and Roman gods were regulars at human seduction.

The Virgin Mary © is a trademark of the Catholic Church, all copyrights reserved. There are several venues where the trade is carried out to full financial advantage with the possibility of a miracle, which would be a miracle. Lourdes in France, Fatima in Portugal, and Medjugorie in Bosnia, where there is a glowing statue alert at the moment.

While driving east on the E80 from Bayonne to Tarbes the road signs displayed Lourdes. Now being of good Catholic stock the sign evoked memories of bluebells in May to adorn the Virgins icon, bought by my crippled aunt on a visit to Lourdes for a miracle lost in the post. I was drawn to Lourdes like a moth to a light bulb. This was a must see. My partner, of good protestant stock, bought garlic and a crucifix to ward of the wiles of the Roman Church.

Not so much a miracle as a revelation. Lourdes is a supermarket for all things Marian, from candles, statues, rosary beads, right down to bags of mints adorned with an image of the Virgin, for real suckers.

The main attraction of course is La Grotte where the apparition of the Virgin to three peasant children took place. The approach, down Bd de la Grotte and across the Gave du Pau, is dominated by the Basilica, which sits high upon the rock. There is a constant flow of pilgrims, able bodied and disabled, moving in both directions. The flow eventually leads to the main attraction, La Grotte.

Along the way there are opportunities to fill your plastic Queen of Heaven bottle, c/w screw lid crown, or demijohn purchased from one of the many outlets, with ‘holy water’ from an array of taps (faucets) at the gable of the Basilica. That alone would seem a miracle to one from sub Saharan Africa. Candles by the thousand illuminate an arena of bowed and praying supplicants who have emerged from La Grotte. I sat to watch those who approached in file to visit this haloed place. Each without hesitation reached to touch the rock as they entered.

Again I was assailed by teachings from the Church, like shrapnel embedded in a skirmish, an old war wound. The first commandment, a core of judeo-christian belief, proscribes idolatry, yet here the rock itself was sacred, or they were chipping away for souvenirs.

‘Ray never missed a marketing opportunity’ with apologies to Gerrit van Honhorst