Robert Ward

Chapter 4
Pilgrim, where is your happiness? Lourdes

Pilgrim, where is your happiness? LourdesNo visit to Lourdes is complete without a bath. But Lourdes is not a hot spring, so banish any notions of happy pilgrims hymning as they paddle in Jacuzzis. The pilgrims here bathe one at a time with about a minute at their disposal to savor the experience. Not that many want to stay in the water longer: Lourdes’ spring-fed baths are normally a bracing sixteen degrees centigrade (if they go below thirteen, an alarm sounds and they are shut down). A bath in Lourdes is an austere act of faith and one that offers profound hope to the sick. Every bather has heard of cases like that of Evasio Ganora. Diagnosed with terminal Hodgkin’s disease, he found the waters so invigorating that after his bath he waved off his stretcher-bearers, walked back to the hospital and set to work at once helping invalids. His sickness and all its symptoms had abruptly, and permanently, vanished.

The baths are housed in a long, featureless concrete pavilion, with separate entrances for men and women. There are five baths for men, ten for the women, who come in greater numbers and require more attention in dressing and undressing. Entering from the men’s end, the pilgrim sees five curtained-off bath stalls. An attendant shows him behind a curtain to a changing area, and instructs him to strip down to his underwear and say his prayers. In the seats lined up against the wall, other men in their underwear are already waiting their turn like clients in a barber shop.

When a pilgrim’s time comes, he passes through the next curtain into the holy of holies. This is a room walled with simple grey stone. High on the wall that faces the pilgrim there is a statue of the Virgin. In the center of the room, three slippery steps down, is an oblong trough of waist-deep water. This is the bath. It is long, but not wide, for space is allowed on either side for the attendants who will guide the pilgrim in.

Before the pilgrim can take the plunge, however, an attendant steers him into a corner and instructs him to finish disrobing. (Thanks to my mornings in the baths, I can rattle off the phrase, “Please take off your underwear” in four languages.) The attendant holds up a large blue towel to shield the eyes of the Virgin from the pilgrim’s nakedness, then wraps it snugly around the pilgrim’s mid-section. “Always above the stomach of the fat man!” was my first lesson in this skill, as it is most embarrassing for a pilgrim to lose his towel while being immersed.

The attendant next directs the pilgrim to the top of the steps, where he is joined by another helper. The pilgrim pauses to recite the Hail Mary. Any of the attendants who speak his language pray along with him or, if the pilgrim isn’t Catholic or hasn’t had much practice lately, fill in for him. Then the pilgrim makes his personal petitions to Our Lady of Lourdes.

There is something deeply touching, and often comical, in these intimate moments. First, there is the physical closeness: wrapping that cold, damp towel around the pilgrim’s naked body, taking him by the hand and leading him to the steps. Then, occasionally, the privilege of listening in on his prayers. It happened several times that I ran into a bather later in the streets of Lourdes. As we had first met under rather different circumstances, mutual recognition was never immediate. But when it came, it was accompanied by a warm smile.

I remember one Spanish man, a slight, chatty fellow with a thick beard. When I asked him if he had anything to ask of the Virgin, he told me that, yes, he wanted to pray for the health of his wife and his parents, and also his brother, who hadn’t been so well lately, and there was also the trouble he'd been having with his leg since the car accident... I kept motioning with my head towards the Virgin to remind him where his prayers were supposed to be directed, but he seemed quite content to entrust them all with me. Another confiding soul, when I asked him what language he preferred, answered, “French. Although actually I was not born in France, I am from Algeria. In fact, I was born a Muslim. But in life, you know, things happen...” Then there was the ancient French priest, a tiny, frail-looking creature with jutting ribs, who stood before the image of the Virgin, joined his hands together, and cried his eyes out for five minutes as we all stood by in silence.

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