Sori, 18 July 2015

From the balcony of our little apartment in Liguria, if we look a little obliquely to the right we have a view of the sea.


Rather than admiring the sea, I invite readers to focus on the campanile of the village church, which we can see just behind the roof of the house in the foreground. At certain times – I haven’t really fixed in my mind when – the campanile’s bells ding out a rather out-of-tune version of the chorus to the Lourdes hymn: “Ave, Ave, Ave Maria. Ave, Ave, Ave Mari-i-a”. For the musically inclined, I attach a music sheet below with the music of the hymn (along with the lines to one of its many, many verses – sixty, I’m told). The music dinged out by the campanile is the last two bars.
image For those of my readers who are not familiar with the Lourdes hymn, it is the “national anthem”, if I can put it that way, of the pilgrim city of Lourdes, which is located in the lower Pyrenees in France. It is there that in 1858 a 14-year old girl of humble origin, by the name of Bernadeta Sobirós
claimed to have seen visions in a grotto by the side of the river of uo petito damizelo (“a small young lady”; Bernadeta spoke Gascon Occitan). She was to have 18 such visions in the grotto, between February and July. In the 16th vision, after repeatedly asking the small young lady who she was, the lady finally replied Qué soï era immaculado councepcioũ (“I am the Immaculate Conception”).

To cut a very long story short, after a good deal of initial skepticism the Catholic Church accepted Bernadeta’s visions as authentic visitations of the Virgin Mary. Pilgrimages began, cures of sick people from the spring water near the grotto were claimed, some of which were accepted by the Church as miraculous, the Lourdes hymn was penned in the 1870s, a large basilica was built
along with hospices for the sick, another even larger basilica was later built underground. The town itself got into the act, building hundreds of hotels to house the the ever growing number of visiting pilgrims – six million a year and counting; this, in a town of 15,000 inhabitants (as well, of course, as opening hundreds of shops selling religious tat).

Pilgrims flock to the grotto
the sick take baths in the grotto’s spring water
and everyone joins the daytime and evening processions


during which the Lourdes hymn, among many others, is sung.

Two summers running, 1972 and 1973, I was one of those pilgrims. My school organized an annual pilgrimage during the summer holidays, and we students were encouraged to take part. They needed our strength and youthfulness to move the sick from place to place: from grotto to baths, from baths to church, from church to hospice; to literally carry into the baths those who could not walk; to do the night watch in the hospices. And I think the sick were helped by being surrounded by the innate cheerfulness of our youth.
We were brancardiers, literally stretcher bearers, which I suppose was how the badly sick were moved around in the early days of Lourdes, although nowadays the sick are moved around in those nifty little wheeled chairs shown in the picture above. As a sign of our status, we wore “bretelles”, a sort of harness
It was a great honour to be a brancardier. Ordinary pilgrims would look at us admiringly as we walked past, something which at the age of 18 pleased me quite a bit: I was an Important Person! Of course, it meant that any sick person could call us over to help at any time and in any place: the price of fame …

My two pilgrimages were a very intense experience for me, something which I will remember all my life. At the time, I was relatively callow, finding it all great fun like these young people from other pilgrimages did.

But I find that it marked me deeply. I am unmoved by the miraculous side of Lourdes. I have been too steeped in the natural sciences to believe in miracles. These are simply something we do not yet understand but quite likely will when the sciences have advanced enough. No, to me the real miracle of Lourdes is that it is perhaps the only place on Earth where the sick are centre stage, not on the periphery of our societies which is where they are usually relegated. Lourdes is their place, the rest of us are just guests.
So readers can understand why I pause and listen every time I hear the village campanile ring out, even if tinnily, the chorus lines to the Lourdes hymn.


View of the campanile: my picture
Lourdes hymn music: http://gauterdo.com/ref/aa/ave.maria.de.lourdes.html
Bernadeta Sobirós: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernadette_Soubirous#/media/File:Bernadette_Soubirous.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernadette_Soubirous#Visions)
Lourdes basilica: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/33/Lourdes_Basilique_et_gave.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_Lourdes)
Lourdes grotto: https://bundytomadrid.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/grotto1.jpg (in https://bundytomadrid.wordpress.com/2011/08/24/day-2021-burgos-and-lourdes/)
The baths: http://media01.radiovaticana.va/imm/1_0_659979.JPG (in http://www.news.va/en/news/world-day-of-the-sick-a-privileged-moment-of-praye
Lourdes procession during the day: http://www.catholic-convert.com/wp-content/uploads/lourdes.jpg (in http://www.catholic-convert.com/blog/2013/07/30/stay-tuned-wednesday-teresa-tomeo-show-on-lourdes-and-my-video-tour-of-all-of-lourdes/)
Lourdes procession at night: https://fratres.files.wordpress.com/2008/01/procession_1024x768.jpg (in https://fratres.wordpress.com/2008/02/19/place-your-prayer-petitions-here-at-the-grotto-of-lourdes/comment-page-35/)
Brancardiers: http://www.jeune-catholique-moulins.cef.fr/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/L103946_HD0390545.jpg (in http://www.jeune-catholique-moulins.cef.fr/blog/category/lyceens/)
Young man with bretelles: http://pinguisite.chez.com/Image079.jpg (in http://pinguisite.chez.com/lourdes.html)
Brancardiers-2: http://pastorale.stemariebeaucamps.fr/sites/pastorale.stemariebeaucamps.fr/files/images/Lycée/Lourdes/P1030587.jpg (in http://pastorale.stemariebeaucamps.fr/?q=node/71)
Brancardiers-3: http://www.saintjo64.fr/saintjo64WP2013/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Lourdes2014-1.jpg (in http://www.saintjo64.fr/saintjo64WP2013/actualites/aumonerie/pelerinage-a-lourdes-2014/)
A pilgrimage: http://dioceseofmenevia.org/photos/129_sick_to_lourdes.jpg (in http://dioceseofmenevia.org/news/archive07.htm)