I don’t believe in God, or even in myself really (that’s the mid-twenties crisis). Yet somehow, I haven’t been able to resist packing bibles and venturing year after year on a pilgrimage with an association that takes 800 Catholics and non-Catholics of all shapes and sizes; tiny ladies in their nineties, entire families, even teenage boys. We all go to Lourdes, France; one of the world’s most important sites of Catholic tourism on the count of 150 years of miracle healings, as well as reports of the mother of God popping round a few times.
But even nay-sayers like myself get something out of this religious theme-park (though we keep our nay-saying on the down-low). Are we in it for the frumpy nurse uniforms? I guess we like it really, just like subfusc. The night life? It’s just a meek, French town with a population of around 10,000. To scoff at people who do believe? We don’t do that of course, but I do wonder; in this day and age, just how many of the 5000,000 people who come each season really buy the miracle stuff? They are certainly buying rosary beads in bulk and all manner of glittery catholic tat in the local gift-shops; it might be reasonable to think Lourdes has become a moneymaking machine, preying (and praying) upon the faithful for the past 150 years. There have only been four ‘confirmed cures’ in the past forty years and such cases have been on the decrease whilst the progress of modern medical science has been on the increase. How is the Lourdes experience still going?
Even at the risk of fewer and fewer miracles, the Church has welcomed science to its vigorous process for assessing miracle healings; Their miracle detectives pore over all candidate’s medical records , interview their doctors and gather testimonies from peers and family about their illness and recovery before even thinking about the m-word. Then they welcome MRI scans and any other radiological tricks. Of course things that seemed like miracles just a few decades ago are now completely de-bunkable, and certain phenomena, like cancer cell spontaneous elimination (in response to certain genes being switched on and off), still look miraculous today. But perhaps by the next century there won’t be anything left that defies explanation, will people still go to Lourdes a hundred years from now? It’s surprising they’re still going at the moment, even though the last affirmed cure was in 1999. The only miracle I’m personally interested in, is what takes me to Lourdes year after year: seeing people who are less-able genuinely coming first.
For half of my stay in Lourdes, I volunteer to push people in wheelchairs from their hotels to wherever they want to go. Sometimes they want to do ‘the obligatory church thing,’ sometimes they just want to go get a cognac or meet friends. Perhaps they want to buy cheaper fags while they’re in France without their spouses knowing. For the other half of my stay, I work in a kind of hotel called the ‘Acceuil,’ (‘welcome’ in French) which looks and behaves like a hospital. It accommodates those who need a bit more care. Volunteers are expected to do everything from washing plates to washing the guests themselves, and it’s the most richly rewarding experience I’ve ever had. It’s meant I’ve made friends with the kinds of people, who I will have to admit, I sometimes forgot were people before I started going to Lourdes.
I have worked in a home before in the UK and some of the staff around me were mostly switched firmly on autopilot, to the point of giving their patients the silent treatment. The beauty of Lourdes is that there’s no room or reason for volunteers to become jaded; you’re taking the handicapped away for just a week or two, and you have every intention of making it the highlight of their year. If you are disabled, there is comfort and solidarity to be found in meeting others, or if you are a regular then you will finally have the opportunity to catch up with friends for whom travel in the UK is sadly precluded; the volunteers are there to help them onto the planes and buses, doctors and nurses are also on hand. Many have been coming to Lourdes since they were young and fit; back when they were the ones pushing people around in wheelchairs. Going to Lourdes prompts us to engage with the circle of life, and consequently we treat people the way we hope to be treated when our bodies give in. Also, where else can you see cheeky teen lads put their banter to one side and bravely step up to the plate when a fellow pilgrim is in need.
Whether or not the glow in the dark Mary statues is your cup of tea, we’re all united by having every intention of making sure less-able bodied people have a much needed break from their daily lives, where they’re experience is too often reduced to check-boxes confirming a place is ‘wheelchair friendly.’