It seems odd from here but last week I attended Mass for the first time in 25 years. I must have gotten
caught up in all the excitement of a service at Lourdes. Or, maybe it was that I drank the delicious water from the grotto. Or maybe it was that fat Spanish kid with the stroller who wouldn’t stop whining about the simple act of walking.
“Good lord kid, there aren’t that many stairs,” I told him. His parents frowned. The kid looked at my like I was a huge jerk with a very bad accent.
I felt bad. So I went to church in the grotto.
The story of Saint Bernadette Soubirous (one of the incorrupt) is, perhaps, the most famous of all the Virgin Mary apparitions. A severely asthmatic 14-year old girl with a one-eyed father, living in immense poverty in a muddy valley of troglodytes and under the watch of a nightmarish citadel stumbles into a cave. She sees something odd, rolls about in the mud, gets yelled at and questioned by governmental misogynists (initially the church wanted nothing to do with this)…..and boom, hotels spring up everywhere and gigantic tourist buses import 6 million visitors a year.
That would be the abbreviated version.
Bernadette saw something in the cave that day along the roiling Gave de Pau. “Ou pétito damisèla”, she said, in the local Bearese dialect. She described a small, thin girl in white clothing who pointed at the ground and conjured up a productive little spring. Over the next six months the little lady returned eighteen times.
This may come as a shock but the damisela Bernadette saw may not have been the Virgin Mary.
Nope. The damisela was a fairy. Think Tinker Bell.
The demoiselles were shy forest fairies clad in white. They lived in caves and grottos and small, mossy holes in the rock. Springs appeared where they pointed a finger and flowers appeared at their feet. They hated the rich and often took violent opposition at the abuse of the poor.
When a local paper wrote that Bernadette had seen “a lady”, the girl demurred. When a painter and then a sculptor later depicted the “damisèla” as a full-grown woman draped in finery, Bernadette was furious. What she had seen was something vastly different.
Bernadette wasn’t the first to claim an apparition. The horrors wrought on the French countryside (not to mention the cities) by industrialization served as the catalyst for the avalanche of unsanctioned (by the Church anyway) canonizations throughout the land and the appearance of offerings at the nave of little chapels tucked into cracks in the rock or at the base of large, ancient stones placed by giants. That Mary is the mediatrix with more powers than any other Saint goes without question. Mary dots the countryside. To the everyday French peasant, she was more powerful than God. She was better than God in fact, because she actually offered hope. God was capricious, mean and petty. Jesus? Who was that? Some guy. Only the Virgin mattered – and she was related to Tink.
That she would suddenly show up so often at these dark villages at the base of the Pyrenees is another thing. That the line between so-called pagan religions and Catholicism was very blurred should come as a surprise to no one. Bernadette surely saw no distinction between a protective forest fairy and the ethereal mother of Jesus – just as long as what she saw was portrayed with honesty.
And it never was, of course. What I saw everywhere in Lourdes was a representation of The Virgin as a full-figured, mature, motherly apparition in robes of blue and white, crinolines and perhaps a corset. She was for sale, alongside every other possible Catholic trinket one could imagine, in the oddly un-offensive neon-signed trinket shops that line the streets of the old city.
I came on a warm spring morning when the sky was blue and clear and the streets surprisingly empty. I was thankful to have avoided the crowds of tens of thousands that often cram the city. That said, I have to admit a desire to one day rent one of the thousands of hotel rooms and watch the multitudes from a secure balcony with a bottle of Cap Martin in hand.
The guard at the gate to the sanctuary basilica smiled, all the nuns smiled, the pilgrims and tourists smiled, the janitors smiled and I shared coffee with an Algerian man who wanted to know why I hadn’t seen the apparition of the Virgin Mary in Clearwater, Florida.
“I just don’t know,” I told him.
“Isn’t New Mexico close to Florida?”
Mass was in Latin and nearly a dozen strangers hugged me when it came time to offer peace. A gathering of tourists watched us go through the rituals. Some kids ran down the path by the river to the grassy open space reserved for large
masses. At the fountains, faithful from Thailand, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Canada, California, Japan and Boliva took turns drinking and collecting the blessed water. We exchanged cameras and all took pictures of one another. A group of boys from Mexico passed by with giant white offering candles. A woman sat on a bench crying.
Later, the citadel museum was closed so I prowled the back streets and talked to some workers fixing a road. A grinning, thin café owner, with a smoker’s voice crafted a “special” cheese and ham sandwich for me without charge.
“You’re my only customer,” she said. And that was true.