The true miracle at Lourdes is the way in which sick people take centre stage. Lourdes functions because of the many volunteers who help look after the sick, with their chairs and stretchers, and take them down into the baths to the healing waters. There are specialist medical staff available but the volunteers, many of whom use their annual leave to do this work, ensure that those who are ill or disabled are the top priority. Many of them are young and say the encounter with people with illness and disabilities has changed their approach to life and helped them make friends with people they would otherwise never have met. As one of them said: “Lourdes teaches us that we are all equal in God’s eyes.” It’s rare to have that sense of people’s equal worth endorsed elsewhere. Bodies certainly matter in Lourdes, but so does the soul. In our culture, we pamper the body, whether through food or beauty products, but spirits seem to be withering from neglect; depression and anxiety are rife.
|Mum's 80th with my brothers|
For me, it was a bit daunting. I've had a troubled relationship with my faith over the years. Until I was 14 I was devout alter server. The combination of a Parish Priest who told me it was 'not the Churches job to run youth clubs and my discovery of Punk Rock, had made we switch my allegiances to Atheism and Humanism, a path both my elder brothers have chosen. From the age of 14 to 24, this was very much how I identified myself. When I was 24, I had severe health problems. A need to 'sort myself out' lead to me taking up Yoga. Under our Yoga teacher Joyce at the Flower Lane centre in Mill Hill, I found that the nihilism of Atheism couldn't supply satisfactory answers for my journey. I became aware of and connected with spirituality. The death of my Father in 1987, massively affected me and I found that I was at sea spiritually without a paddle. I went to mass a couple of times, but the experience seemed to confirm that the Church didn't provide the answers. I had developed an unshakeable belief that there was more to the universe than we could see and feel, and that the spirit persisted after death. However I couldn't really piece the jigsaw together. I was in this hiatus until 1995, when fate intervened yet again. My Brother in Law, Tim, had a horrific accident. He was knocked off a moped in Greece. He was not wearing helmet and suffered a massive brain injury, multiple fractures and had a blood pressure of almost zero in the ambulance.
When we heard, we assumed he'd die. As many people do, in times of trouble, I prayed. I promised God that if Tim survived, I'd go to mass every week that I realistically could. Sadly I thought that my prayer would be ignored. But Tim made a nigh on miraculous recovery. I felt obliged to keep up my side of the bargain. I did this with a heavy heart, but I love Tim so I felt I had no choice. Every time Tim had a setback, I'd get asked if I'd skipped mass. It became a standing joke. For the first year or so, I found it to be a rather difficult chore, but one I felt obligated to perform. Then a new Parish Priest arrived at Mill Hill. Father Perry Gildea turned up. He was a breath of fresh air. His sermons connected with me. They were interesting and thought provoking and I found that rather than analysing the previous days footie in my head for an hour, I was listening. He constantly reminded us of our duties to our neighbours, he explained biblical passages in a way that was relevant. For instance, I'd not realised until he explained, but the example of a Samaritan was used in the parable of the good Samaritan as they were despised in Palestine at the time. He then pointed out that 'Asylum seekers' were the modern Samaritans. It wasn't the waffly language I'd been so accustomed to. Perry was the chaplain for HCPT group 560 and his description of the week intrigued me. I felt that I should do it once.
|The view that greeted us each morning|
Several of our group were young people in wheelchairs, with quite debilitating conditions. After a couple of days, my mum started getting up and getting her own drinks. She told me that she'd realised how lucky she'd was. She'd only been struck down at the age of 75 and she could still walk, go to the toilet on her own and live independently. She started helping feed one of the girls who needed assistance at lunch and helping her with drinks. By the end of the week, the turnaround was remarkable. She was chatting and interacting fully with everyone. It was like a curtain had lifted. For me, I felt I had my mum back.
|Enjoying some refreshments|
In Catherine Pepinsters article in the Guardian, she talks about the tat on sale in the town, the wealth of the church on display in the Churches and Basilica's and tourist kitsch. It is sad she hasn't been, because if she had, she'd also talk about the friendships forged in the busy cafe's, the moments spent spotting trout on the bridge over the river Gave, which runs through the domain. This year my 19 year old son accompanied me. Whilst I can't drag him near the Church in Mill Hill, he's been going for the last ten years with our group. Watching him interact with the rest of the group makes me enormously proud. I've no idea if he is immersed in Love Island culture. What I do know is that, as he has been with our group on numerous occasions, he knows that there is another side of life. He was a helper for a grown man who needed help washing, dressing and shaving. Not quite the sort of holiday many teenagers choose, but one he's done for years. Whatever faith he has or hasn't (he doesn't discuss it with me), he has got something priceless from his association with our group. He's learned that we are all the same. Cut us and we bleed, tease us and we cry, rile us and we anger, but show us love and we will return it. Our group is not exclusively Catholic or even Christian. One year, my daughter bought a friend who is Jewish. He got as much out of it as anyone else. His Grandfather was delighted to hear that Father Perry thought he'd make a great Rabbi (although no signs of that yet). We've even had atheists in the group. They have 'got it'. There is no effort to convert anyone or change anyone. That isn't what Lourdes is about for us. The miracle for us is that such a diverse group of people can go away together and come back with a better appreciation of what is good in our life. Whatever you may or may not think, that is gift beyond comparison.
Catherine Pepinster asked whether Lourdes could cure 'Love Island Culture'. She's asked the wrong question for me. I don't think that the modern day Lourdes is about seeking miracle cures for anything. It is about sharing a journey and an experience and emerging from it a more whole person. There's no reason why you can't enjoy both Love Island and trip to Lourdes. I suspect I know which one will mean more to you in ten years time though.