This is part of a series about our 2017 pilgrimage to Lourdes with the Order of Malta American Association. You may want to start with the first post, or see all the posts about our family’s Lourdes pilgrimage(s) in reverse chronological order.
I have been struggling to find the right approach to writing here about our week in Lourdes. Telling everything chronologically would require a book (in fact… it may eventually become one… shhhh). Telling the most meaningful insights outside the context of the moments that shaped them also rings hollow. So I’ve settled on a few favorite moments that stand alone.
Let’s begin at the ending, shall we? The Grotto.
On our last full day in Lourdes, Monday, we realized we hadn’t actually visited the inside of the Grotto with Oscar yet, though we had attended Mass there with all the Americans (pictured above). It wasn’t one of the things I had my heart set on, but it also seemed silly to have come all this way and not step into the cave of Massabielle itself, to see the actual spring that Bernadette dug and the niche where the “beautiful lady” stood. Our pod host and babysitter/auntie extraordinaire, Kim Gillespie, volunteered to walk us down in her full Malta dress regalia, a black cape with flashing red trim and bright white veil.
Sick pilgrims are known as Malades in Lourdes; Malades accompanied by the Order of Malta are treated like royalty. So we arrived at the grotto and found ourselves facing a line of pilgrims the length of a football field — ordinary tourists, sick pilgrims on their own, Knights and Dames of the Order of Malta waiting without Malades. Kim said, “Follow me,” and began walking past this line of people standing in the hot sun. About 10 yards from the entrance to the cave, there was an opening in the fence holding back the line. She whipped her cape around and ushered us through this open gate, with barely an “excuse me” to the people behind us. They stepped back without protest — in fact, with broad smiles on their faces. A Malade! And a baby Malade! By all means, step right in! I felt excruciatingly self-conscious but hey, when in Lourdes. The gate seemed to exist for exactly this reason.
I took Oscar out of his stroller and held him in front of me, facing outward. He was calm and alert, but as we neared the cave itself, he started bouncing up and down and waving his arms, making his signature gurgly cooing noises, “Ooooh! Ooooh!” We are supposed to discourage him from “flapping,” as his therapists call it, so I tried to hold his hands, but he kept bouncing. After a few more steps, we reached the wall of the cave, Oscar still flapping. He slapped both hands down on the cool rock, smoothed by millions of pilgrim hands, and instantly his entire body relaxed, his voice hushed. He froze as if he were hypnotized.
I nudged Todd, walking next to me, who looked at Oscar and smiled. “He just went still,” I murmured. “He’s so calm.” A few more steps brought us to rows upon rows of flowers and cards, cast upon the ground before a clear glass wall. Behind the wall, the spring that Bernadette had dug still flowed freely, lit beautifully as if glowing from within.
About two thirds of the way around, we reached the deepest recess of the cave, mossy and moist. Water drips from the ceiling and flows silently down the walls here. I leaned Oscar’s head far to the back to catch a few drops of the cold, clear water. They landed on his brow and I rubbed them in.
Throughout our slow walk, it felt like time had frozen and the crowds receded. It was hushed, cool, dim. I know we were in there with a throng of other people, but I felt the three of us were alone. No, but then not alone, either. The sense of being surrounded with motherly love and perfect care was so thick it was
almost palpable. Holiness was literally dripping from the ceiling. We stepped lightly and freely among its puddles.
Along the outer edge of the cave on the opposite side, we were now directly underneath the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes in the niche overhead, where the “beautiful lady” stood when she appeared to Bernadette. Oscar kept reaching out with both hands (and even both legs!), and I let him touch the wall as much as he wanted to. Even though the flow of pilgrims moved slowly, though, we eventually reached the end of the cave wall, where the grotto ends and the walkway exit began.
This time, when we took his hands off the wall, he began to protest. Loudly. As we began to walk down the exit path he fussed, and by the time we reached the walkway outside the cave he was shrieking and arching his back, leaning back toward the Grotto.
The change was as sudden and astonishing as the peaceful change at the beginning had been. Oscar so clearly registered the holiness of that place, the presence of our Blessed Mother. He grokked it in a way few people probably can, really, as he is mostly a creature of primitive sense and emotion, not blocked and tempered by reason. With his whole body (and considerable weight), in his fullest voice, he was shouting at us to take him back there, put him back in that place, bring him back to his Mother.
He and I were both in tears by the time we reached the end of the exit walkway. So many times in Lourdes, I thought I was walking into a situation with no expectations, only to find out that those expectations did exist when they were unexpectedly blown out of the water. I went to the Grotto for a pleasant springtime stroll and came out absolutely certain, for the first time in a year, that we are all of us loved completely, with a love beyond all measure.
I’m not sure I could have realized this myself without the raw experience of Oscar’s natural response to that love, coursing through him into my arms and into my body. And a little child shall lead them.
Updated to add: I realized the thing that is missing from this retelling is context for those of you who don’t know Oscar very well. Cognitively, he functions like a 3-6 month old baby. He goes quietly and complacently everywhere we go. A lot of his speech therapy has focused on encouraging him to communicate his preferences at all, which he does very subtly, with a glance or a small arm movement. If he cries, which he rarely does, it’s because he’s hungry or tired. So for him to express his wishes as we left the Grotto, so immediately and violently, was dramatically out of line with both his character and his abilities. – CW
Want more of the story? Read my other Lourdes 2017 posts here: