As I mentioned in my last post, Miriam and I spent all of Friday quarantined away from our malades and the rest of our team during our Lourdes pilgrimage.
We had excused ourselves during the middle of Thursday’s Opening Mass, watching our malades and other first-time pilgrims still checking out the situation around them with wonder and nervousness. The airport check-in, plane ride, shuttle bus, and hotel arrival had been a blur of small talk, logistics, and uncertainty, and that tension was still very present when we left Thursday evening.
Friday is a big, big day during the Lourdes Pilgrimage. You’ve been on the ground less than 24 hours, and everyone is still slightly jet-lagged and keyed up. In that grey fog of disorientation, many of the most important, anticipated, and spectacular events hit like a ton of bricks.
We spent Friday in a single room. The rest of the pilgrims spent the day visiting the baths, receiving the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, and attending the candlelight rosary procession. I joked that we were the cloister, but Miriam was really very sick this day. I only left the room a few times, to bring up her meals on a tray and to scour the streets quickly for hand sanitizer and French-equivalent saltines. (Check.) She hardly left her bed, listened to almost the entire audiobook of Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, and binge-watched YouTube. Together, we prayed a rosary and colored Spiritual Bouquet cards for our malades.
It was quiet and beautiful, but I can’t deny that there was some disappointment, too. I was disappointed that neither of us would get to receive Anointing of the Sick, which we each (for our own reasons) sorely needed. Miriam was disappointed that she wouldn’t be in the official team picture (eight-year-old girl problems). On the other hand, rarely do I get to spend an uninterrupted day with a single child. There was nothing for us to do and nowhere we had to be. I prayed all twenty mysteries of the rosary, a personal first. With our balcony door open, our day was festooned with the sound of church bells and the strains of singing and chanting from the Domain.
Saturday morning we were well enough to get back to it, and the morning was a flurry. Miriam received her First Holy Communion in the grotto (more on that soon!), and the malades and companions had a special lunch program where our attendance wasn’t required. So it wasn’t until Saturday afternoon’s Eucharistic procession, two full days into the pilgrimage, that we were fully reunited with our team and our malades.
The transformation between Thursday and Saturday was astonishing and unmistakable. The fractured pockets of small talk had vanished, and a community had formed in its place. Everyone’s eyes were brighter, their shoulders noticeably lower.
When we began, the malades’ uncertainty was evident on their faces. They had each been through profound suffering already, and they were weary from it. Some were expectant, some hopeful, some defensive, but all were at least a little unsure how far to trust these apparently well-meaning strangers. Our requests to assist them were often denied, or accepted with a laugh and a shake of the head.
“I can do that myself.”
“You don’t need to help me.”
“No thanks, I’m fine.”
For my part, at least, and possibly for others who were there as volunteers, there was uncertainty as well. I wanted to help, but not to offend. I wanted to serve, but not to force myself where I wasn’t wanted. I wanted to ease the way, but not to call painful attention to a disability.
When we returned Saturday afternoon, all of that was gone.
Physical, mental, or emotional pain lived under the blessing is experienced in ways radically different from physical, mental, or emotional pain lived under the curse.
– Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved
The malades’ brokenness had been transformed into wholeness and dignity. By allowing themselves to be put under the light of blessing and love, they had blossomed. I had witnessed — and experienced — this happening gradually the previous year, but this year the difference was stark and incredible, because I had missed several key phases of that process. No one was embarrassed or self-conscious about their needs. Those needs, those broken places, had been integrated fully into just another part of Who They Were and How They Were Made.
When I offered to carry someone’s plate to the table, she accepted freely. When I offered my arm to someone else with trouble walking, he took it. There was no more shame or false pride, only grateful acknowledgment that it is, in fact, a lovely thing to have help when you are struggling.
That’s an awfully hard thing for us to admit about our brokenness sometimes.
On the other hand, the volunteers had changed, too, becoming easier and less self-conscious in their service. One of my malades pointed out, “If someone drops a pen in Lourdes, three people bend down to pick it up. It’s just not an issue. Everyone is always looking for ways to help, and everyone’s needs get met. It’s never ‘someone else’s problem.'”
Miriam spent that Saturday afternoon in joyful service, carrying cups of Lourdes water up and down among the lines of voitures, distributing it to hot, thirsty pilgrims at the Eucharistic procession. It was the job she was born to do, chatting with strangers and making them comfortable. She had received her First Holy Communion just hours before, and I had never seen her more fully herself.
At the end of the pilgrimage, our team held one last blessing service for our malades. Everyone was invited to speak whatever was on his or her heart. Many of the malades spoke up to thank the team for their service, but I felt compelled to point back to them.
“I want to thank the malades and companions for being here. It takes a lot of courage and faith to come on a journey like this, but without you, we couldn’t have a pilgrimage at all. We talk about the Body of Christ, and maybe we are the hands, but you are the face. You malades have been Christ to us this week, and in allowing us to serve you, you have made us better Christians.”
What if we were able to see everyone who needed things from us as Christ, in our everyday lives? What if we were able to accept the things we need, gratefully and without guile or guilt, from those who ask to serve us? What if we lived our brokenness under the blessing?