Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the apparition of the Virgin Mary to St. Bernadette Soubiroux, a French peasant girl, over 5 months in 1858. Mary called herself "The Immaculate Conception," confirming the Pope's proclamation of that dogma just four years earlier. She appeared near a cave and directed Bernadette inside, where Bernadette discovered a previously unknown spring.
As far as Marian apparitions go, Lourdes is fairly uncontroversial. There are no secret messages inspiring conspiracy theories, no railing against her as a symbol of colonialism (I won't even get into Medjugorje). About 5 million pilgrims flock there every year out of devotion and to seek healing from the fountain, which has reportedly worked countless miracles. That number swelled to 8 million last year for the 150th anniversary of the apparitions.
I've long been somewhat of a francophile going back to 4th grade when we did country reports and I chose France. I then took French for eight years and it was even my major for a few semesters in college. Furthermore, though my Catholic family wasn't particularly devout, the closest parish to us when I grew up was Our Lady of Lourdes in Chicago, an absolutely gorgeous church which I attended for a while as an adult after I embraced the faith of my Baptism. And spiritually, I owe a great deal to Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity (soon may she be canonized!) and St. Francis de Sales.
So you would be right to think that Lourdes, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception and St. Bernadette would hold a special place in my heart (though, to my shame, I still have not yet seen Song of Bernadette).
You might further think that, given the chance, there's no way I would pass up a chance to visit Lourdes -- to pray for my loved ones at the grotto and collect as much Lourdes water as I could carry.
And you'd be right, I would -- if I had another chance.
In the summer of 1994 I traveled to Paris for a week and then stayed two weeks in Tarbes, a small French town near the Pyrénées mountains, with a family who then sent their son (my "correspondent," Paul) to stay with my family in Chicago for three weeks -- all part of an annual exchange program my high school participated in.
One morning, Paul was arguing with his mom over breakfast (they argued in Spanish so I couldn't understand -- they were Spanish immigrants, the irony being that everybody in my extended family but me speaks Spanish). I had no idea what they were arguing about and finally Paul acquiesced to whatever she was asking and we were off on a road trip.
We took about a half hour trip further into the Pyrénées and when we got there Paul asked me if we had seen Versailles when we were in Paris. I said I had and he commented that Versailles was a very beautiful castle, a castle for a king and for diplomats. He said that I was now going to see un chateau très fort. And he was right, we visited a huge castle, parts of which date back to the 11th century. He showed me the narrow slits from which archers could fire without getting hit and pointed out various other nifty features. Then I think we ate lunch and headed home. On the return trip I remember thinking, I'll never get those three hours of my life back.
We got back to the house and the mother, with an eagerness I now find a bit tragic, asked me how the trip was. When I told her about the castle, she first looked puzzled, but then turned to Paul, who was avoiding her look. Another, much more furious argument immediately erupted. I'd had enough of this bizarre day, so I went to my room and let them fight it out.
The next day, I told some of the other students from my school about it, and one of them said something vague about a religious shrine and special water. It would be another 5 years until I discovered that I had been to Lourdes and had not visited any of the holy sites.
I don't exactly blame Paul. He and I got along fairly well (better, if I remember correctly, than any of my friends got along with their correspondents), and if he had told me we were going to a religious shrine, I probably would have talked him into taking me to the cafe where we used to drink demi-pêches (beer w/peach syrup) and check out girls.
Still, I'VE BEEN TO LOURDES WITHOUT KNOWING IT. Every February 11 I think about this fact and my heart breaks a little bit. I used to think about what would have happened if I'd had my conversion there in Lourdes instead of 4 years and a lot of stupid mistakes later. I'm a bit calmer about that now, but yet I can't help but lament that I WAS WITHIN 3/4 MILES OF THE GROTTO AND I WAS PISSED TO BE THERE.
So there, my friends, is my crappy Lourdes story. The story of an incurious dope who missed his chance to visit one of the holiest shrines in the world.