Lourdes: 160 years of healing
Greg Daly writes of how Lourdes surprised two famous Catholic writers
At Lourdes in May 1936, just a few weeks before his death, G.K. Chesterton commented of the crowds at the torchlight procession: “This is the only real League of Nations.”
The English author had in fact been reluctant to visit Lourdes, perhaps – according to Maisie Ward, author of his authorised biography – because he was worried the Pyreanean shrine might be spoiled for him by too much commercialism and tackiness, although he had previously opined that such things show the wisdom of the Church.
“The whole thing is so terrific that if people did not have these let-downs they would go mad,” he had said.
In the end he found that the shrine was not especially commercial, but was, rather, a good place for ordinary people like himself, and somewhere he found fascinating. Over the course of a few days there he attended the torchlight procession three times, and likewise visited the Grotto three times, as well as joining in a procession of the Blessed Sacrament and blessing of the sick.
On the way back to England he seemed, in the main, better than he had been, and according to his secretary Dorothy Collins responded to her request “Gilbert, sing us something” by singing – badly – and joking as she drove 150 miles through the lanes of France.
Chesterton was not the only 20th-Century Catholic literary giant to have been wary of visiting Lourdes, only to be surprised by the shrine on his arrival.
In 1957, one Katie Semmes a cousin of Flannery O’Connor’s mother, heard of a Lourdes Centennial pilgrimage being organised for the following year by the diocese of Savannah, Georgia, and knowing of Flannery’s worsening lupus and the shrine’s reputation for cures, insisted on paying for both Flannery and her mother to go.
The trip grew with the planning, as over 17 days it grew set to include stops in London, Dublin, Paris, Barcelona, Rome and Lisbon, as well as Lourdes itself, such that Flannery observed to a friend that “by my calculations we should see more airports than shrines”.
However, a deterioration in her hip that appeared to be due to her lupus led to the trip being scaled back to a rather gentler schedule even if, as she put it: “It is cousin Katie’s end-all and be-all that I get to Lourdes and if I am dead upon arrival that’s too bad but I still have to get there.”
Her wry writing masked a genuine gratitude to Katie, but she her retained mixed feelings about the trip ahead of time, writing to her friend Betty Hester in December 1957, for example: “About the Lourdes business. I am going as a pilgrim, not a patient. I will not be taking any bath. I am one of those people who could die for his religion easier than take a bath for it.”
Adding that she suspected that “if you’ve seen one shrine you’ve seen them all” and that “aside from penance being a good thing for us, I’m sure religion can be served as well at home”, she returned to the subject of the baths.
“If there were any danger of my having to take one, I would not go. I don’t think I’d mind washing in somebody else’s blood…but the lack of privacy would be what I couldn’t stand,” she wrote. “This is neither right nor holy of me but it is what it is.”
In the end, however, she seems to have enjoyed her visit despite herself, writing to her friend Ashley Brown: “Lourdes is a beautiful little village pockmarked with religious junk shops.
“The heavy hand of the prelate smacks down on this free enterprise at the gates of the grotto, however. This is always full of peasants milling around and of the sick being wheeled in on stretched. Mauriac wrote somewhere that the religious-goods stores were the devil’s answer there to the Virgin Mary. Anyway, it’s apparent that the devil has a good deal to answer to.”
She visited the baths on the morning of May 2, largely at the instigation of Sally Fitzgerald, wife of the poet Robert Fitzgerald and in time Flannery’s editor and the pre-eminent scholar of her work.
“No credit is owing to me for taking the bath at Lourdes,” Flannery wrote. “Sally went along with us and she was determined that I take it and gave me no peace. She made the arrangements. If she hadn’t been there, the arrangements would never have been made. She has a hyper-thyroid moral imagination. If I hadn’t taken it, she said it would have been a failure to cooperate with grace and me, seeing myself plagued in the future by a bad conscience, took it.”
Sally later noted that she was sure Flannery would later feel she had disappointed the elderly Katie if she returned home without taking the waters, and that she suspected the reason Flannery had asked for her company on the pilgrimage was to ensure she took part.
“She dreaded the possibility of cure in those circumstances; I didn’t think she had to worry. She was annoyed, briefly, but her irritation faded,” she wrote.
Writing to her friend Elizabeth Bishop a few weeks later, Flannery wrote that Lourdes had not been as bad as she feared.
“Somebody told me the miracle at Lourdes is that there are no epidemics and I found this to be the truth. Apparently nobody catches anything. The water in the baths is changed once a day, regardless of how many people … get into it,” she wrote, pointing out that it had been clean when she joined “a long line of peasants” in visited the baths early in the morning.
“They passed around a thermos bottle of Lourdes water and everybody had a drink out of the top. I had a nasty cold so I figured I left more germs than I took away,” she continued. “The sack you take the bath in is the same one the person before you took off, regardless of what ailed him. At least there are no society trappings along with the medieval hygiene. I saw nothing but peasants and was very conscious of the distinct odour of the crowd. The supernatural is a fact there but it displaces nothing natural; except maybe those germs.”
Afterwards, however, she would later confide that while in the grotto, “I prayed there for the novel I was working on, not for my bones, which I care about less”.
When she finally sent off her manuscript for The Violent Bear It Away she wrote that she attributed her completion of this to Lourdes far more than she did her surprisingly recalcifying bones; in time, though, she would wonder if the latter remarkable though sadly short-lived improvement was also a fruit of Lourdes.
Whether it was due to Lourdes or somebody’s prayers, she later remarked, it was “something to be grateful to the same source for”.