A lost soul in Lourdes

Having rejected the Catholic teachings of his childhood, Frank Partridge thought a visit to Lourdes would leave him cold. He was wrong

Lourdes has long occupied a place in my imagination. I grew up in the shadow of a monastery and attended a Benedictine school. The main pilgrimage site in France featured strongly in my Catholic education. But although it was possible to locate Lourdes on the map, somehow – like Samarkand or Shangri-La – it did not seem to belong to the real world.

Lourdes has long occupied a place in my imagination. I grew up in the shadow of a monastery and attended a Benedictine school. The main pilgrimage site in France featured strongly in my Catholic education. But although it was possible to locate Lourdes on the map, somehow – like Samarkand or Shangri-La – it did not seem to belong to the real world.

Over the years, I came to visualise a rather grim retreat, tucked away in a corner of south-west France, far from the sun, sea and sybaritic pleasures of the Côte d'Azur. A last-chance saloon for the devout and the dying. A place of piety and incense; nuns and wheelchairs; haunting, echoing chants and responses. Bowed, veiled heads and tightly closed eyes, willing the impossible. Aged bodies supine and genuflecting. The just-perceptible movement of lips in silent prayer. Rosary beads in such abundance that, if laid end to end, would surely reach from earth to Paradise. And water, of course. Not just any water, but the holy water pilgrims brought back in cheap, plastic bottles, which sometimes filled the font at the entrance to the church at home in Scotland.

As for the miracles, I had been as doubting as Thomas, the sceptical disciple who needed to touch Christ's wounds before he would believe that the Resurrection had really happened. I knew that the vast majority of hopeless cases left Lourdes just as they arrived. Consoled, yes, and better prepared for death – but still uncured. And considering that up to five million people a year had been visiting the shrine for a century or more, was it not to be expected that a few dozen of the halt and lame had been able to throw away their crutches after taking the waters? Surely this was no more than a statistical blip, that you could put down to the sheer determination of the human spirit?

Visiting the pretty Pyrenean hill-town last week, as it shook off winter to prepare for another Easter invasion, I discovered how wrong I had been. My geographical knowledge was accurate; the rest turned out to be prejudice – a projection of my own, private difficulties with the Catholic Church, which had frightened me through childhood, and from whose smothering embrace I had wriggled away at the earliest possible opportunity.

The monks who taught me had left little doubt that the pathway to salvation is strewn with boulders, and the Christian bookshop on the road running downhill from commercial Lourdes to the shrine itself chillingly reminded me of this. Prominently displayed in the window – and on special offer – was a book entitled Christianity and the Question of Sin. Ah yes, the S-word. The concept that we are all born with a blot on our copybook that can only be cleansed with redemption. A religious culture in which fear of a wrathful, vengeful God is the basis for good behaviour. The point, as it happened, over which I parted company with the keepers of the monastery.

The guidebooks had prepared me for something just as difficult to stomach. All contained horror stories about the high-season congestion – for every one of the 15,000 home-grown inhabitants, there are an astounding 30,000 visitors per year. One writer described the overwhelming mélange of slow-moving people and tacky souvenir shops as an "inferno"; Emile Zola regarded the main basilica as "ugly enough to make one cry".

The critics do have a point. The most imposing building in the main shopping street is a branch of McDonald's. The majority of the hotels, of which there are more than anywhere in France except Paris, reflect the fact that people come here for gratification in the next world rather than this. Some of the merchandise spilling on to the pavement from a thousand shops and stalls is among the most tasteless known to man: seashell grottos with halos of fairy lights; three-dimensional Virgins whose eyes appear to follow you as you try to duck out of their sight; holograms that magically transubstantiate from bearded Jesus to his smooth-skinned mother and back again; and, the pièce de résistance, St Bernadette toaster-covers.

Travelling in March, before the weather warms up and the schools bus in, spares you the crowds, affording you the time and space to visit the dozen sites that make up the full "Lourdes Experience", as some travel agents would have it, as if describing a theme park or an English breakfast.

One essential is the Boly Mill, where the miller's daughter Bernadette Soubiroux came into the world; another, the vast underground basilica that can house 25,000 worshippers at a sitting. It was built in the centenary year of 1958, when the town was in danger of being overwhelmed by miracle-seekers.

But it was at the grotto itself that I saw, if not the light, at least a small break in the clouds. The cave is framed by a dramatic, overhanging rock, from which emerges the spring of clear water unearthed by Bernadette in 1858, under instruction from a beautiful apparition of the Virgin Mary. The visions, I remembered from RE classes, were accompanied by a warm breeze that caressed her face but failed to disturb the leaves on the trees.

Thinking I had grown out of such things, I set out on the short walk taken by legions before me, falling into line behind three stern, whiskery nuns and a Spanish lady armed with four giant candles bought at the unmanned stall on the approach road to the grotto. The clockwise circuit of the cave passes under a line slung across the rock, from which hangs a single crutch, perhaps tossed there by a pilgrim who found that he had no further need of it. In the prescribed manner, I ran my left hand along the rock-face as I approached the spring, and paused for a moment at the water-source itself, set into paving stones and protected by glass. Flowers and other offeringswere stacked around it: one bouquet was marked simply "Merci". The simple beauty of the grotto did not prepare me for the shock that was to come. A short distance away were the bath-houses, where the disabled go to have their entire bodies immersed in the mountain-cold water, in the hope of a cure, or failing that, to relive their baptism.

A little nervously, I made for the Hommes section and was readied by a volunteer, who secured a cotton robe around my waist the moment I'd undressed. A second helper guided me down two steps into the stone bath, whereupon the men eased me down and backwards until only my head was above the water. The cold – a constant 12C – was shocking, but I knew I was in expert hands, and allowed myself to go with the flow.

After a few seconds of immersion, they helped me to my feet, offered me a bowl of water to splash on my face, a glass of water to drink, a statue of the Blessed Virgin to kiss, and an invitation to join them in prayer. I surprised myself by doing all these things without protest or hesitation.

The ritual came to a close with a moment of silent meditation. Picturing the scene now, I can see myself standing half-naked in an unfamiliar town a long way from home, being held by two elderly strangers, dripping and shivering in a communal bath-house, mouthing prayers and responses I thought I had renounced many years ago. But all I felt at the time was a charge of energy and certainty about the future.

Then it was over. I was modestly disrobed, stepped through the curtain to the changing-room, dressed, and left. The whole process had taken less than 10 minutes, but the world seemed different when I rejoined the throng outside. My travelling companion, a non-Catholic, who had undergone a similar ritual in the women's section next door, had been moved to tears.

It had never occurred to me that Lourdes could offer a remedy for the able-bodied as well as the sick. But, of course, those of us who have been emotionally wounded are just as much in need of healing, as we limp away from the miscarriages of our daily lives, whatever they may be.

Another strange thing. Outside the baths, the sun had magically appeared, illuminating what had been a grey, brooding Tuesday afternoon. Was it my imagination, or did a gentle warm breeze spring up at that moment to caress my face?

Travellers' Guide

Getting there: Frank Partridge paid £110 return on Ryanair (08701 569 569, www.ryanair.com) from Stansted to Biarritz. Buses run from the airport to Bayonne railway station, from which trains to Lourdes take two hours.

Accommodation: the best venue is the Grande Hôtel de la Grotte, 66 Rue de la Grotte (00 33 5 62 94 58 87), with fine views down the valley. A double room is €67 (£41), €98 (£60), or €125 (£77), depending on view; breakfast €10 (£6) each.

More information: French Travel Centre (09068 244123, premium rate); www.lourdesfrance.com

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