Are you sure you want to go there? she asked, clearly not wanting me to be disappointed on my first visit to a country she loved.
I assured her that I did indeed want to visit Lourdes. Well, perhaps I would view it differently today, she said. I went to Lourdes when I was still estranged from the church.
As I journeyed to Lourdes a few weeks later and thought of her words, I prepared myself to be disappointed by this holy site, the most famous healing shrine in the world. But what I found was not disappointingrather, Lourdes to me was intriguing, at times perplexing, and always fascinating. A year later, my thoughts drift back to that small town touched by forces much larger than itself. Like many of the pilgrims who visit the shrine, I continue to ponder the mystery of Lourdes.Learning the Story
My immediate purpose in visiting Lourdes was to research a book I was writing on pilgrimage. With the shrines 150th anniversary coming up in 2008, I knew Lourdes would be an important destination to include. As an Episcopalian, though, my knowledge of the site was limited. I knew it was associated with a saint named Bernadette and with miracles of healing. I knew that water was somehow connected to it, for I had Catholic friends who had brought vials of holy water back from trips to Europe. And I knew this: having been raised in a Protestant denomination (no longer my own) that distrusted anything mystical or Roman Catholic, I was heading to a place that celebrated both. I took some pleasure in the thought that numerous ancestors of mine were likely spinning in their graves at the prospect.
I planned my journey so I would be there on Feb. 11, the anniversary of the first apparition to Bernadette. Before leaving home I read everything I could find about her story. On that date in 1858, a poor young girl named Bernadette Soubirous received the first of 18 visions of the Virgin Mary at a spot on the outskirts of Lourdes. Over the course of the next five months, Lourdes became a magnet for the devout, the skeptical and the curious, particularly after Bernadette (at the urging of the Virgin Mary) uncovered a spring whose waters seemed to have miraculous properties. Church officials, who at first accused young Bernadette of lying, eventually confirmed the authenticity of her visions. Lourdes, once a quiet market town, would never be the same, and Bernadette herself would eventually be declared a saint.International Gathering
Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains near the Spanish border, Lourdes has the same rows of gray stone houses, arranged along narrow streets, as other small towns in France. Except Lourdes is different. Though its residents number only 15,000, guest houses and hotels throughout the town accommodate more than five million visitors each year.
As I drew closer to the shrine, I could see the shops my friend had described. Statues, rosaries, plaques, medallions and other religious items filled their shelves, a testimony to the age-old desire of travelers to take home souvenirs, even from trips taken for a spiritual purpose. The smiling, kind visage of the Virgin Mary greeted me from each store, her hands often outspread in what seemed like a welcome to me, a wandering Protestant. Unlike my friend, I didnt find the shops off-putting, though I know that commercialism and piety are uneasy bedfellows. I found something heart-warming in the thought of all those trinkets being carried back to the far corners of the earth, finding their way into the hands of people in need of a reminder that miracles are possible even when the darkness seems overwhelming.
Once I reached the entrance to the sanctuary, the press of people became thicker, and I heard snatches of Italian, Spanish and German conversations. Then the full expanse of the shrine came into view: a long colonnade that ended in a complex of several large churches, one of them topped by a gilded crown. Walking down the avenue past statues of St. Bernadette and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, I was struck by how much this spot had clearly changed since that day in 1858 when Bernadette received her first vision. The apparitions had taken place at what was then little more than a garbage dump on the outskirts of the towna far cry from the immense structures built to accommodate the pilgrims who have flocked here ever since.
Walking to the side of the main church complex, however, I saw that at least one part of the shrine remained substantially the same as in Bernadettes day. The rugged outcropping of stone known as the Massabielle was still there. In the niche where the Virgin appeared stood a statue of Mary, her hands clasped in prayer as she gazed upward. Below the rock face bubbled the spring that had been uncovered by Bernadette. Protected by glass, it was heaped with bouquets of flowers, photographs and other tokens brought by pilgrims, each of the offerings speaking wordlessly of yearning and petition.
Nearby was a row of spigots that funneled water from the spring so that people could fill containers to take home. A woman saw me looking and motioned me forward. Bella! Bella! she said, gesturing toward the water with a smile.In Search of Healing
Though I had traveled to holy sites around the world, I had never visited one so packed with pilgrims (about 20,000 were in Lourdes during my visit). Many in the crowd obviously suffered from some sort of illness or disability, but the atmosphere felt celebratory, not desperate or sad. The diversity of the worldwide church was visible in the variety of people who passed me, pilgrims from Africa, Europe, South America and the Far East.
I remember looking into their faces, wondering if any would receive a miracle while at Lourdes. Many were no doubt hoping and praying for one. I could see it in the eyes of the women with the telltale chemotherapy scarves and the parents pushing children in wheelchairs. Though I was willing to admit that physical healings are possible, I suspected that healings of the heart and soul are the more significant miracles.
On previous European trips, I visited many churches that seemed more like museums than houses of worship: beautiful, sterile and dead. Lourdes, by contrast, pulsed with energy and life. And the frequent rain did not dampen the enthusiasm of the people marching in procession behind banners bearing the names of their churches and towns. Nor did the weather deter those waiting patiently in line by the outdoor baths filled with water from the spring. Their faith was inspiring. It was most palpable during the evening processions, when thousands of pilgrims held lighted candles aloft and sang hymns to Mary. I sang along, fully swept up by the spectacle.The Faith of Bernadette
Looking back on the trip, I remain intrigued by the story of Bernadette. I cannot explain what happened to that poor, uneducated girl on a February day near the town garbage dump. Her visions do not fit neatly into the theology I was taught as a child, nor the dominant worldview of the culture I now inhabit. Yet something extraordinary happened to Bernadette in 1858 that the rest of the world is still trying to comprehend.
By all ordinary standards, Bernadette lived a hard life after the visions; the subject of worldwide speculation, she was forced to repeat her story endlessly. Fleeing to the shelter of a convent far from Lourdes was no doubt a relief to her, though the curious followed her even there.
I am here to tell you what happened, she would say. I am not here to make you believe. Such raw honesty is perhaps the best testament to the truth of her visions. She realized that she could only point the way, not lead people to the destination.
I have come to think that perhaps the best way to try to explain the mystery is this: 150 years ago, a bell was struck in Lourdes, creating a divine sound that resonates to this day. Not all who journey to Lourdes can sense it, but its echo reverberates for those who have ears to hear.
Before leaving Lourdes, I went back to the little shops that line the streets outside the shrine and took great pleasure in finding items to bring to people at home. I bought a rosary for my worried friend, and as I handed it to her, I said: Go back. I think this time you wont be disappointed.
Tips for Travelers
The main pilgrimage season in Lourdes runs from Easter through the end of October. Because 2008 marks the 150th anniversary of the apparitions to St. Bernadette, special events will be held throughout the year. Twelve missions are scheduled, including some for the disabled, youth and interreligious dialogue, but visitors are welcome throughout the jubilee year.
Lourdes is a five-and-a-half-hour trip from Paris by high-speed train; it is also served by an international airport with flights from throughout Europe. A wide variety of lodgings are available, including accommodations for the sick.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes is open 24 hours every day, and admission is free.
For more information, go to www.lourdes2008.com.
Read Frances Parkinson Keyes  on "The Lesson of Lourdes," from 1958.