We arrived just in time for the Marian Procession, which begins at nine o’clock every night from April through October and has been perfected over time into a spiritual trapdoor through which tumble all but the most snarky observers. Winding their way behind a shoulder-borne statue of the Virgin Mary were thousands of pilgrims, like so many fireflies, their candles protected from the wind by tulip-shaped holders, chanting “The Lourdes Hymn,” a variation of “Ave Maria.” In the lead were the malades, in blue sedan chairs, pulled along rickshaw-style by volunteers.
Afterward, we proceeded several hundred yards along the bottom of the 90-foot-high shoulder of rock on which the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary is set to a more intimate 12-foot-high outcropping, the Grotto, to rub our palms along wet rock made velveteen by a century and a half of such touching, and stare into a lit porthole at the gurgling ur-spring itself. A huge iron candelabra burned. Long troughs, refreshed by spigots, provided springwater for those with knapsacks full of empty bottles. Deep into the night, the faithful walked by with bundles of candles, like firewood, to light at the racks of the metal prayer stalls. Anyone appearing in a wheelchair or on crutches was escorted to the front of the line.
The next morning my friend and I showed up early at the baths a few steps beyond the grotto: 17 marble pools (including one for children) for immersion in water piped from the spring and kept at a brisk 54 degrees. “This is not for the faint-hearted,” he whispered as we sat on long benches in a sun-dappled stone portico, its front wall carved with the divine prompt heard by Bernadette: Go drink at the spring and bathe in its waters. Wheeled in at that moment was a boy who held up a pale hand for anyone to take hold of, and someone did. Others were oblivious to any heartstring tug. A crusty Italian gentleman kept busy reading the sports pages of his newspaper.
Soon I was seated in a plastic chair in an antechamber with six other men in briefs. As a card-carrying Episcopalian I still did not know what to expect. Suddenly I was waved through blue-and-white–striped curtains, wrapped in a towel, prayed over by four volunteers, and immersed full-body in a narrow bath. Emitting an involuntary gasp, I emerged, blinking and shaggy, into the bright light of day. Though 67 physical healings have been verified over the years by the Medical Bureau of Lourdes, most of the activity is labeled “spiritual healing.” When the American author Flannery O’Connor visited in 1958, she balked, saying: “I am one of those people who could die for his religion easier than take a bath for it.” Later she relented, noticing more salutary effects in her novel The Violent Bear It Away than in her health.
On our last night at Lourdes, sharp needles of rain began to fall, accented by thunder and lightning. I borrowed a hotel umbrella to walk to the Esplanade des Processions to bid a quick good-bye. I didn’t expect a crowd, but standing on the stone balustrade above the square, I found myself looking down instead on numbers equal to the first night. In the topsy-turvy world of Lourdes, where the sick are given celebrity treatment, the only concessions to the weather were the blue awnings over the sedans, the plastic ponchos, and the hundreds of black umbrellas of those surging forward, in slow motion, singing “…Ave, Ave, Ave Maria.” Many of those below, their faces lit by candles, had obviously experienced a hard rain falling in their lives before; their faith made them impervious.