For some reason, I remembered yesterday that it was the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Surely this should make the alternate-side-parking calendar. It is because I went to an all-girls Catholic high school called Lourdes Academy that I am aware of Our Lady of Lourdes, but the only reason that the date of her feast sticks in my head is that at a reunion marking the hundred-year anniversary of the founding of this school (which closed forever in 1971; my class, the class of 1970, was the last to graduate from an unadulterated Lourdes Academy, which thereafter became Lourdes-St. Stephen’s and ultimately Erieview Catholic, before falling out of history altogether) it was announced that the centerpiece at each table would go to the person whose birthday fell closest to the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, February 11th. I had not actually been sitting at the table I was assigned to (I’m bad at that kind of protocol; I’ll sit where I damn well want to sit, if I feel like sitting at all), but I made haste to get over there and claim the centerpiece that the accident of my birth date so unexpectedly entitled me to. Somebody with a March birthday had grabbed it already.
Some years ago, when I was planning a trip to France with my friend T., I got it into my head that we should go to Lourdes. It was perverse of me: I was in excellent health, and God knows there are other places in France to see. Later it occurred to me that, by bathing in the waters with the faithful who came to Lourdes to be cured of diseases, I might catch something. And when you look closely at the story—a shepherd girl named Bernadette Soubirous had visions of a beautiful lady at a grotto outside Lourdes, beginning on February 11, 1858—it can be deeply disturbing (cf the movie “Song of Bernadette,” with Jennifer Jones).
My impressions of Lourdes were: lots of candles, of all sizes; a grotto of discarded crutches; more nuns and priests and monks and ushers and wheelchairs and stretchers and gurneys than you could shake a cane at; bad food; alarming mannequins of enraptured children in the shop windows; Irish youth groups getting drunk and whooping it up in the street outside our hotel at night. Our hotel was the Hotel St. Paul, which I had chosen because St. Paul was such an indefatigable traveller. It had a curfew.
I bathed in the holy springwater, and it was freezing cold. The nuns, or whoever runs it, are very well organized, and though you have to take off all your clothes to step into the water, there is never a moment when you feel exposed, with all the white towels floating around. “Kiss the lady,” a nun said to me, thrusting a plastic statue of Our Lady at me when I reached the far end of the vat. I obeyed. They held my bra out for me to walk into. And when I was dressed again and back at the hotel I felt fantastic. Who wouldn’t, after a brisk dip in the fresh springwater of the Pyrenees?
I commemorated the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes yesterday by hauling out the towel that I stole from the hotel. I also have some holy water in a small plastic container (not one of those vulgar ones in the shape of Our Lady). And I sang the Alma Mater, as I did that night in Lourdes, inspired by the drunken Irish kids bellowing in the street outside, surprising and horrifying my travelling companion. It goes like this:
Lourdes, we who love you rally round today
With a shout ringing out to the sky!
Lourdes, watch approvingly our work, our play.
What we do is for you, for our high!
Lourdes, we love you, Lourdes.
You’re our wonderful devoted Alma Mater.
Tenderly your mantle floats above us all,
And you love us all,
You’re the mother of our hearts.
Lourdes, we hail you, Lourdes.
May our hearts be true as we go through the days.
Guide us, beside us, in all our chosen ways,
Lourdes, Lourdes, Lourdes!
The closest I came to a miracle at Lourdes was that when I returned to the hotel room, T.—who had resisted studying maps all her life, preferring to get lost and see what happened—was poring over a map of France, a sudden convert to navigation and to picking out her own place of pilgrimage, which, as I remember, involved bouillabaisse.
Later, on the way back to Paris, when we came pretty close to Nevers, where the incorrupt body of Bernadette is on view at the convent where she died, I kept my mouth shut.