A Cleansing

An Unforeseen Release For The Unexpected

One year, we travelled the Pyrenees on one of our “off the cuff” expeditions when Spain was too hot. On the map, Lourdes popped up, and I said we were going.

Growing up Catholic, my primary school was called Our Lady of Lourdes. My high school was Soubirous, named after Saint Bernadette Soubirous. Bernadette is the patron saint of the ill, the poor, shepherds, those who live piously and those who are made fun of (I kid you not on the last one). She was one of my favourite Saints.

Now my hubby was bought up Catholic as well. Yet his teachings in Northern Ireland with the Brothers was bordering on a level of severe to real cruelty; on top of that, he was living through The Troubles in Northern Ireland. So it was very different to my upbringing. Mine was pretty Nuns, young and old (they always had lovely looking skin) played guitars, pianos and loved to sing old 60’s numbers of peace and freedom, including a few Beatles numbers, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and The Seekers. They taught us about being more admirable in the world and pushed girls into learning and becoming more. Sure we did cooking, sewing and weaving baskets, but English, Maths and History were important as well as Sports.

When we entered Lourdes City, I was appalled on how disfigured the images in my mind of the place was. How unsightly the 60’s and 70’s hotels were, the never-ending trinket shops of holy ornaments, water canisters and gross commercialism; at a level that was gobsmacking. I had such mixed emotions about it all. This place did not feel like a sacred city with its pubs, clubs, music advertisements, restaurants, tour buses as far as the eye could see. It shattered my inner childish romantic mindset.

However, when we found a park, walked to the grounds, my whole being began to vibrate at another level. When I say that, I feel a completely different vibe; it was like my body was tuning into an energy.

Now, as I have said, my knowledge of the place was still in my childish mentality. I didn’t know anything about the area, only the story of St Bernie and the Virgin Mary, the waters to heal and to say the rosary. That’s all I knew.

Coming onto the grounds, a large cathedral confronts you, and people are buzzing around. From Nuns of different orders, priests, brothers, people from most corners of the world. We headed for this building and explored, looking at the grandeur of the place. People with large, small containers were all standing around the fonts. People lined up, filling their containers, which explained all the hawkers out of the grounds trying to sell their wares for the water.

My husband kept whinging, “finished yet?” and I said NO. I wanted to see it all. He had no interest at all in the place, and he was pretty rude about it. Being here was my childhood of my nan saying she would have loved to visit Lourdes. The Sister’s at school reminiscing on their travels to the Grotto. 

It was a vast place. After exploring the cathedral, we walked towards the river. As I was walking, I happened to see four women sitting next to each other in this seating area and read a sign that said Entree Des Malades. There was a male and female section. Don’t ask why, but I jumped in that line, sitting next to a woman. Hubby tagged along, hissing at me as to what was I doing? I said come back in 30 minutes, and he stood there gob-smacked. I knew he wanted to say more, but the women were looking at him, so he meandered off, eyes-rolling. 

It seemed the women in front of me were from Spain and said to me that (what I could make out) as we were lucky as there are usually many people lined up to have the blessing. It never even crossed my mind about the water’s healing, and you could go to these baths for healing. Anyway, I waited my turn, which was only 15 minutes, and for some reason, I became extremely nervous to the point that I was shaking. When ushered in, I could hardly walk. 

Women volunteers, with blue aprons on, brought you in and told you to sit on a bench and wait. There are cubicles you are waiting for, and once someone goes out, someone goes in. So my turn comes up. I go in, and more of these blue apron women come to you and tell you to undress, leaving your knickers on and standing around you with a robe so as not to let anyone see your nakedness. You robe up and sit on a chair and wait until they are ready for you. 

Led to a private bathing pool, and before you know it, you are de-robed, wrapped in a linen sheet and led to the water. I had to go in backwards, as I had broken my leg some years back. It was hard for me to do what they asked. No one spoke English, only french that day, and I had to show my scar on my leg to get them to understand. So backwards I went.

Bathing Cubicle Lourdes

They held me and pushed me fully into the icy cold water from the grotto. As cold as that water was, it still had that refreshing and cleansing feel to it. I got pulled up and given my robe, taken back to the cubicle to dress dripping wet. The process was so fast; I never had time to process it until I walked out.

Now I did not go there to confess my sins or find a miracle or hear the words from God. I was there because it connected me to my childhood. This dunking was just a bonus I never knew about, and I had just done it.
However, when I walked out of the baths with my clothes sticking to me, hair dripping, I was utterly overwhelmed by this need to sob. I am not talking about a cry that is over in a minute or two. It was every emotion locked in me, wanting to pour out at that very moment.

Hubby was waiting for me and asked if I had done it, and all I could do was nod even though I was dripping wet. I was holding it in; then the tears started; the lump in my throat was as big as a plum. Lines of people had begun to fill the place, and I felt confined and just had to walk away quickly. Hubby was trying to catch up. Then, in my blurring vision, I saw the bridge over the river. I went up to it and leant on the railings and just let go.

Wracks and wracks of sobs left me, and my poor husband didn’t know what to do. He stood there, rubbing my back, trying to console me, asking what happened? I couldn’t speak; only the sobbing came out of me like a tsunami.
This wave after wave of grief and emotions poured out of me. Finally, trying to pull my head together, I made myself look in the river. Blurry eyed, I found myself looking at a dark blob in the water. It turned out to be the biggest trout I’d ever seen. He had to be nearly as long as my arm. I still couldn’t speak but pointed the fish out to my husband, who was over the moon on seeing it. It was indeed a beautiful fish.

Hubby (a keen fly fisherman) started to describe it to me, like in a story in a gentle voice. That the water was beautiful and clear, that “Big Boy” as he called it, was lovely a fish, lazy and conserving his energy until mealtime. He started telling me how they loved to be near bridges or overhanging trees where bugs would fall off, and they would pounce. Hubby’s gentle talking about the fish helped me come out of my grief.

I wiped my tears, blew my nose and watched “Big Boy” for a time. He did slight movements to stay in his spot against the current, like a swish of the tail now and to keep him on course. I think he knew we were there, but he stayed in his spot. The more I watched that fish, the more I felt a bit better until I could get out of there.

Rainbow trout photo by Ken Hammond.

I didn’t understand what the dunking did to me until much later.
That night in bed, I realised that I had been living with so much pent up emotions. It was neatly boxed and hidden.
In my mind, walking into that place was because of my childhood. I wasn’t there to analyse my life, or of God or anything else. I went there on that whim, maybe to find a blessing and go on my merry way. But the Universe had other plans for me.

And one of the biggest things that came to light, as I was lying in the dark, was that in all the years I said prayers (prayers are powerful to me), I realised not once did I pray for myself. Constantly was I taught to say a prayer to bless others, but never myself. Praying for myself would have meant I was more than I should be in my mother’s eyes. This urge, to say a prayer for myself came, and awkwardly I said it, though it was very uncomfortable. It was like pulling that plum from my throat.
In the end, I didn’t have a divine moment with St. Bernie, with The Virgin or the Big Kahuna in the sense of visions or a voice. Instead, I had a spiritual experience with myself.

Water has memories; it’s a fact. I think the water, from the Grotto is full of energy, full of intensity and full of potential. It broke the seal of allowing me to grieve all I had lost and the mistakes and choices I made at times. The years of trying to keep things together in a bad relationship and ignoring the control I lost in myself, the releasing of all that pain that no longer served me. It was saying it was time to let go and move on.

My grief and pain were holding me back. And it was.

Lourdes is not for everyone, and you don’t have to be Catholic to do it. I might do it again, but I feel it would never be like my first experience. But if I found a little creek or stream that gave me the same vibe, I would do that too. Water is magical, and I think we all need to cleanse away that which holds us to ransom….And we have many things that hold us to ransom.

I have seen many members in my family that have had passed onto themselves a heaviness and a cynicism in which has been passed onto their family and so on. I think I have broken this partially and try to be upbeat about when things happen in our lives. This leads to me being mocked at times and mad fun of by other family members. But lucky for me, I have my ace up my sleeve…

St. Bernadette, the patron saint of the ill, the poor, shepherds, those who live piously and those who are made fun of!


Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying

Stephen King
Naked women. Summer (1891) painting in high resolution by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Original from The Cleveland Museum of Art.

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