Author and academic Dr Anna Rowlands talks about the power of Lourdes.
Where were you when you felt close to God?
This will sound like a very sentimental answer but the Grotto in Lourdes is still, for me, a place of enormous closeness to a sense of the transcendent. I think it’s partly that it’s a place that’s been prayed in by so many people so earnestly, and with such raw spirituality and sense of human need, that you cannot but be humbled by being there. I remember watching the pilgrims slowly process through the Grotto touching the walls and seeing vulnerability is just extraordinarily humbling.
When did you go there?
It’s actually a place I haven’t been to for a long time, but I used to go on pilgrimage to Lourdes a lot when I was a teenager. My auntie was one of the pilgrimage directors for Lancaster Diocese. She was an intensive care nurse at her day job and then she ran the pilgrimage in her allegedly spare time So I was kind of adopted by Lancaster Diocese.
Who did you travel with?
One of the things about going on a diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes is that you travel with people who are ill, and your job as a young person is to be a carer. So, partly the spirituality of Lourdes is a kind of activism, not in the sense of going out to campaign for something but activism in the sense of learning how to give and receive care.
What did you do there?
A huge amount of the time when you’re not sitting in the grotto or actively praying is spent physically caring for other people and being drawn out of yourself towards the needs of others. Even down to, in a dignified way, learning how to wash some- body’s dressings. You would have really very privileged conversations with people who were experiencing physical or mental health limits in some way. That had a huge impact on me. It taught me huge amounts about the importance of the ethics of care. I would send every young person on pilgrimage there if I could. It’s quite a demanding experience for a young person but it is the kind of experience that stays with you for life.
Do you have a particular memory from that place?
There was a woman who went on pilgrimage with us one year, who basically had lied about how advanced her illness was because she was so desperate to go. I’m pretty sure she had cancer. So when we got her there, we realised just how unwell she was, and that there was a real risk of her dying while she was there. And it turned out that she
had known that all along. What she wanted before she died was to be taken through the Grotto. And I remember the carers and my auntie arranging a stretcher to carry the woman through the Grotto before she died. They carried her through on a stretcher and she was able to be in that place and touch the walls. And the following day, she died.
And, of course, it was horrendous, and my auntie had to arrange all the repatriation of the body, which is an absolute nightmare. Trying to get a body back from France is not much fun.
But this woman was absolutely determined that before she died, she wanted to be in that place. And then the carers, and the nursing staff made that happen for her. And, that was an extraordinary act of faith and care on their parts and of the woman herself. It’s kind of reminiscent of the woman with the haemorrhage reaching out to touch the garment of Christ in a way. The carers who made that possible for her knew that this was her last wish. I remember finding that very moving, the determination of this woman to get what she wanted. But what she wanted was something so beautiful. And the way the nursing staff made it possible is precisely what a pilgrimage to Lourdes is all about. That’s a community of Faith and care.
Dr Anna Rowlands is a lecturer in Contemporary Catholic Studies and deputy director of the Centre for Catholic Studies at the University of Durham. Her new book Towards a Politics of Communion: Catholic Social Teaching in Dark Times is available now.