As part of a little series of posts dedicated to Mary in her month of May. A reflection on how Lourdes appears to some from the outside:
If you look at Lourdes on Wikipedia you will find the following
"Modern Lourdes has no shortage of glitz on display. Some visitors may dislike the commercialism practised in parts of Lourdes, with neon-emblazoned gift shops overflowing with what Malcolm Muggeridge, although a supporter of the shrine, called "tawdry relics, the bric-a-brac of piety". Critics argue that the Lourdes phenomenon is nothing more than a significant money spinner for the town and the region, which therefore has a strong vested interest in keeping the pilgrims coming; however, the trinket shops are privately owned, and hawkers and souvenir stalls are strictly forbidden inside the sanctuary itself."
Lourdes is, on some levels, a place filled with contradictions. Aside from that little grotto (of great spiritual but no particular geographical magnitude) it is just an ordinary little French town. However, you can't put that little grotto aside and because of it Lourdes is awash with all the things you would expect when a small town is overrun by 6 million plus tourists a year. Every building is a hotel, hostel, inn, restaurant, coffee shop or most contentious of all a shop selling devotional objects. If they were small, pleasant or tasteful devotional objects I am sure there would be little contention but I am afraid that they are usually none of these things. They sing, they glow in the dark, they tick but few of the statues and rosaries could claim to be anything exclusive to Lourdes - it is only the sheer number that makes them noteworthy. It is possible that the need to cram what seems like a million of pretty much the same shop selling pretty much the same thing into such a small space is enough to level criticism at Lourdes. However, the truth is that these fairly harmless shops are just a fact of life (a superficial one at that). They have nothing to do with Lourdes itself and I have to admit I quite enjoy looking around them. They are an inevitable oddity which arises because human beings like to sell and buy things (they are not anywhere near the grotto!!). The town of Lourdes is not the grotto - the domain, where the actual holy sights are based, is walled off completely and protected from this mass tourism. When you are at the grotto the busy tourist town seems a million miles away. That grotto draws you to it with an immense promise of peace and it makes all the trimmings that surround Lourdes utterly irrelevant. Even the grotto itself is often filled with activity of one kind or another but I always remember it as being very still. All I can remember hearing is the Gav river flowing beside it.
Lourdes is a real place and while the grotto may be the closest thing I think the soul gets to a taste of heaven it does not change the fact it is still on earth. Of course we will surround it and change it but its truth remains untouched - like the eternal truth, it remains unchanged. People may claim Lourdes is a contradiction- that it preaches one thing and does another. I would say it is nothing of the sort - it is a wondrous, jangling mix of languages and praise. This may confuse people but these this place only exists in its current form because of the love of a mother - magnified and resounding. There is no contradiction of the message of Lourdes or Bernadette's unflinching truths here only human beings in all their complexity but Lourdes is truly the one place where there are no contradictions of the soul- and as for contradictions of the other kind- they are found in every place. Yet Lourdes a safe haven where the streets are filled with rosaries. You can carry your rosary openly and display your faith, you can plaster pictures of the Pope all around and you can be Catholic in all its beauty without fear, in fellowship with people from all different nations. How can this be anything but a sign of hope at a time when Catholicism is becoming less welcome on our streets, in our schools and on our televisions? Lourdes is unity and love so who wants to waste time talking about singing, ticking statues in the midst of it? Certainly not me.