With any pilgrimage upon which you might embark, there are plenty of ways to be immersed into a spiritual experience. You may be able to touch a relic, visit a place where Jesus walked, or come within feet of the Holy Father during a Wednesday Audience. But at Lourdes, the everyday pilgrim not only has the option to be immersed spiritually, but also physically, when they partake in the ritual of bathing at St. Bernadette’s Grotto.
St. Bernadette was a simple girl from an impoverished family who lived in the mid-1800s. She had wandered to woods outside of Lourdes with her sister one day in search of firewood when she was visited by an apparition of a young woman. She appeared amidst a dazzling light in the cave at Massabielle, dressed in white with a blue girdle, a yellow rose at each of her feet, and a gold chained rosary with white beads.
Three days later, Bernadette returned to the same grotto and was again visited by the same apparition, which she referred to as “the beautiful lady.” About a week later, the beautiful lady asked her to return to the same place every day for a fortnight. Throughout the meetings that followed, the woman told Bernadette about the importance of prayer, the need for penance, and instructed her to drink from and wash in the waters that miraculously started to flow from the grotto. On her thirteenth appearance, the vision told her to construct a chapel. Later, she would also ask that people come to the site in procession. It wasn’t until the sixteenth of eighteen visions that the woman revealed her identity as the Virgin Mary to Bernadette, telling her “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
At first, the people of Bernadette’s village didn’t believe the tale of her visions, claiming that the description of “her lady” matched the description of the statues that existed in the village church. People noted that she was illiterate and lacked advanced education, claiming that she may have possessed a mental illness and needed to be moved to an asylum. Despite the negative theories that assaulted her, Bernadette held fast to her story during investigations conducted by both Church officials and the French government.
In 1862, the local priest initiated the construction of the desired chapel. Not long after, in 1873, French pilgrimages to the site were inaugurated. By 1883, the need arose for an even larger church, and in 1901, the Rosary Basilica was consecrated. Today, over 5 million people visit the town of Lourdes annually to seek out the miraculous waters that Bernadette unearthed from the grotto. Since 1858, there have been 69 approved cures associated with the healing waters. More than 7,000 cases have been medically and scientifically investigated, and, presumably, untold thousands have remained unreported.
The baths are a highly sought after experience, judging by the length of the lines that form outside them every day. After a long wait, during which time you will likely pray the Rosary alongside other waiting faithful, you will be ushered into a curtained room, where volunteer assistants will instruct you to completely undress and wrap yourself in a wetted towel.
When it is your turn to enter the bath, you step through another curtain, into a room that has a stone tub with water circulating through it, an image of Mary at the end, and three more volunteers. Bringing you to the top of the steps down into the bath, the volunteers encourage you to call to mind your intentions and to offer them up as you enter the water. One volunteer removes your towel, while the other two take your arms, one on each side, and guide you as you step into the bath. When you reach the end of the tub, they dip you into the very brisk and chilly waters so that the water reaches up to your neck. You’re immersed only for a brief moment, before they raise you back up. Next, the volunteers offer you fresh water from the miraculous spring and give you a moment to pray in thanksgiving before the image of Our Lady. Finally, they turn you around, help you out of the bath, and help you to the place where you have left your clothes. You dress immediately, and experience one of the miracles of Lourdes: your skin becomes dry as you put each article of clothing back on.
For over a hundred years, pilgrims who have come from near and far have been able to share a portion of the endless and miraculous stream that gushes from the grotto. Some who bathe in the waters say that they receive spiritual healing, some say they receive peace, and others claim physical healing or comfort.
One of the beautiful things about the Catholic faith is showcased so beautifully in that: no matter what time or space we may occupy on this earth, something always exists that can connect the Church of the past to the Church of the present. Whether it’s a healing stream, a holy relic, or even the Mass itself, we are blessed to have an abundance of road signs that point us towards our call to holiness.
Interested in visiting Lourdes? View all of our upcoming pilgrimages to Lourdes and other Marian shrines here!