John Arnold: Bless me! Even my dose of flu can’t overshadow Lourdes trip

John Arnold recalls his latest visit to Lourdes
John Arnold: Bless me! Even my dose of flu can’t overshadow Lourdes trip

HOLY GROUND: Statues of St Bernadette and Our Lady at a souvenir shop in Lourdes

IMAGINE trying to walk up Patrick’s Hill in Cork with torrents of flood water streaming down against you? Well, that’s what ‘twas like in Lourdes at 10pm last Saturday.

I walked back from the Grotto to the Spanish Convent in rue de Bagneures with an Argentinean/American couple. There’s one very steep stretch, just beyond the Poor Clares, and the rain cascaded down against us, covering our shoes and everything.

Rain gear, umbrellas and jackets gave no protection as the water came down from above and splashed violently on the road to ensure complete immersion. I thought of the words of Our Lady in 1858 to Bernadette: “Go wash yourselves in the water” — well, we certainly got a thorough ablution!

I’d arrived in Lourdes that morning from Stansted Airport, having spent Friday night in London. Ah yes, back again once more to a very special place.

Winter sunshine greeted me as I took the bus into Lourdes town. The Sisters in the Convent greeted me warmly in Spanish, French and a smattering of English — my tenth ‘winter’ trip to Lourdes.

Heading off down rue de Grotte on Saturday, ‘twas a mixture of elation, expectation and sadness too. Since our pilgrimage here in June, I’ve been to Cobh so often. Firstly, Rene O’Gorman died. A helper for so many years, Rene lived a long, long life.

Then we lost Aine Byrne, young, vivacious and happy — the life and soul and embodiment of a beautiful kindly person. Words cannot encapsulate the loss of Aine.

Passing by rue de Bourg and rue de Petits Fosses, the street was empty as the phrase of Patrick Kavanagh came into my head: On a quiet street where old ghosts meet... I knew these would be a very special few days for me.

Nearing the grotto, the streets came alive as from every angle, and side street crowds with red bags and red badges converged on the entrance. Having studied French in the last century, I enquired as to the nature of the vast crowd. I learned that more than 5,000 members of ANCOLI, a French Liturgical choral society, had just arrived for the weekend.

Greeting the Crowned Virgin statue is always special, as if she is saying ‘Welcome back, John’. Round the corner then to the heart of Lourdes, the Grotto. So glad to be here — letting all the sorrows and joys and requests to ‘pray for me’ and ‘remember me’ pour forth.

I sat there near the spot where Bernadette saw the first vision on February 11, 1858, and prayed, cried, remembered, smiled — just so, so special to be back.

Outside of the French Choral Pilgrimage, there seemed to be big crowds here — but then I’m nearly a month earlier, as usually it’s late November or early December when I make this trip.

I queue for the baths for half an hour and emerge elated

And it is a holy thing

And it is a precious time

And it is the only way.

I met one Irish woman on the plane who was meeting her ill husband here, he had travelled via Fatima and Garabandal. I went across the river and lit a ‘grande cierge’ — big candle — for all whose intentions I’d brought here. I called in to meet the staff at The Little Flower, they knew of our great loss so recently and offered their sympathies.

I met Sr Fatima, the ‘doorkeeper’ at the Poor Clares — no 5pm mass on a Saturday. At supper I met the couple who I later took to the Grotto. They’d been travelling by car from Spain but got caught in a snowstorm in the Pyrenees on Friday evening and had to seek shelter in a mountain village. They only arrived in Lourdes on the Saturday afternoon, fairly shook after their experience.

There was just a little rain as I took them down to the Underground Basilicia to hear the 5,000 French singers rehearse. As we returned from the grotto the heavens opened and nothing, only Butch Moore’s Walking The Streets in The Rain, came to me.

On Sunday I went to the 9am English mass in the Church of St John Vianney, as I did for the next two days also. A beautiful, dry day, I walked the Low Stations by the river before crossing the road for the High Stations — as one goes up higher it gets so quiet and down the other side nothing save a tinkle of a bell on a goat or a cow — barely audible on a faraway hill. For the first time, I saw the Grotto of The Two Mary’s, a special place dedicated to the memory of children who have died — amazing.

In the afternoon, I got access via a new-found ANCOLI ‘friend’ to the Underground, where the 5,000 singers were joined for a two hour Mass by several more thousand pilgrims. With massive, surging waves of song, it was a never to be forgotten occasion.

I went to the 5pm Mass in the Poor Clares with a choir of around 20, so peaceful. After supper, in the Convent, I sang the hymn Because He Lives for my six fellow pilgrims. I went back down to the Grotto until after ten. It’s lovely there anytime but by night, wow...

On Monday morning I bade farewell to my French and American friends who were going away. It was the Feast of St Martin of Tours and Fr James told us at the English mass that Martin is the Patron of horsemen, soldiers, beggars and vine growers.

That day, November 11, was Armistice Day, a Public Holiday in France. I’d hoped to get a cough bottle or something for my chest but there was no chemists open.

I called to Sr Fatima after Mass to get the key of the Poor Clares cemetery. Here, on the banks of the Gave river, at 11am, I sang a verse of The Banks at the graveside of Sr Marie Teresa O Connell, the Cork nun whom I’d got to know when I came here in 2007. When I returned the key, Sr Fatima heard my coughing and produced special tablets for me.

I spent three hours at the Grotto, so much to mull over and reflect on. I spotted a South African Oblate, Fr Paul Horricks, who I’d met here in the winter over several years. We’d a great chat. He’s left Lourdes now, and working in Lyons. I told him that Penal Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, John O Brien, who had lived in hiding for 30 years in Ballinterry, Bartlemy, in the 1700s, was buried in Lyons Cathedral — he knew there was a plaque there remembering a great Bishop.

It started raining about 4pm as I heeded up to the Cachot — the old prison where the Soubirious family had lived in 1858. A tour group had just left and another 15 or so went in before me — it’s a tiny room where the impoverished family had dwelt.

Well, there was a guide also with this group but they had severe language difficulties. One had French and another translated that into Italian, another into German and so on — total confusion! They asked me to speak in my language so I began “As an áit beag súlach seo a chuaigh Bernadette amach fadó, fadó chun cipini a ghabail don tine”. Then I said in English: “From this dirty hovel long ago Bernadette set out to collect sticks for the fire”.

This was retranslated several times before we finished up with the Hail Mary in seven languages.

We had fish for supper on Monday. Sr Annunciata hasn’t great English but she confirmed it wasn’t whale, shark, salmon, trout or squid — whatever ‘twas it was lovely!

Later, at the Grotto, there were five different groups with ‘mini’ candle lit processions. A Dominican pilgrimage from Peru had a guitar player and sang, danced and rejoiced there in front of the statue of Our Lady.

I walked over the bridge to the candle burners as a light fog descended on Lourdes. The candles burned brightly and the smoke wafted heavenwards as the strains of Ave, Ave came from the Grotto. Truly, I was so lucky to be here, thanks to my family at home for making it happen.

I met an elderly lady who asked had I heard of St Nicholas, Protector of Switzerland — I hadn’t. She told me he was a married man in the 1400s who asked permission from his wife to ‘change career’, she agreed and he became a mystic at the age of 50. He neither ate nor drank for the rest of his life — he died aged 70 and is greatly venerated. She told me he was from a place called something like ‘Flueie’ — well, later that night I texted that information home.

I promptly got a reply ‘Is he St Nicholas — patron saint of the Flu? No, it turned out he was from a place named Flúe and, unlike me, never apparently suffered from the flu in an era when they’d no injection.

Last Tuesday, I dined alone in the Convent. The streets were busy with schoolchildren as I headed off to visit the market en route to mass. It was before 8am so the stall holders were just setting up. Some were cooking vast dishes of stew and paella, lovely aromas on the frosty morning air.

Rabbits must be getting scarce in France as I noted they were €8.60 per kilo and two years ago just a fiver.

Fr James was very emotional at Mass, his last day here after three years — he is heading for a new post in Canada shortly.

As I spent time at the Grotto, my mind was filled with faces, places and memories of other days and pilgrimages to this special place. For the last two years Jimmy Joyce of Garryvoe came on the Cloyne Pilgrimage with us — his 2018 trip was his first time in a plane. He was overjoyed here. He died at the weekend and as I left Lourdes last Tuesday his Funeral Mass was being held in Ladysbridge.

I said farewell, but not goodbye to the Grotto and the Crowned Virgin statue and walked to the station for a bus to the airport in Tarbes, and from there to London, thence to Cork. I truly had a blessed few days in Lourdes.

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