A different look at Lourdes
Last week I was in Lourdes again, this time as a first time Stagiaire of the Hospitalité Notre Dame de Lourdes (HNDL) along with over twenty other Hospitaliers connected to Ampleforth. Rather than being a part of the annual Ampleforth pilgrimage which takes place in July, I was in Lourdes serving ‘in the background’ welcoming pilgrims and assisting in the running of the Sanctuary and (hence this post) passing on the message of Lourdes.
A moving encounter at the Gare de Lourdes
This is why, last Thursday, I was at the Gare de Lourdes helping the Order of Maltese Volunteers’ Rhein Maas pilgrimage embark for their homeward journey.
At the far end of the platform waited a lone woman with a young boy in a wheelchair. The Hospitalier with whom I was working asked me to go with him to check all was well; the last thing anyone wants is for pilgrims to be left on the platform after the train’s departure.
In faultless English she told us she had been allocated a compartment near the front of the train with the young lad’s more mobile friends, and was waiting for help to lift him onto the train. We chatted for a while and she told us this was her 24th pilgrimage to Lourdes and the young man’s eighth. She recounted how, all those years ago, she had found the young boy abandoned in a home, befriended him and decided to take him in and look after him.
The meaning of Lourdes
This was a heartfelt story of true compassion with which we could easily empathise and in the few short – if slightly unceremonious – minutes it took to move the boy from the platform up onto the train and into his compartment it felt as if we had all become firm friends. We left them with hugs, best wishes for a homeward journey and a few tears before helping the last few pilgrims to board the train, where we encountered similar stories and feelings to that of our lady and her adopted friend at the front of the train. If the message of Lourdes is about mercy, compassion, healing and comfort, then this was a perfect example of it.
The Hospitalité de Notre Dame de Lourdes (HNDL)
Of all the various services I did in Lourdes last week as a Premiere Stagieire, helping to transfer pilgrims on and off trains sounded the least exciting but turned out to be the most meaningful. That does not mean to say the other activities were unfulfilling, by any means. Assigned to the Service St Joseph, we were involved in marshaling at the daily ceremonies in the Sanctuary (slightly irreverently known as ‘traffic control’), assisting pilgrims in the baths, maintaining the sanctity of the Grotto (the heart of Lourdes) as well as welcoming and bidding farewell to pilgrims at the station and airport.
Other Services include:
• Marie Saint Frai – catering and housekeeping
• St Michel – logistics, accommodation, catering and maintenance
• St Jean Baptiste – assisting pilgrims in the baths
• Notre Dame – welcoming and assisting pilgrims, maintaining the sacristies, sewing, embroidery, housekeeping and first aid
All fall under the umbrella of the Hospitalité de Notre dame de Lourdes, an association of volunteers from around the world, which administers Lourdes. On arrival I was assigned to a group of around 20 volunteers including very experienced Hospitaliers as well as first timers like me. With five different languages in the group and no multi-linguists, communication was as much by sign language and mime as by speech and ensured we got everything done more or less as we were supposed to. I have to say, my French improved one hundred percent during the week, albeit from a baseline of about zero.
As with any religious or professional body, more senior and experienced members are expected to train and mentor new entrants and the HNDL is no different. Besides being allocated to a working group, I and other first timers were enrolled into the Formation group and in between routine service were instructed in the ways of Lourdes.
This also happened at our various places of service where we were given detailed instructions on how to carry out our tasks. Much of this revolved around how to handle and move pilgrims. There is a tried and trusted process for lifting pilgrims into and out of the baths and onto or off trains, for instance.
The Lourdes Spirit
Our Counsellors were both English and associated with Ampleforth. Both were highly experienced, compassionate and Christian in the truest sense. They were the two people who guided us in those first few days, supported us when necessary as well as instructing us in the bigger picture.
We were instructed at length in the ‘Hospitalier Spirit’ as part of our formation programme. In layman’s language, this revolved around putting the interests of others before our own (service), serving with humility, serving with integrity by being available, reliable, consistent, generous and willing to learn, and having respect for every individual. This too is a message of Lourdes, one which I believe more and more people of all faiths and none are starting to honour in exchange for the prevalent pre-crisis mantra of ‘I, me, mine”.
Although we were in the service of the HNDL during the week it was the time and effort of two generous and committed Amplefordians that got all 24 of us on Stage during this particular week. We traveled independently, registered independently and for most of the day saw only a few of our companions. However, we met up for meals and at the Cafe des Brancardiers most evenings, enabling us to have a bit of a laugh or a moan (even Lourdes has its niggles), discuss the days events and for the more experienced Hospitaliers to advise and support the newer ones such as me.
Indeed I am truly grateful to everyone in the group for their support, help and above all for making me feel so welcome.
Serving, not working
I was picked up, even before we arrived in Lourdes, for talking about working in Lourdes. We don’t work, we serve. Far from being pedantic, this very quickly struck me as absolutely right and reflects the trend (which I see, even if others don’t) in both professional and personal arenas, to put service to others at the forefront of our values. So this week, for me, helped to reinforce my values as well as enabling me to become more compassionate, spiritual and connected to those who promote similar values.
Serving as a Stagieire also allows one to appreciate Lourdes in a very different way. I was involved in the organisation of two Marian Torchlight Processions (in one of which I had the privilege of being part of the team carrying the statue of Mary), one Blessed Sacrament Procession, one International Mass and two afternoons in the baths (not to mention two stints at the station). As a pilgrim helper we tend to concentrate on the care and welfare of our Assisted Pilgrims, we are often tired and not a little stressed and as concerned about what we should or should not be doing as we are concentrating on the actual event.
As a Stagieire, however, we become more involved in the ceremonies and activities and this leads, I think, to a greater appreciation of what Lourdes is about. This was more relaxed than our main pilgrimage and those recurrent events – a late evening visit to the Grotto, an English mass in the Grotto after my service in the Grotto had finished, and the BSP in all its glory at which I felt truly present – took on a deeper and more spiritual quality.
I also know that my experience on Stage will stand me in good stead, practically, when we return to Lourdes in July with our main annual pilgrimage.
So, yes, whilst very different, this week was as equally rewarding and to be repeated.
These Lourdes related posts might also be of interest:
As a financial life planner I have come to understand that true wealth lies inside us, not in our investment portfolios and that it is important throughout life to engage in continuing personal – and spiritual – development. Often this is accomplished by travel (with a purpose) and I wrote this series of posts on its importance: