Lourdes is a small town in Southern France near the Spanish border between Biarritz and Toulouse. It was made famous in the 19th century when a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous witnessed 18 apparitions and received messages from Mother Mary, but also from the miracles that ensued. Millions of people from all over the world travel to Lourdes every year to experience the spirit and energy of this place in the hopes of physical or spiritual miracles.
I was drawn to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes when my life was at a crossroads. I didn’t know much about it at the time, aside from the Marian apparitions. I wasn’t even sure why I was being called there, only that I had to go. Before and during my first visit, I made a lot of assumptions about Lourdes and pilgrimage there that I later found to be untrue.
Myth #1: Pilgrimage to Lourdes is just for old people. From my 3 visits, I can attest that this shrine appeals to people of all ages. While it’s true that the healing spring water attracts millions of people to Lourdes and many of those people are older, sick or infirm, they are not the only demographic. The shrine is nearly 100% staffed by volunteers who come back year after year and many of them are young professional people.
I am always surprised how many younger people were there seeking, searching and connecting too. So, don’t think that making a pilgrimage to Lourdes is just for grandparents.
Myth #2: The spring water is magic. Miraculous healings have been attributed to the water and to the shrine, but there is nothing magic about the water or the ground here. Miraculous and unexplained healings still occur there every day (I’ve heard plenty of stories to attest to that), however the true miracle happens when someone fully surrenders and opens their heart to the Divine and to Mary for healing. Miraculous healing won’t “happen on” someone without their deep trust, faith and permission.
Myth #3: The Lourdes shrine is just a church. The shrine is massive! From its beginning, it was built to welcome and accommodate the thousands and then millions, many of whom are in wheelchairs or immobile, who visit here every year. The grotto where are the apparitions took place and the spring water baths are only a small part of the huge domaine. Of the 3 basilicas, the newer underground basilica is built to hold 25,000 people.
Myth #4: Pilgrimage there is about being sorrowful and sad. Many pilgrims may come with heaviness in their heart. That’s part of the contemplation that people do here, but know that there is every reason to be joyful. We are loved. We are forgiven. We are healed in whatever way that needs to happen and our prayers are heard. Yay!!
Myth #5: The supermarkets of souvenirs ruin the sanctity of the shrine. I was a little overwhelmed by the massive souvenir stores until I thought of them from a different perspective. People travel to Lourdes from all over the world, including countries in Africa, the Indian subcontinent and throughout Asia.
This is a trip of a lifetime. You can bet that people who visit wish to bring back shrine souvenirs for themselves and also for all of their family, friends, church members, etc. One person’s tacky trinket is another person’s treasure. So instead of looking upon these souvenir stores as commercially exploiting the shrine, think of them as allowing people to take home as many tokens of the shrine as they wish to. There’s the market.
And besides, the statues, the rosaries and the stuff are not what’s important here; it’s the deeply personal connection that’s made in a sacred place.
Myth #6: One to two days in Lourdes is enough. If your goal is to make a true pilgrimage and to spend some time in contemplation, a “drive-thru” visit to Lourdes isn’t enough. The body and mind need to relax and adjust to spirit and energy of the beautiful Marian shrine. Healing mind, body and spirit takes time, and the more time spent in the sacred spaces and in nature around the shrine, the more you will gain from the experience.
At first, I didn’t believe there was enough to do there for 4 days, but in the end I’m very glad I took my time and allowed the healing to happen.
Myth #7: There’s nothing much to Lourdes besides the shrine. The locals will tell you that there are 2 Lourdes: Lourdes town and the shrine. Don’t overlook visiting the charming town. Beyond the tourist restaurants (which are pretty horrible) and the hotels, there are charming shops, excellent restaurants, a weekly outdoor market and friendly local people. The surrounding area is known for outdoor activities such as catching the stunning views from the Pic du Jer, skiing, hiking and visiting thermal baths in the Midi-Pyrenees.
Myth #8: You have to be Catholic to visit Lourdes.Lourdes is open to everyone! I heard from a friend who lives locally that Hindus will make pilgrimages to Lourdes. So you don’t have to show a Catholic card to enter. Everyone’s invited. Although the rituals and symbols might be unfamiliar, you can respectfully observe and participate as much as you want to or able to.
Myth #9: Mary is an exclusively Catholic figure. See #8. Mary is a Divine figure who transcends nationality, religion, culture, borders, belief systems and any other barrier. All are welcome, no judgement.
Myth #10: Lourdes, France is an out-of-the-way place. There are daily high-speed trains from Paris to Lourdes. The ultra comfortable train trip whisks you through picturesque French countryside and takes approximately 5 1/2 hours. There is also a regional airport.