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A Story of Lourdes

A few weeks ago (while I was boiling sap in my backyard)I was listening to your program--a rare pleasure for me considering my busy schedule. I listened with nostalgia to the story about a trip to Lourdes, France and I couldn't help but smile and agree with the story.

In May of 1997, while I was studying at the University of Strasbourg, I had an opportunity to visit Lourdes. My grandmother had asked me, if I was in the area, to pick her up some holy water from the Grotte. I decided that I would love to make the trip there for her--despite the fact that there is absolutely no way to travel easily from Strasbourg to Lourdes. I decided to make a long weekend out of it, and planned to stay in a small town about a 45 minute bus ride from Lourdes called Courteree. It was a small town located in the heart of the Pyrenees, and I wanted to get some hiking in, so I planned to stay there.

After an overnight train ride, I arrived in Lourdes during the early afternoon--just in time for lunch and with several hours to spare before my bus ride to Courteree. I had packed a sandwich, but couldn't resist buying some fresh cherries at a local market. It was a beautiful day, and I sat enjoying the spring sunshine, and ate my lunch in a nice little square just in front of the Tourist Bureau.

After my sandwich and a few cherries, I went down to check the town. I was amazed at how commercialized everything was. I saw it all: the plastic water bottles and the glow-in-the-dark rosaries and statuettes, miscellaneous postcards and tee-shirts. I couldn't believe how well religion sold (in a way, it reminded me of my visit to Rome--only 100 times worse!)

I wondered down the windy streets and made my way to the center of all the hype: and I was again amazed. In town the commercialism had seemed too extreme--it almost seemed a rape of religion. Here, at the grotto, I was amazed at the huge basilica sitting majestically between two large winding staircases. What a sight. The commercialism was left behind and the architectural beauty that often comes from concentrated religious efforts stood before me. It was truly beautiful. And I was awed by the faith and motivation that had allowed this building to be constructed here. Although much simpler than most of the cathedrals in Europe, the ambience--the sense of religious purpose--was just as strong.

I walked around the staircases and found the world-famous fountain of healing water. Can you imagine my surprise and disappointment when I realized the water had been tapped? It was nothing more than a set of faucets: there was no beautiful fountain springing from the Earth. Yet, I saw the people--Some standing with bags full of empty plastic water jugs, some with even larger containers--waiting their chance to touch, taste and collect this holy water--flowing from simple, plain, gray steel faucets.

I watched as people put their heads under the water and drank in the clear, crisp, cool water as if they really were drinking of the nectar of God. I watched as one women cut in front of another man--so eager was she for that water. I looked around at the people. Some appeared in perfect health--like me, but many looked weak and ill. Some were in wheelchairs, others stood carefully balancing themselves with canes or the arm of a loved one. Looking at them I was filled with sadness for their pain and suffering, yet I was also filled with awe at their religious integrity. En masse, their faith seemed to radiate and fill the air with an odd combination of hope, faith, and longing.

I could recognize the power of the place, and I respected it, and all the people before me. And seeing the great suffering before me, I was grateful for me health and that of my family. Yet while I could feel the spiritual power of the grotto, it was not my own. This was not truly a place for me--I would not find religious or spiritual awakening here, although all around me, I felt people were doing just that.

After a while I left and walked back to the train station to catch my bus to Courteree. As I ascended into the mountains, I had a strange sense that I was coming home. I left the people behind and soon found myself in a small, nearly deserted town. While Courteree is well known for its natural springs and spas (and their healing powers), it was early enough in the season that few people were there. Even most of the hikers who used the town hadn't arrived yet. It was quiet and isolated, and I enjoyed the peace. I was a world away from Lourdes, and I felt a serenity and peace that I hadn't felt in weeks (needless to say, I would be returning to Strasbourg to complete my exams and then head home to the states, so this was truly my last retreat).

During the next three days, I hiked the mountains--alone. The day after my arrival I packed a lunch and left for a day long hike. I ended up climbing to an altitude of 2311 meters. I'd never climbed a mountain before in my life. The journey there and back was one of the most incredible journeys of my life. That day my hike--which took roughly 8 hrs. of mostly solid hiking--took me up and over rough rocks, through forest, past turquoise blue glacier lakes, over "goat trails" no wider than a foot wide scattered with loose rock (with a sheer 50-100' drop to my right), and over snow covered trails.

Most of the trail was easy to follow and although tough, manageable. Early on during the day, however, I had noticed (when I was still low in a valley following a stream) a narrow, winding path along the ridge above me. I said to myself, "I'm glad I'm not going to be up there." Well, about three hours later, I WAS there. And I hadn't planned to be. I was on the very trail I'd seen from below (SO FAR below!) and even then I knew that this was NOT a trail a novice hiker should be on-- especially alone. Yet, there I was. I'd come too far to turn back--the trail behind me was too long and I wouldn't have made it back to town before dark.

So, I kept calm and continued on. I knew I had the strength in me to make it. I had too. If I stopped there was absolutely no one to come and get me. If I fell, it might be days until someone knew I'd been hurt--if I was ever found. After all, no one knew where I was really. The land was barren--there was nothing but lichens, a few grasses, rocks and myself. So I moved on, hoping the trail would get easier. It only got more difficult.

Towards the end, as I began my descent in earnest, and feeling I'd overcome the worst (the sheer rock drops), I ran into another problem: my trail became completely submerged in a thick blanket of snow. "Oh, yeah," I said to myself, "It's only May. Of course there's bound to be snow at this elevation." Oops. My trail--my only guide and hope--was lost. How was I going to get down? How did I know I wasn't going to cause a small avalanche or fall through a hole hidden under the snow? Or what if I slid into the group of rocks jutting out at me 50 feet below?

I took a deep breath and noticed a set of footprints. I decided to follow these--a new guide. SOMEONE had made it through here, and so could I.

Eventually, I made it down that slope. It was another hour or hour and a half before I crawled back to my room. Fortunately I'd spared no expense: I'd payed for a room with a 3/4 tub (which is large enough for one who is only 5 feet tall). I was too tired to eat, but grateful to be alive. I soaked in the tub for almost an hour, and then crawled into bed--tired but strangely cleansed, relaxed, and focused.

I have never had a trip--and that day in particular--that has ever been so mentally and physically challenging to me. It was a truly spiritual experience as well. I had come to find Lourdes and to fulfill a spiritual/religious wish for my grandmother. I had no such expectations for myself. Yet 45 minutes away from the apparent chaos of Lourdes, isolated from civilization, I was able to reconnect to the Earth, the Universe and my SELF--I had my own revelations.

The people in Lourdes were searching for Holy Water to heal their bodies, minds and souls. Far above them I had tastes the glacier waters of the Pyrenees--the sweetest nectar of the planet. There was nothing between the water and my lips. No faucets, no people. I had not come to Lourdes searching for anything--yet I had found something spectacular. I had found a small, quiet (during the off-season anyway) town that welcomed visitors. I had found one of the most incredibly beautiful and undisturbed places I had ever visited. The view from the trails above Courteree is so spectacular that one can't help but wonder how on Earth--or anywhere in the Universe--something so beautiful and so perfect could ever have come to be. It left me in awe, and it left me inspired. I also took from my "retreat" a renewed sense of balance, belonging, and "BEING."

My reason for telling this story is to let people know that whether or not you consider yourself a truly "religious" person (and I don't consider myself one at all), there are places and experience that move and change us all. For some, it is places such as Lourdes--bustling with activity and people and religious and spiritual purpose. For others, it is getting away from all that and taking a moment to stop, look, and LISTEN to the world around us. Some people look at the world through their religion. I choose to look at my world through my own eyes as I listen to the call of nature. What a beautiful view of the world you can see from Corteree!

I'm also writing this to share the beauty and intrigue of one of the most incredible places I have seen in Europe--as of yet. I want other people to realize that getting away from civilization for a time can reap great rewards. For those looking for a place off the beaten path, any small town in the Pyrenees would do, just happened to pick Courteree. I would suggest the early part of the season: Late May and June. Try to beat the rush of hikers and pilgrims. And PLEASE unless you're an expert, PLEASE, PLEASE DO NOT HIKE ALONE. (The town tourist bureau and nature office can provide you with all the information you'll need).

Staying in small towns in the region can be pretty cheap--at least during the off season: a poor college student willing to "splurge" can even afford to stay at one of the better hotels in town for about 200-280FF/night ($40-50) US for a single w/ tub and continental breakfast.

I think the region (Hautes Pyrenees) was one of my favorites to visit (and I've been over much of the country). Il FAUT la voire (la region)!




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