We need not travel to southern France to encounter God’s presence in our lives. God dwells within us already, and just as important as the grotto of Lourdes, where Mary spoke in 1858, is the grotto of our hearts, where God speaks to us every day (65).
Fr. James Martin’s diary from his first pilgrimage to Lourdes is a wonderful memoir filled with the wonder of pilgrimage and the joy of community. In regards to the latter, Martin finds community with both his fellow pilgrims and with the saints as well. In the first chapter he notes that there are “two primary models of the saints: patrons and companions.” As patrons, saints pray to the Father for us. As companions, saints “[accompany] us in our lives as Christians, [teach] us how to follow Jesus Christ, and [show] us new ways to be holy” (6).
Martin experiences St. Bernadette as a companion because “[s]he was wholly uninterested in impressing anyone. . . . She was, despite her family’s poverty, unwilling to profit in any way from her experiences, refusing any and all gifts. In all her testimonies, Bernadette simply told what she saw and what she didn’t see, what she heard and didn’t hear” (15). Bernadette saw a woman in the grotto of Massabieille but didn’t seek to use her visions for her own gain. Moreover, “even the most zealous admirers of St. Bernadette, try as they might, could find little to distinguish her. She was good, honest, and devout; on this much everyone agrees. Otherwise she was quite ordinary. She considered herself of no importance, simply a poor vehicle of God’s grace, who was content to withdraw into obscurity once her mission was complete (Ellsberg qtd. 52).
The diary of his pilgrimage is moving in many places and is filled with helpful insights. An example of a moving passage can be seen when he arrived at the spring that St. Bernadette uncovered in the field; Martin says that he was “moved with wonder” (30). Also, he calls the grotto “perhaps the most prayerful place I’ve ever experienced” (63). The helpful insights include his reflection on pilgrimage:
Pilgrimages are time-honored ways of fostering reliance on God, so dependent are pilgrim son the grace of God, which manifests itself in the charity and kindness of fellow pilgrims and in those we meet along the way. The time of travel is also what one of my spiritual directors called a liminal time—a transitional moment, or an in-between space. We find ourselves caught between one place and another, and during these times we can be especially aware of God. Removed from our comfortable routines, we are naturally more aware of our fundamental reliance on God, and are therefore often more open to grace (32).
And his reflection upon seeing the evening rosary procession:
I am overcome by the sight of this profession of faith: the malades and the able-bodied, of all ages, from across the world. It seems a vision of what the world could be (36).
I was also struck by his account of administering communion to the pilgrims, “who engulf [him] and reach their hands out for communion as if it’s the most important thing in the world. Which, of course, it is” (47).
Lastly, I found the words of an attendant at the baths quite prophetic, providing critique of business-minded folks. Fr. Jim asks whether the attendant likes his job, and the attendant replies,
I’m a volunteer, like everyone else here! If it were just a job, then I would be thinking, One euro for each person I help. Or, maybe, One euro for each kilo that the person weighs! . . . But this way I look at everybody like a person, not a number (53).
The book ends with the reminder that whether we have been to Lourdes or we hope to go to Lourdes or we know we will never make it to Lourdes, God is present to us at all times. A long journey is not necessary to the spiritual life. “God gives us the ability to pray deeply wherever we are,” Martin writes. “While Mary appeared to Bernadette in a specific locale, and at a specific time, the Spirit is with us always and everywhere” (65).
Thanks be to God.