The 2014 Ampleforth Lourdes Pilgrimage has just ended and I returned to Yorkshire last Friday feeling spiritually refreshed, emotionally drained and physically exhausted.
During the week I was part of the 320 strong team of helpers looking after 85 disabled Hospital Pilgrims. It was a privilege to share often difficult duties, deeply spiritual celebrations and late nights in the hotel bar with my fellow pilgrims. This was my second time in Lourdes, the first being forty-two years ago in 1972. If I have one regret as I returned home on Friday it was the understanding that a greater involvement in Lourdes would certainly have helped me lead a better life and reinforced in me the importance of compassion and service to others.
‘The Lourdes Experience’
It is not easy to describe what happens in Lourdes. Yes, one can set down an account of the services and processions, the people, the places, the bars and still not capture that deep essence of the Pilgrimage. This year’s theme was ‘The Joy of Conversion’ and I think this is really what Lourdes does. It is about deep change and transformation. It is about being able to see ourselves and the world in a different light, to move away from the everyday world of egotism, possessions, busyness, and become part of a more spiritual, caring, compassionate world.
In his homily at Mass in the Grotto on our last day, Mgr John Armitage considered whether, at the last post, he would be judged by how well he had lived up to Bernadette or Maximillian Kolbe or Mother Teresa. Rather, John felt that he would be more likely to be judged on whether he had lived up to being John Armitage. Had he used his own unique skills, values and abilities to make the world a better place during his time on earth? It is this, I think, which is the big take-away from Lourdes. It gives us the opportunity to rediscover and act as our true compassionate selves.
On our last day our group left Lourdes for the afternoon for a few hours of reflection at a hostel in the countryside a couple of miles outside the town. Our group leader asked us to reflect individually on our own most spiritual moments of the pilgrimage. I reflected, whilst walking round a field of newly cut hay, on some of my own deeply spiritual moments. One included seeing the Ampleforth Banner, a plain red banner with ‘Ampleforth’ written across the top and a white dove of peace below, held high on the curve of steps in the Domain. Carried by a couple of Middle Sixth students, its message was simple, clear, loving and encompassing.
The Sign of Peace at the International Mass on Sunday was also symbolic of love and community. How many people were at that mass? I don’t know; probably at least 15,000, maybe more. What matters is that they must have included people from around the globe and they had no difficulty in shaking hands, hugging, kissing their neighbours in a sign of peace. If we all can, I though to myself, why can’t the rest of the world?
It was a powerful and moving event, as was the Mass of the Anointing of the Sick which was held outside in glorious weather in a wooded amphitheatre at Cite St Pierre. Taking place half way through the week, this was the point where the Pilgrimage really coalesced into a single supportive group in which we were all able to shed our pride and allow ourselves to be vulnerable and humble in the presence of the sick whose difficulties far surpassed our own. This was a time and place of deep love, forgiveness and friendship, a moment never to be forgotten.
The examples of others
I felt deeply humbled by the examples of both helpers and pilgrims. The fifty or so Sixth Formers who were first time pilgrims were amazing in their courage and fortitude, getting stuck in without hesitation. In talking to them it became clear that their generosity derived purely out of a desire to serve, to help, to make a difference and not because they wanted it to be seen as a badge or fashion statement or even an add-on to a personal statement. They were an example to us all and deserve real praise.
One particular Hospital Pilgrim stood out for me. Unable to speak and barely able to move, he was distraught when his electronic communicator went on the blink on the third day. A replacement communicator was ordered from the UK. It did not arrive and instead he had to resort to sheets of paper on which we wrote the letters of the alphabet and numbers one to ten to which he pointed. The upshot was a series of long winded guessing games not unlike charades as we tried to work out his meaning. If it sounds funny it was actually deeply frustrating for him and us, particularly as the temperature rose above thirty degrees towards the end. If on occasions there were tears of frustration and anger he never gave up. He was an exemplar of patience, perseverance, and courage.
It was a time also to face one’s fears. Asked to be a feeding buddy to a HP suffering from MS and with very little movement and very slow conversation, it was a challenge to be one hundred percent attentive to his needs whilst trying to apply the Benedictine principle of hospitality. Meals needed to be an occasion for conversation and community, bringing in his wife (who was also his carer) and others on the table, and ensuring each meal was not simply an exercise in feeding. The first few meals were nerve racking although I think, and hope, that by the end of the week this HP was content in mind and body.
The importance of Lourdes
So why is Lourdes so important? The ambition of the Ampleforth Community has for two centuries been ‘to play a distinctive part in preparing future generations of men and women … to take an active part in making every nation on earth a better place for those who live there.’
If achieving this ambition is a challenge for those of us who left Ampleforth many years ago, then Lourdes is certainly a way for us to renew our efforts. On one level it gives us the opportunity to make the world a better place for the 85 sick who come to Lourdes with Ampleforth. It is a week of very practical, compassionate, hands-on service to others.
At another level it enables us to heal. There is suffering in all of us, young, old, physically healthy or impaired. Lourdes, shrine to Mary the Mother who stood at the foot of the Cross and shared her Son’s suffering, is a place for us all to heal.
The Pilgrimage is a way for us to continue our journey of self-discovery. It reminds us there is an alternative to the world of individualism, selfishness and conflict. It is the world of compassion, service, generosity and integrity. Here the Benedictine core values are a way of life, a means of day-to-day living that we can each take home with us.
And finally Lourdes is where we can renew ourselves, strengthen our community and continue the conversion of ourselves into individuals more able to fulfil the ambition of ‘making every nation on earth a better place for those who live there’.
This is an abridged version of an article that appears on the Ampleforth Society website at http://www.oa.ampleforth.org.uk/news/why-lourdes-matters-to-oas