Lourdes, pilgrims and angels

by | Feb 25, 2016 | Personal | 1 comment

‘Ampleforth at Lourdes, July 2015’.

The Cathedral in the Trees at Cité St Pierre is slightly less than two steep kilometres from the centre of Lourdes. Half way through Ampleforth’s week at Lourdes we pull our pilgrims up this hill in their wheel chairs and voitures for the Mass of the Anointing of the Sick. Under the scorching Pyrenean sun and still recovering from a broken arm I found it more of a test this year than last. However, this pilgrimage within a pilgrimage is at the heart of Ampleforth’s annual Lourdes visit.

Leaving the bustle and noise of the town, we were content to suffer a little to be present for the Mass held in a place that many describe as the most beautiful church in the world. If physically draining, the Mass is no less emotionally draining, a time of vulnerability when we face our weaknesses and mortality and seek healing in the sight of God. ‘It helps all your worries and fears about life pale into total insignificance when you have the time and peace to think about the crosses that others have to bear daily’ Teda Plummer, an Ampleforth parent returning to Lourdes after an eleven year gap, told me as we sat under the trees.

Faith, love, service and community

The Ampleforth Lourdes Pilgrimage takes place every year in July. Three hundred professional and volunteer helpers aged from seventeen upwards and from all over the world spend a week caring for 65 assisted pilgrims (APs).

So, what pulls us to Lourdes? Fr Jock Dalrymple, chaplain to the group I was assigned to, asked this question during the group’s half day of reflection. The answers, in the words of my group, were to be found in faith, love, service and community.

Denise Phillips and Claire Edwards, day therapy nurses with no direct connection to Ampleforth described their ‘overwhelming sense of belonging to Ampleforth. The group truly touches our hearts with its caring, loving and non-discriminatory approach to each and every individual’.

Bid Newport, one of the Pilgrimage’s nurses, was drawn to Lourdes for the first time this year to remember her parents.  Her father was an assisted pilgrim, her mother a helper. What she expected was a slightly touristy experience; what she found was real and tangible faith and love, and her heart simply brimming with a feeling of love for others.

Describing Lourdes is difficult at the best of times, so when Lois Butlin, an Ampleforth parent returning to Lourdes for her seventh pilgrimage, recited her short and succinct poem about what drew her to Lourdes many in our group were amazed and in tears at her simple beauty:

‘A chance to love and be loved
A call I cannot deny and I want to answer
To be healed, to feel whole
Old friends and new friends
To start my own New Year till next time.’

Lourdes is also New Year for Hew Williams (EW08). Hew, on his ninth pilgrimage and one of our group leaders, told us how important it is for him to return to Lourdes each year to renew his faith, to evaluate his life and to remind himself of what is really important before starting over.

Alan Beckett described how the joys of Lourdes pull him back year after year: ‘Getting up before 6 am, lugging mini rickshaws up vertical hills, emptying the odd catheter bag and going to endless wall-to-wall services – and those are only the good bits!’ Alan saw Lourdes as a once a year opportunity to commit to the service of others for a week, and to serve with joy and love.

The big takeaway

And this of course begs the question of what we take away from Lourdes after our week has ended. Fr Henry Wansbrough addressed this in his homily at the Adieu Mass on the morning of our departure. His answer: Lourdes, or ‘the Sermon on the Mount in practice’ as it is sometimes described. It is where everyone is at their best, their most generous, their most willing whilst also at their most vulnerable and open, neither wanting to conceal or be concealed.

Fr Henry reminded the Pilgrimage that our APs are just a tiny fraction of all those around the globe needing help, love, compassion and healing. He urged us, on leaving Lourdes, to be at our best, to be of service to others, to act as if we were still in Lourdes, to live every day by the Christian and Benedictine values that are at the centre of Ampleforth.

I was privileged to take one of our assisted pilgrims to the Adieu Mass. While waiting on the Grid to move out I asked her how she felt as the Pilgrimage approached its end. She looked at me with a joyful tear in her eye and said ‘I feel as though I have spent a week with angels. Everyone has been so kind. They have done everything they had to and the same again’.

That’s why we go to Lourdes; that’s what we take away.

(This article was written for the Winter 2015/16 edition of the Ampleforth Diary. Images 1 to 6 by kind permission of Rupert Plummer)