On a Pilgrimage of Desolation and Growth at Lourdes

On a Pilgrimage of Desolation and Growth at Lourdes

At the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, her statue looks slightly upward as if to say “ask me anything because I know how to arrange everything with my Son.”

Upon arriving in Lourdes on pilgrimage on a cold, rainy winter day, I was feeling very much the pilgrim. I was cold, tired, and wet. The long trip had been exhausting and the walk in the drizzling rain from the train station to the hotel had drained me of energy.

As I headed to the Grotto of Our Lady, I was hoping to find consolation and comfort. However, the place that had been such a source of blessings before, now felt dreary and uninviting. Walking back to the hotel, there was an eerie silence around the sanctuary that left me perplexed. Nothing seemed to be going as planned.

The next morning after a good night’s rest, I returned to discover what others had told me was really true. During the winter, this extremely popular Marian shrine visited by millions is largely empty. There are no rosary processions or other activities. I had come prepared for “empty” but not for “desolate.”

A Desolate Picture
However, that is what I found. During the winter, and especially this very cold winter, Lourdes is absolutely desolate. There is no other word to describe it. All the hotels, restaurants, and shops are shuttered in the general sanctuary area. My own hotel had just two occupants. Almost no one was in the streets. Even the omnipresent souvenir shops were limited to five or six that stayed open for limited hours.

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There were times—during the day as well as night—when absolutely no one was in the large basilica plaza that normally holds thousands. At the Grotto itself, usually only a few knelt before Our Lady.

And it was freezing. The cold that comes off the river near the Grotto could chill you to the bone. At night, walking the five blocks back to the hotel in the empty streets, I would pray that I would not be attacked in my vulnerability. I later came to the conclusion that not even the thieves thought it worth their while to stalk these cold deserted streets.

Thus, my one-week pilgrimage of desolation began. My last trip had been at the height of the summer when one sees Lourdes in all its glory, full of people, magnificent processions and graces. Now, it felt as if I had walked out of a color picture into a black-and-white print. I would have to endure a pilgrimage quite different from the merely “empty” one that I had planned.

Pilgrimage Inside the Silence
Indeed, it took a little while to get used to the desolation, silence, and cold. As I made my way to the Grotto several times a day, I came to realize there was something very calming and alluring about the shrine without all the “noise” of the crowds. It increasingly drew me there.

On a Pilgrimage of Desolation and Growth at Lourdes

As I made my way to the Grotto several times a day, I came to realize there was something very calming and alluring about the shrine without all the “noise” of the crowds. It increasingly drew me there.

When the noise stops, it is easier to notice things. The sanctuary bells seemed to be crisper and more beautiful. Sights like the lighted medieval castle that at night appeared to float on the hill near the sanctuary seemed more fairytale-like. The candles seem to burn with greater intensity.

Although it is probably theologically incorrect, it seemed the prayers at the sanctuary were more unobstructed. You had the sense that your prayers were going straight to Our Lady at the Grotto. There was especially noticeable at night amid the cold when the rest of the world disappeared and only the heavens above could be seen. One night, snow started to fall that only added to this overall impression of calm isolation. You felt that you could stay for hours, but there was always a point when the maternal solicitude of Our Lady intervened and you sensed it was time to leave the cold and return to the warm hotel.

A Tremendous Unburdening
Of course, some things at the sanctuary were still open despite everything. These included the baths. The baths are enclosed shallow stone pools with water from the miraculous spring at the Grotto. Pilgrims are invited to immerse themselves in the pools for healing of mind and body. Usually the baths are full of lines of pilgrims divided by men and women waiting their turn. However, this time I was the only one there.

The baths are a great wonder of Lourdes. The volunteers who help you are extremely respectful and charitable. Everything is done modestly and without any embarrassment. The aproned helpers hold a towel in front of you as you prepare for the bath and then wrap it around you. They lead you to the pool and then ask you to pray with them. You are then told to sit in the pool and the water comes up to your neck.

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Thankfully the water was cold but not the icy cold that I expected. The helpers then offered me water from a pitcher to wash my face and drink. I did not receive any special cure after the baths, but I can say I sensed a tremendous unburdening of useless cares that stayed with me throughout the pilgrimage.

Wasting Lourdes Water
I was disappointed by the new arrangements for getting Lourdes water. I had been used to the faucets right near the Grotto from which the water, like graces, flowed exuberantly and abundantly. This is no longer possible since the faucets have been removed and replaced with low volume faucets that will not allow a person to easily fill containers.

Save water sign in Lourdes.

Given Our Lady’s spring has delivered millions of gallons of water to the faithful over the decades, it is hard not to see a disturbing ecological overtone to the new instructions…

According to a brochure, the new faucets allow one to make a symbolic gesture of “washing” and “drinking.” To fill containers one must go to another place some seventy paces away near the river. There was also a sign at both locations warning that water is a precious resource and should not be wasted. Given Our Lady’s spring has delivered millions of gallons of water to the faithful over the decades, it is hard not to see a disturbing ecological overtone to the new instructions…

The Wonders of Lourdes
There are many other wonders at Lourdes. I was, for example, struck at how the favors of Our Lady are literally written in stone. The inside walls of the Basilica, crypt and Rosary Chapel are all sheathed in marble stones engraved with thousands of messages of thanksgiving for graces given and cures received.

There is the marvelous Way of the Cross of life-size cast iron statues that occupies a huge hill next to the sanctuary. Again there was no one around, and I did the way of the cross alone. From the height of the Calvary, I was surprised by a magnificent panorama of the snow-capped Pyrenees Mountains.

And there was the charm of the town itself, the people, and its markets. The town center is some distance from the sanctuary and did have some activity that allowed one to interact with the people. There were also the pilgrims, albeit few, who share in the wonders done there and with whom you can talk. They come from all over the world drawn by Our Lady’s special blessings.

Ask Anything
The pilgrimage of desolation became one of consolation. In the desolate silence, you gradually acquired the habit of thinking, reflecting, and praying. What attracted me the most was the Grotto, which is the heart and soul of Lourdes. When you are almost alone with Our Lady, you experience a kind of sacral intimacy by which you feel you can ask her anything without inhibition. It was easy to spend time asking, asking, and asking yet again. There was time to pray for the crisis inside the Church, for America, and family and friends. And returning to the hotel, you thought of yet more things to ask.FREE e-Book, A Spanish Mystic in Quito: Sor Mariana de Jesus Torres

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And Our Lady responds by encouraging your petitions. Her statue at the Grotto is discrete, polite, and very French. She looks slightly upward as if to say “ask me anything because I know how to arrange everything with my Son.” And you are compelled to comply.

Desolation or Crowds?
As the weekend approached, however, the “crowds” started to arrive. Sometimes thirty or even fifty people would arrive at a time. After a week of desolation, these few pilgrims seemed like a multitude that broke the desolation. Of course, I would never begrudge these pilgrims their chance to come to the Blessed Mother. But it ironically served to highlight that the desolation I had originally feared was now immensely treasured.

As one who has experienced both the pilgrimage of what might be called triumph (with the crowds) and that of desolation, I asked myself which one was preferable.

Pilgrimage of desolation, Lourdes

There are times in the history of the Church, like our own, that are best expressed by the desolation. Pilgrimages like these teach us to abstract from the noise of the world and be attentive to grace. In the midst of the desolation, we sense a greater need to go straight to Our Lady, and this gives us courage.

I am inclined to say both have their role. There are times in the history of the Church, like our own, that are best expressed by the desolation. It is then when pilgrimages like these teach us to abstract from the noise of the world and be attentive to grace. In the midst of the desolation, we sense a greater need to go straight to Our Lady unobstructed, and this gives us courage.

However, there are other times when the pilgrimage of triumph helps us grow spiritually. We sense the universal mission of the Church that joyfully unites all peoples. We sense the enormous attraction of the Church even in our neo-pagan times. It is good that there be huge triumphant rosary processions to assure us and to create in us the certainty that the Church will prevail despite everything.

In the pilgrimage of our own lives, we all go through times of desolation and triumph. Each has its role, lessons, and special graces. Both are necessary and part of life. The important thing is the object our pilgrimage which is found in Our Lady who leads us to God and heaven. With this in mind, whichever pilgrimage you choose, you will never go away disappointed.


As seen on Crisis Magazine.

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  • Pamela

    I am going to Lourdes in May for the first time, and your article has only increased my excitement and anticipation! Thank you for the beautiful preview!

  • Aint So

    Few of us understand why we are allowed seasons of desolation in our lives such as the relatively minor one described here. Having weathered quite a number of such seasons in my seven decades of life, as I am sure the author here has as well, some of these seasons have been of a relatively minor nature of sustained and unexpected loss of consolation while others, have involved an immense sense of loss punctuated by considerable suffering and even death. I am always compelled by the great importance Mary our Mother has placed upon the tendering our sufferings and disappointments to Her as a means of expiation for our sins and those of our Church. I have found that we are led ultimately, if we allow, in each of these seasons or circumstances into one ever more firm conclusion, or should I rather say, disposition of our hearts which I will explain below.
    Few of us understand that our periods of desolation are actually the result of the withdrawal of the sustained consolation one encounters within the spirit at the recognition of God in our surroundings. This recognition of God is not reserved for a few but is one which is a very routine, although miraculous occurrence in the daily lives of all cognitive beings when first created. Further, few understand the degree to which we are sustained and immersed at literally every moment in recognition of the person of God, not only in our surroundings, but rising continually from within us as He attends to us at each moment. When we were each created by God, our nature underwent permeation by the nature and substance of the One who fashioned us from Himself. As a result, our greatest suffering as God’s human creation is the knowledge of our separation from Him and loss of communion with Him should that occur. This fact of our created nature is no less true of us here on earth, except by our degree of recognition and the irrevocable and unredeemable nature of the loss for the fallen, as it is for these unfortunates who have chosen forfeiture of life with God for the condemnation in Hell.

    Whether we perceive the constant recognition of God rising from within our spirits here on earth or not, it is our often unconscious observance of His consummate nearness to us alone which instills within us certainty of the accomplishment of our one hope, which is our being joined ultimately and inexorably to Him. In other words, within each of us, except for those who have chosen to immerse themselves in final contempt for God here on earth, is the absolute need for the intimate “knowledge” of God available only upon our personal recognition of Him. It is worth noting that this knowledge of near proximity to God, when it begins to mature, is of a much more compelling and intimate nature than is possible even between a husband and wife in marriage. Ours is a recognition of the presence of God which begins almost always with such subtlety that most frequently it begins to develop without our even being conscious of its rise from without and within us. Only a very few can define or identify this recognition unless they have undergone immersion, as we are each enabled to some degree, in the beatific vision. (Please read the former sentence again if you missed its meaning)

    At times we are each driven by God, often at great cost to us, into the recognition and embrace of our true state with respect to Him which is one of complete destitution. The real nature of our destitution is a consummate poverty of both the means of attainment of our destiny of communion with God and a destitution within ourselves of merit to even warrant His attention, let alone His embrace. It is a destitution which has little to do with our sin or our imperfection but everything to do with the exponentially great divergence between the nature of the unfathomable God and the insignificance and absolute dependence of our race upon Him for our existence from moment to moment. Our destitution, even in the most perfected state we hope to attain in Heaven, will still be absolute for eternity. In other words, failure to embrace our true state of destitution before God is a denial of our own nature and of the very means by which we may be enabled of Heaven. Without the embrace of our destitution with respect to God, entry into the result of the death and resurrection is impossible, as is entry into Heaven. Once enabled entry into the life which exists between our Savior and Father as such, we enter life with God no longer as the paupers we once were but as sons and heirs of the living God, having been joined inexorably to our Savior.

    For this reason desolation, when we encounter it, should always be regarded as gift of God to be lain without complaint as the surrender of our convictions and of our being, silently and expectantly, at His feet. When this becomes our response to what seems to us to be the barrenness within our spirit, our consummate surrender of self to our Father is soon noticed propelling us ever more near in our recognition and our embrace of Him. At times our greatest difficulty is that we have been advised by well meaning mentors, often from childhood, to hold both desolation and its result intended by God, destitution of spirit, in the utmost contempt. Rather than embracing them as what they are, the means of our sanctity imparted by God, we spurn and avoid them at all cost, even in the presence of God. One needs only to review the promises of Mary our Mother in Her numerous apparitions and encouragements over the years to discover the dire need to embrace our discomfort and adversity in due season as the means of entry for us, not only to become sustained in our eternal communion with God, but insure the sanctity of our Church.

  • Fatima

    You don’t hear God speaking to you in a noisy atmosphere. You hear and feel God in solitude. Be appreciated the grace that God given to you. All the Saints and the Prophets always looking and loving the quiet time that God gave them. That was when God speaks to their souls.

  • 3indigo13

    Very nice article. Thank you

  • Maria Johnson

    Does anyone know how many people arrive for Her feast day – February 11? That is when I would like to be there (if I ever went) and wondered if it is more expensive that week.


    You have such a gift for writing. I could imagine myself walking along with you down the empty streets as well as kneeling in front of the shrine and asking Our Blessed Mother for her help. Thank you for that inspiring article. I can really relate to both the isolation as well as the triumph!

  • Maureen Coon

    Wow, what grand moments you experienced during this pilgrimage, Mr. John! You are right, we need both the comfort of the faithful and genuine quiet solitude. Just contemplating her presence there must have been wonderful! How much you must have been both in awe and trust throughout this journey. Thanks for sharing.

  • disqus_4uYZXBkH0W

    Mr. John; Thank you for the excellent recounting of your trip! It took me back to the time when the “Bem-Ti-Vis” all went together many years ago. I was instantly transported to that time, and it brought back a flood of memories and reminders of graces – and my brothers there, and of those who were with me and who continue to mean so much to me. It has been almost 30 years, yet the memories burn as bright and as vividly as the sun in my mind’s eye. I can see the faces of each one who was there…and I long with tears in my eyes for that time…and wonder…

    “Ha momentos minha Mãe…Lembrai-vos, Senhora, deste David!”

    Irmãos abençoados, por favor não se esqueçam de mim, orem por mim!

    Rest assured of my continued prayers.

  • Pawel66


  • Ed Hartnett

    Your description made me yearn to return to Lourdes, Fatima and Medjugoria. It has been ten years and probably will not get to go again. But with your help I went in my mind for a few minutes. Thank you. Edmund

  • Frank de Varona

    Beautiful article. I have been to Lourdes several times. It is very special place and I hope to able to return very soon. Frank de Varona

  • Jane

    I felt as if I was actually there by your great descriptions! Thank you! I am pretty sure I will not be able to visit firsthand, so thank you for this great, inspiring article! God Bless you!