Last December, a friend called to say she’d proposed I be among the “beloved malades” on an annual pilgrimage to Lourdes sponsored by the Order of Malta. I felt what they call Eucharisteo, the deepest kind of gratitude.
My friend promised no guarantee of acceptance. There were prerequisites: I must be sick enough to qualify; lucid enough to disavow unrealistic expectations; and well enough to endure a seven-hour charter flight to France. I needed to secure my doctor’s permission and to schedule interviews with a Malta nurse, a hospitalier (a combination guide/companion for body and spirit), and a physician, all of whom would be final arbiters of my suitability.
It seemed unlikely I would be disqualified for being insufficiently sick. In the prior six months, I’d suffered a breast cancer recurrence, received two subsequent diagnoses of different types of colon cancer, and later the threat of a cervical malignancy.
In my professional experience as a producer, “Stage 3” designates a rehearsal space for a play or a sound stage for a TV show or movie. But at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Stage 3 means an unfavorable diagnosis, although not necessarily a death sentence.
There is a delicate tension between hope and fear in the interior life of a faithful Catholic – or anyone – who receives medical reports of this sort. The patient needs an action plan, a team of medical practitioners, and above all the truth, because false hope can be more toxic to the suffering soul than chemotherapy is to the afflicted body.
I can attest to the fact that prayers at such times may seem to go unanswered. But I can also testify that despite the anxiety and sorrow that accompany such news, in short order the paradox of unbidden blessings flows. A pilgrimage to Lourdes, for instance.
I was schooled by the Daughters of Charity to offer each day’s prayers, works, joys, and sufferings in reparation for my transgressions and for the intentions of my loved ones too. My body became a sort of burnt offering each day in the last year as it was slashed, poisoned, and seared in hopes of restoring me to health.
Gentler remedies were also tried. But the most mysterious weapons in the arsenal were prayers said, candles lit, and kindnesses given by family, friends, and even strangers.
And now Lourdes. I would come to think of the pilgrimage as not only a spiritual journey but also a form of palliative care. My immediate concern, however, was the practical and spiritual preparations necessary to be a pilgrim. But I’m good at organizing things, so I asked my prayer warriors to pray for me, revved up those daily devotional practices, bought a good guidebook to Lourdes, packed for variable weather, and brushed up on my schoolgirl French.
It was sweater weather in Lourdes. We malades moved in our assigned voitures d’infirme, rickshaws pulled and pushed by our designated Dame and Knight, to the Rosary Basilica for our first Mass, passing through (in the words of Wendell Berry) “a lived benediction within a damnable circle of fire.”
There are a lot of sellers outside the temple: street vendors; produce, wine, and cheese markets; religious souvenir shops; beggars with their legally required canine companions. And we left behind our own internal “commerce”: medical treatments, economic woes, war-zone telecasts – any distractions that might diminish our tenure en France.
There were opportunities for confession and Eucharistic adoration and candlelit rosary processions. One day included the anointing of the sick by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington. We participated in a Benediction liturgy. We visited the Grotto baths. We said the Stations of the Cross and chanted vespers with Carmelite nuns. We ate family-style meals.
We were a family. All our waking hours were marked by tender love, profound peace, and no real sense of time. Blessed John Paul II observes in his Letter to Families that modern rationalism does not tolerate mystery. Yet surely even a skeptic entering the domaine of Lourdes will sense that something extraordinary happened there in 1858. It’s still happening today.
And wherever we were and whatever we did, we were surrounded by the splendor of the universal Church: among men and women of most races, cultures, languages, ages, and states of health and grace.
Was I healed? Most transformations occur over time. Epiphanies such as St. Paul’s on his journey to Damascus are rare, but however long it takes, the point of a journey to Lourdes is the same: a conversion of the heart more than a cure of the body. And some passage of time is usually required for either outcome.
My cancers are in remission, and I trust time will be my friend. A particular broken place in my heart is beginning to mend, and this is miracle enough for me.
One of my sister pilgrims died since we returned to the States, but her fondest wish was fulfilled at Lourdes. With the Grotto in the background, she and her husband renewed their wedding vows. It seemed a foretaste of heaven.
C. S. Lewis wrote that there were times he thought people don’t want to go to heaven, “but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else.”
It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.
I live now in the rippling echoes of Lourdes. I am mindful of the yellow roses on the bare feet of Our Lady. I live in the Way of Beauty, albeit with the thorns of those yellow roses. Eucharisteo!