I was on my way home at the time, driving through Spain towards France, then on towards dear old England. I had intended to make a stop at San Sebastian and did not foresee any trouble in finding a room. But it was a weekend Depeche Mode played a gig in Bilbao and, due to this, there were no rooms available in any hotel in the region, as I was told repeatedly at each one I stopped at.
It was getting late and dark, and I was getting tired and fed up. I had just about reached the French border and I made a decision. I will check one more hotel then I will park up and hunker down for the night in the back of the car with my sleeping bag. The last hotel to check was a Mercure in Irun, the last Spanish town before France. I followed the signs to a deserted industrial estate. There must be room here, surely.
At reception, I got the familiar 80s legend story and an apology.
“But”, said the receptionist unexpectedly, “We do have availability at Lourdes.”
At which point, all those vague recollections of Lourdes popped straight into focussed awareness as if they had been waiting patiently for hours for permission to do so, years maybe! Yes, I would go to Lourdes which was totally off my route, and not a short way off either (I decided to believe the receptionist when she told me the journey would take an hour, even though I knew she was probably lying, and she was).
It was very late when I arrived, past eleven. I was sort of high and excited, not desperate to relax and get to bed. OK, I had been driving all day so I was rather wired. The receptionist at the Mercure in Lourdes said,
“Why not visit the grotto now. It is open 24 hours and it is only five minutes away.”
He explained how to get to the cave where a poor, illiterate, sixteen-year-old, Bernadette Soubirous, had seen Holy Mary over the course of eighteen visions in 1858 – not so long ago in the great scheme of things. Excited, I wandered past the busy bars and restaurants and through the gate of the sanctuaries, then down, past the enormous chapel which I made a mental to note to have a look at properly the next day. Then on past the taps where a handful of pilgrims were filling their bottles with the water from the spring that Bernadette had uncovered by digging with her bare hands on instruction from Mary during one of the visions. I reached the grotto. The soft hush of the river Gave and the soft light of thousands of burning candles marked my way in the dark night. Inexplicable tears came to my eyes, and still do any time I tell this story.
Since then, I have done my best to visit Lourdes every year and, each time, I’ve bathed in the holy spring water. Mary told Bernadette to tell the people to come to the waters of the spring she had sourced to drink and bathe and heal. After accepting the visionary lady as the true Virgin Mary, the Catholic Church got organised and eventually built the church that Mary had politely demanded, as well as the bath buildings where pilgrims in their millions come each year to be cleansed and healed by the holy water of Lourdes.
Each time I visited was better than the last. One time I received a whole book idea, all of a sudden, in my head, title and chapter outline, the whole thing. It felt like holy instructions so I went ahead and wrote it and published it. The thing had been in my head for years in any case, I believe I was just given a little nudge and some guidelines. And what else are you gonna do with holy instructions? That book was The Liar. Each time I came for a dunking in the holy water by the women at the baths, I felt like I’d been touched by the divine. It seemed impossible that the next dunking could get any better, but each time it did. I cannot explain how, less why.
The last three times I have been at Lourdes, the notion of volunteering at the baths arose. Now, I’m technically not Catholic, although the first time I arrived at Lourdes my rather pagan spiritual practice was full of Catholic references so I had no problem with it nor was I unfamiliar with it. Technically, I was christened into Church of England which, although breaking all ties with Rome all those centuries ago, did not alter the communion mass any or demote the Saints or do anything close to the Protestant full scale rewrite that was to come. Still, obviously a lot had been cut and I didn’t know the words to the prayers or the songs recited continuously. I always felt somewhat undercover, an interloper, and afraid to be found out. And here I was getting the sign to volunteer, from Upstairs of course, which after three years of deliberating became too loud to put off any longer, particularly when I found myself asked to read a passage on John the Baptist to hundreds of queuing pilgrims.
The call was so intense now that even the requirement of a letter from a priest didn’t put me off. Instead, along with my form, I enclosed a long letter explaining my situation honestly and a criminal record check from the UK police which I’d needed to do voluntary work in London. At least they’d be sure I wasn’t criminally insane.
I’m amazed at how much I doubt, still, after all the miracles I’ve been gifted. But still, I doubt, and I really thought they’d never let me join the gang but after only a few weeks I received a letter saying I had been accepted to work at the Saint John the Baptist service at the sanctuaries of Our Lady of Lourdes. Wow!
When I first went for a dip in 2006 I had been struck by the strange, perhaps antiquated, bathing ceremony. I’m sensitive to any negative connotations concerning the female body – of course, I have one – and the bathing experience I found to be patronising and, perhaps even insulting. Firstly, you are ushered into a bathing cubicle I know now to be called cabins. A lady kindly covers you with a blue gown which smells of bodies and tells you to take everything off. When you are ready you are told to keep your bra in your right hand and you are muscled into a particular crossed-arms position and told to wait. When it’s your turn you are brought into the bathing area. A woman takes your bra from you and tells you to make your intention in your heart to Our Lady and, when you are ready, to make the sign of the cross. You are then wrapped in an extremely cold sheet to keep you modest, the blue gown is whisked away, and you are walked down into the bath and through the water towards a statue of Our Lady. At the statue, you are helped to sit back in the water and then raised up again. Then you are then turned and led out of the bath whilst prayers are recited.
When you are free of the water, the biggest load of nonsense begins. You are helped into your bra. The woman at the front who has been looking after your bra puts your arms through it, and the women at your sides fasten it at the back. Now, if this isn’t patronizing, please tell me what is. I got my bra on quite happily in the morning but now I need help to do it. If I can’t be trusted to get my bra on OK, how they can trust me with my knickers, I don’t know. Well, this business always perplexed me, concerned me and made me feel like a group of unseen, powerful people were still ‘looking down on’ me as a woman because I couldn’t possibly handle all this spirituality myself if I needed three people to help me put my bra on. The bathing instructions were not divinely given to Bernadette – although you might think they had been at times. Moreover, they were probably decided around the same time women were still being sent into slavery by and for the Catholic Church for being too beautiful, amongst other sins!
Yes, this could be insulting. And, imagine you are off to commune directly with God. You have an opportunity to literally spend a moment with God Herself, and you have travelled maybe many miles and spent much money. Perhaps you are sick. Perhaps someone you care very deeply about is suffering. You wait for hours in the line. You have your short moments with God. It is blissful, divine, you feel connected and healed, floating with the angels, you certainly did the right thing coming here…yes…and then BAM you are reminded of your feminine frailty and weakness, worseness – which is always defined by your bodily differences – in the ensuing kafuffle whilst three, yes three, women struggle to get you back into your all-important bra. Yes, that’s insulting.
But anyway, I got over it, and never let the peculiarities of the dressing ritual stop me coming back for more, because whatever I was getting from my one minute with God was way above all of this darned stupidness and I could stomach it, for God’s sake. For God, I’ll do anything. And clearly, God wanted me to come here, again and again, and to eventually volunteer to bath pilgrims, which I did, which I am now doing!
I have just spent one beautiful week with the angels of the Hospitalité de Lourdes on induction and training to learn about the sanctuaries and the job of bathing pilgrims. People do a lot of different types of volunteer service here. There is a hospital with over 900 beds where the sick pilgrims are cared for by health professionals. There is another building, Marie St Frai, where sick pilgrims not needing around-the-clock care may stay and the volunteers there spend the days washing dishes, doing laundry and making up rooms. You might be picking people up from the station or helping the sick around the sanctuaries. The baths is actually a tiny part of what goes on at Lourdes but an important one.
So, I worked in the baths, morning and night, fastened bras, learned the word for bra in a number of languages, did what I was told and was very happy. Blissed out, in fact. I was asked on a number of occasions by women what the whole bra thing was about and explained that it was the most complicated part of the clothing so we help them with that. Yeh, OK. But, BUT, if I can make their experience a little less frightening, a little less intimidating, then a little white lie is not off the menu, cause these faces were frightened, intimidated and a bit annoyed, just like mine used to be.
Non-verbal communication is what I’m up to at the baths because I rarely speak any English there, but I know that words are pretty irrelevant when it comes to Great Spirit and it’s quite clear when someone actually has a problem that needs sorting or is just babbling away like people do. I smile alot and say
“No problem. It’s OK. Don’t worry.”
I feel these words, and the tone they are said in, are universal.
Anyway, let’s see. So yesterday was JC’s debrief day (for all those non-Christian’s, the Saturday before Easter Sunday is a sort of no-man’s-land for the risen Son of God where we’re not sure what he was up to, but I suspect it was great fun). Often, this day is considered the saddest in the Christian calendar as it is when everyone was very tearful and hopeless. Well, it seemed to be the saddest day in the town too.
When I got to work yesterday afternoon, there was a crowd of people waiting to be bathed that went out of the baths and alongside the river until it reached the Grotto. I have never seen anything like it and I was delighted to be part of the fun. There must have been three thousand people lining up, probably more, and we weren’t due to open for half-an-hour. I noticed that the vast majority of these pilgrims were Indian. We got to work and I had a pretty bad day at the office, man (I had to say man there, the day required it). But I’ll tell you about that in a minute.
I had expected to be working for 5/6 hours straight (unlike the usual 2.5) but at around 4 o’clock I noticed the pilgrims coming in were getting sparser and there only seemed to be families with children. I went to the toilet and took a peek out the curtain.
The benches were empty. O my goodness, there’s no-one waiting. Did we do thousands of pilgrims in just a few short hours? Could it be possible? Has a miracle occurred, of the loaves and fishes variety perhaps, i.e. abundance of time in this case? I found out that no, there had been no miracle. Instead, there had been a riot. What? Yes, a riot!! A riot in the queue and a rush at the barriers. A big fight! Well, goodness me no! Not at the baths. It couldn’t be. But then I remembered my Indian pilgrimage experiences and what I know of them and, on balance, a riot seemed less unlikely.
Indians on pilgrimages can get terrifically overexcited. This is a fact and I’ve seen it for myself. There are now organisations in India who attempt to reunite parents with the children they lost in pilgrimages due to the chaos and crushes. These small children are usually too young to remember the name of where they live and end up on the streets. Amazing, but true, because that is what Indians are like when it comes to God. They’re Serious about Him; so serious they become hysterical at times.
Well, I imagine there’ll have been a great deal of negative tut-tutting about those Indians who were just exercising a cultural disposition. I can hear an emphasis in the talk on how we are much better than them, would never behave in such a way, us calm Europeans. And perhaps that’s true, but, but…this talk is hypocrisy coming from self-declared better-thans which no-one could be.
And now I’ll tell you about my bad day. During the induction week at the baths I only met angels working there. Pyrenean mountain women; a rough sort of solid, large lady, living in the area and working at the baths on a regular basis, maybe one shift at the weekend, or only in the winter time. I fell instantaneously in love with them all. They were amazing. There was one woman who looked exactly like an American Indian with the mannerisms you might expect of one. I’m not kidding. Whenever I was not working with her, I could hear her deep, heartfelt chuckling coming from another cabin and I could do nothing but smile. I figured this lady had been an American Indian in a very recent past life, died at war perhaps, fighting for freedom. I imagined at the moment of her/his death, he/she prayed to Great Spirit to take her to wherever she/he could serve Him best. And she ended up at Lourdes. I spend a lot of time dreaming up these sorts of tales about people. He/she’ll have to go in a book somewhere.
My induction group was just as divine, although I saw clearly the tendency for the unexamined female mind to feel comforted when bitching. I understand this and used to do it myself, a lot. It goes along with the low self-esteem territory women live in, not to say men don’t do stuff to make themselves feel less scared too, it just takes a different form. Anyway, after a few short days of getting to know each other, being polite, loving and friendly, I was not all that surprised to hear some of my female classmates start to laugh and jeer and tell mean stories about the pilgrims they had bathed. Not cool guys, not cool at all.
Anyway. That was then. This is yesterday.
There had been a lot of gossip about difficult women working at the baths. I’d heard it during induction week but it had not been my experience: until yesterday. I arrived at work and we said hello, prayers and got ready for the heaving masses outside. There were two completely new, very young American girls on the team who had never done this before (it’s not rocket science btw). We got going and I was asked to explain the left-side bathing technique to one of the girls. I was quietly explaining what to do whilst we bathed the first pilgrim, as was my counterpart on the right.
As I was explaining the intricacies of relieving the pilgrim of the cold, wet sheet whilst being sure to maintain her dignity, the woman on the right started to rage at me.
“If you don’t do it this way…rant…rage…she will fall over…rant rage…”
“Excuse me, I’m explaining what we’re doing. No-one has fallen over. I know what I’m doing.”
“So DO IT!”
WOW. A place of peace, Spirit and miracles had all of a sudden become a trading pit. Holy Spirit, what to do? OK, so I understand that panic can be a reaction to the trillions of pilgrims we have to bathe this afternoon and we have three newbies, two who have never done it before, so this lady is just frightened and crazy and doesn’t know what she does.
OK. So I carry on with my explanations but, in the meantime, I’ve become the pariah. Everything I do now, which is no different from anything I have been doing for a week already without complaint, is wrong. I move my hand, the crazy lady huffs and puffs. I move my eye, the crazy lady huffs and puffs. And she’s saying,
“But this is the way we do it.”
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t taught this way. Please forgive me. PLEASE FORGIVE ME.”
She didn't. (I checked the manual when I got home and her nit-picking was not laid out in there either.) Well, it was painful indeed. The first tranche of pilgrims in our cabin had to contend with this air of rage and frustration. The two new Americans were absolutely terrified and spent the rest of the session red-face and tearful. I was reeling, off balance from the attacks. What to do. Holy Spirit, what to do?
Unfortunately, the boss of the cabin that day was another panic merchant. She had a face you might grind angle with; one of those that laughs and smiles so rarely that whenever it does we're not sure if we're seeing grimace or mirth. She was terrifying everyone as well. Never mind, I’ll do what I do best here in the cabins, even when I’ve no clue what’s going on. I’ll the make nervous pilgrims feel safe. So I smiled and said there was no problem and helped the women undress and dress again and sent love to all my colleagues from my heart and for some reason the very crazy lady disappeared and we managed to calm down a bit and all was not lost. WOW.
So, how to understand this with love?
Crazy-lady is a member of a very special group of people. She feels superior to any newbies to the group, which in terms of knowledge and know-how of course she is. BUT. There is a way to speak to people when someone is making a mistake, or when you think someone is making a mistake. You can become angry or you can say smilingly, joyfully, look, this is a mistake, as had the women from the week before. The angry version of these approaches is the road to murder and comes from prior irrational judgments and a locked-down mind, unable to see solutions to problems.
Christianity has a lot to answer for is a statement we all hear from time to time, and rightly so. The murder that has been committed under the banner of Christ is more than a little disappointing. But all of this came from the belief in better-than-ness, the belief in being right when compared to anyone who was not part of the special group. Or anyone, too, that may have spoken up against the special group from within it. As if right might justify murder. As if anything might justify murder.
Wasn’t this why we murdered Christ?
Anything that is not love is murder, as JC says in A Course In Miracles; from the distorted sigh and roll of the eyes as the fool gets it wrong again, to actual body destruction. But anything that is not love is murder. So any angry, frustrated thought that makes our blood boil and want to punch someone is murder too. And these thoughts can be very subtle and hidden behind a veneer of acceptability at times. Self-destructive thinking is murder; all of it. And how much of our thinking isn’t self-destructive? (We’ll talk about romantic love being murder too at some point, but we’re way off topic here.)
So, to explain violence in religion, just look closely at the behaviour of people who believe they are more powerful than others. There is a total lack of peace because the effort required in supporting an impossible better-than-ness against equals is excessive. There is anger and frustration, which spreads like a virus, particularly when some – apparently – external event causes fear and panic. Take this to extremes and we have someone who, due to this correctable state of mind and in the right circumstances, would be able to justify murder in its truest sense. Hence, violence in religion, and none of us is immune to or above it.
So, statistically speaking (as if these ever had any effect on miracles) I won’t work with another lunatic for a few shifts yet, but I’m grateful that she reiterated something for me. Undoing the liar is an on-going daily affair and, because we are all in the asylum at all times, currently, we may bump into its excesses in the most unlikely of places. And for that lesson, I’m grateful. And if you wanted a full-on, intense, one-to-one, present moment, practical class on undoing the liar in the mind, a few shifts with one of these birds would suffice…but even that’s not the point. There’s more…much more…
The true lesson is that, no matter how insane we are, Love is more powerful; in every situation and in any sense. Wherever we are, in whatever turmoil and pain and suffering, and however insane we have become, Love overrides it all, quietly and softly, and we cannot keep ourselves from It. This is more than comforting. And I shall carry on feeling blessed as I go to bath pilgrims, wondering if this day I will find myself in an environment of peace and love (with a sense of this is how we should always be with each other) or fear and loathing (and learn the important lessons of what we have left to do before we truly get there).