Wednesday, December 17, 2014

“Sacred Journeys” Worth Taking

There’s a lot to move you in the first installment of PBS’s “Sacred Journeys,” a series of six one-hour documentaries hosted by Bruce Feiler. My wife and I watched last evening—our first side-by-side, beneath-one-blanket viewing experience since a recent “Breaking Bad” bingeathon.

As St. Ignatius might have, I discerned a different quality of experience. More consolatory on balance, I would say.

The series follows American pilgrims on six forms of pilgrimage observed by six religions: Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Yoruba (in order of the installments). Two installments are being shown on three consecutive Tuesday evenings: December 16, 23, and 30.

Wisely, the series begins in Lourdes and will take viewers to Jerusalem next Tuesday, during Christmas week.

Powerfully, the first segment follows a group of American war veterans to Lourdes. All bear wounds, physical, psychological, emotional. Only half are Catholic. Many are visibly changed by the experience.

A few notes:

• The wounded warriors arrive during the week of the annual Pilgrimage for Military Personnel hosted at Lourdes each May. This event brings together fighting men and women from every continent. The 57th international military pilgrimage will occur May 12–18, 2015. My daughter and I happened to arrive in Lourdes in May 2012 on the occasion of the 54th annual event. I was moved by the coincidence. The military pilgrimage is a striking demonstration of the power of Lourdes, in that it brings together soldiers who literally once fought against one another.

• Bruce Feiler does a great job sharing his enthusiasm while informing viewers about many aspects of the Lourdes experience. He lays out the story of St. Bernadette’s visions in 1858 and the Church’s eventual embrace of these visions. He addresses the question of miracles directly by interviewing the medical doctor charged with keeping the Lourdes archive, a faithful Catholic and a man of science who sees no contradiction between the two roles. But mostly Feiler tells the story of American soldiers—

• Two of the soldiers made the most impact on me, one a married white Catholic accompanied by his wife, the other a single black non-believer traveling alone. The first was blinded by a shell in Iraq, the second disfigured in Afghanistan when a rifle round hit him in the mouth, going off, he says, “like a firecracker.” The blind man is on his third visit to Lourdes and has recovered from his initial disappointment at not being cured the first time he entered the pool in the grotto. The man with facial injuries begins skeptical and ends changed.

• There were some discordant notes, including repeated interviews with an Oxford Ph.D. in religion. Her discussion of Lourdes was respectful but seemed to suggest that the Catholic Church had embraced Bernadette’s visions as some sort mid-19th-century public relations strategy, to recover lost market share in the wake of the French revolution. I found that mildly offensive.

• The photography and music and overall production are, as you might expect from a big PBS series, spectacularly good.

I recommend “Sacred Journeys” and suspect you can find the powerful Lourdes episode on line or in repeat runs on your local PBS station this week. The second segment, on the Japanese pilgrimage of Shikoku, was less moving for me. But by then I was falling asleep under the blanket.

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