Lourdes: Glimpses of Faith

[This is the sixth installment of my memoir, The Long Walk Home. Click here for a complete table of contents.]

Speaking as a cradle Catholic who no longer went to mass himself, Gulliver prepared us for our visit to Lourdes with some basic Catholic information. He told us about a fourteen-year-old peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, who in 1858 had visions of a beautiful lady calling herself the Immaculate Conception. The miraculous apparition told Bernadette to dig in the earth, and the girl’s digging unearthed a fresh spring of water. The water continued to flow, and in the hundred years that followed this discovery, the water produced many “cures.” No Catholic myself, I had never heard of Bernadette, was not sure what I thought of miraculous cures, and had no idea what Immaculate Conception meant.

About that term Gulliver left no doubt. He invested it with “esoteric” significance. He pointed out that Lilliput had closed on December 8, the Feast of the immaculate Conception in the Catholic Church. His voice choked as he said this, as though the coincidence was deeply meaningful to him or to the entire universe. I would notice that, although Gulliver did not practice the faith of his upbringing, he sometimes flashed it to invest what he was saying with a strong emotional current. His voice would swell, his face would tremble, he might even shed a tear, when he said saying things about the Catholic Church like what he now told me about the Immaculate Conception:

“Eet ees ve-r-r-r-y eem-por-tant date in Cattolic Church,” he said, “but Cattolics don’t understand it. No one understands it. The Immaculate Conception points to,” he paused to gather himself while another wave of emotion passed—“observing I!” This was a Gurdjieffian term, denoting the desired state of impartial self-observation. Gurdjieff taught, or at least Gulliver did, that such objective watching of oneself was necessary to reach the advanced state of consciousness called self-remembering.

Gulliver continued, now that he could do so without weeping. “One must op-serve one-self eem-partially,” he said. “Eem-maculately! One’s attention, one’s con-cep-tion must be eem-maculate! You seeee?”

As he would on other occasions, Gulliver was taking a bit of Catholic teaching and turning it into code for “inner work,” a code that only the enlightened Gurdjieffian could hope to decipher. I realized over time that Gulliver’s teaching of the Gurdjieff system co-opted the entire Catholic Christian story, reinterpreting it in Gurdjieffian terms. The Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Mary, even Jesus Christ Himself were only symbols, Gulliver said, of stages on the inner journey of “work on oneself.” In Gulliver’s worldview, it didn’t matter whether Christ actually lived or died or was raised from the dead. These were only “stages on the way” of “personal transformation.” Jesus was a symbol of real I, one’s authentic inner self, and the Blessed Virgin Mary stood for observing I, which can give birth to real I! The Virgin herself (one’s observing I) must be immaculate. In other words, to grow in our inner lives, we must learn to see the world and especially ourselves without distortion.

For several years to come, I would swallow such reductive interpretations of Catholic teaching, hook, line, and sinker. But on my first day at Lourdes in the summer of 1972, something different penetrated my heart.

In Lourdes at that time there were several hospitals or hospices for the care of invalids brought to the shrine by family members who hoped that Bernadette’s miraculous spring might cure them. On a beautiful summer morning, I had slipped away from Gulliver and the gang, probably for a bathroom run. I was returning alone past one of the hospital buildings when I noticed some kind of bus for the handicapped being unloaded out front. Nursing sisters in full habits were scurrying about, attending to the patients as they were taken off the bus.

My attention was attracted by this activity, and I wandered closer when suddenly one of the sisters turned hopefully to me and asked in French if I could help for a moment. I understood most of her French, and her gestures filled in the rest. She wanted me to follow her to the far side of the bus where another sister was holding a child. One sister passed the child to the other, who passed the child to me. What I could make of the French and gestures implied that they wanted me to carry the child inside the hospital and upstairs. I caught the last warning before both sisters turned away from me to other patients. “Attention à la tête!” one of them said. Be careful of the head!

When I looked down at the child in my arms and his head—he was a boy about four years old—I saw that he was hydrocephalic. With “water on the brain” (the words flooded my mind at that moment), the boy had a horribly enlarged, misshapen skull. Everything else about him was normal: his skin fair, his hair blond, his chemise blue, his eyes bluer still. I met their gaze and melted in it. The head and its horrible shape receded for a moment, and we two smiled at one another. Then the head in my hands came back into focus. I was shocked beyond reckoning and froze.

If I could have given up the child at that moment, I’m sure I would have done so. I have always been squeamish about disease and those with severe handicaps. But the sisters had turned to other patients and the child was in my arms now and there was only one place to go—through the doorway, inside the hospital, up the flight of stairs—while paying attention à la tête. I was panting more with fear than with exhaustion when I finally reached the top of the stairs—probably in no more than ten seconds. There another sister mercifully met me and scooped the child from my arms with a simple “Merci, monsieur.” Feeling my terrible human inadequacy and pathetic lack of charity, I beat a hasty retreat. I did not deserve the thanks that had been offered to me, and I did not volunteer again to help the invalids of Lourdes that summer.

Instead, that evening, I said my first rosary in a candelight procession in the square in front of the basilica. There must have been twenty thousand pilgrims there, all holding candles in small inverted paper shades. I had no beads and the rosary was in several languages, only two of which I knew at all. But with the repetition of the Hail Marys I found myself responding empty-handed but full-hearted, not only in English and French but also in Spanish and Italian and maybe even Polish. Holding my little framed candle, surrounded by the orange faces belonging to thousands of pilgrim silhouettes, I felt myself swept along by a current, like riding the rapids of a river.

I felt that I was “saying my rosary” not just with twenty thousand other souls there that evening but with all the millions who had processed through that square in Lourdes for more than a century. They, in turn, were part of a bigger procession spanning two thousand years, and for one night I was part of all that.

Within twelve hours, then, I had been given a taste of what charity might look like if I had any, and a feeling for what being Catholic must be if I ever wanted it. I didn’t then or for many years after. But that day in Lourdes remained burned in my heart. It is one of the few memories of Europe in the early 1970s in which there is no trace of Gulliver. I look and look and do not see him anywhere. It is as though he was never there.

I did not bathe in the waters of the grotto at Lourdes during those years, but I see now that I had been washed anyway. I had been baptized into the spirit of this extraordinary place, and the spirit would never entirely desert me.

NOTE: This is a brief excerpt from my book-length memoir The Long Walk Home, copyright © 2015 by Webster L. Bull. All rights reserved.

To read the next excerpt, “Dulcinea: An Unusual Bookshop,” click here.  

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