Beyond Physical Healing: Pilgrimage to Lourdes
student voice - margaret burke '08 - fall/winter 2008
Our group of 400 was an interesting sight each morning as we lined the Avenue du Paradis in front of our hotels in Lourdes. Each of us was dressed in the traditional Order of Malta uniform, which reflects the centuries that the order has devoted to the Roman Catholic faith and service to the poor and suffering. The women, attired in long black capes and simple white veils, ventured to find water and blankets to stock our single passenger blue chariots in which we transported the sick and disabled members of our group. The men, wearing black uniforms with dignified black berets, pulled their designated chariots and searched along the avenue for their team’s flag, which waved proudly in the air to serve as a point of orientation amidst the crowd of hundreds of identical black capes, white veils, and black berets.
Back in Boston, months earlier, I, along with Meaghan Bradley ’09, and Kimberley Ramjattan ’10, had been selected by the Connell School faculty to participate in the Order of Malta’s annual pilgrimage to Lourdes. Lourdes is a town in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains in southeastern France where the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared to a 14-year-old peasant girl, St. Bernadette, in 1858. Millions of pilgrims travel to the site each year to pray in the grotto where Mary appeared and to bathe in the healing spring water at the site of the apparition. This year, more than 8,000 people from 42 countries participated in the 50th pilgrimage of the Order of Malta to Lourdes, marking the 150th anniversary jubilee year of the apparitions of Mary to St. Bernadette. Within this group were over 1500 sick and disabled individuals who were sponsored by the knights and dames of Malta to make the pilgrimage. The knights and dames, along with the Order’s auxiliary and volunteers, travel each year with the sick and disabled and their caregivers to render care and support to them during the pilgrimage.
Each day we went as a group to different Roman Catholic services—mass, confession, anointing of the sick, and rosary processions. The most profound experience for me was being able to assist women in the baths one afternoon. Pilgrims queue for hours waiting their turn to be dipped into the healing water. Since 1858, 60 miracles have been documented by the Roman Catholic Church relating various individual recoveries from chronic and terminal illnesses upon bathing in the Lourdes’ waters. As I assisted in submerging the women into the water, we joined in prayer as they kissed a statue of the Virgin Mary. Remarkably, while only five of the 40 women I assisted spoke English (others spoke French, German, Italian, Korean, Spanish and several other languages), I felt a powerful spiritual connection with each one of them. While some of the women were completely able-bodied, others could not stand on their own. It was extremely humbling not to be able to communicate with them verbally in many instances, but to be so entwined with them both physically and spiritually during this powerful moment.
My experience in Lourdes has affirmed my belief in the difference that the care of the soul coupled with the care of the body can make both for individuals who are sick and for their families. While the sick and disabled members in our group did not experience miraculous cures of their physical ailments, many expressed a powerful feeling of an inner peace and comfort gathered from their special week in Lourdes. I have been inspired to carry this sentiment forward with me into my nursing career and to continuously remind myself that successful patient care goes well beyond physical healing.