By Regina Linskey
Catholic News Service
LOURDES, France (CNS) – Pilgrims come to the Massabielle grotto to slide their fingers and run their hands along its damp walls smoothed by years of touching. They touch the walls with scarves, rosaries and folded pieces of paper with written prayer intentions.
They toss photos of loved ones, written intentions and bouquets of flowers into the grotto's crevices. Men and women on their knees silently pray, facing a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes placed where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous 150 years ago. Groups of pilgrims walk through the grotto holding candles and sometimes spontaneously singing "Ave Maria." They place the candles at the outdoor votive stations, where the words "The flame continues my prayers" appear in several languages.
People drink and bathe in the holy water of the Sanctuaries of Our Lady of Lourdes, hoping that their prayers for Mary's intervention will be heard, inner peace will be found and faith will be restored, pilgrims told Catholic News Service in mid-February.
Sue Jarvis of Virginia Beach, Va., said she left a photograph of herself and her late father at the grotto. But Jarvis said she came mostly for her 18-year-old daughter, Megan, who has a brain tumor.
She was not expecting miracles from visiting the sanctuaries, but needed a spiritual retreat to feel refreshed and to receive peace of mind, Jarvis said Feb. 13.
Father Andrew Dubois, vicar for priests for the Diocese of Portland, Maine, said he feels this peace of mind at the grotto.
"When we clutter our minds, we have a way of distracting ourselves," he said. "And the grotto gives that (peace) back to you."
In the ninth of 18 apparitions, Mary directed St. Bernadette to drink from the spring at the grotto. There was barely any water; what was there was muddy, and it took St. Bernadette four attempts to drink it. But today, the water flows clear through the sanctuaries' spigots and baths.
The extremely sick and the extremely determined sometimes wait in line for hours to reach the baths inside chambers near the grotto.
Mac Carvajal, a banker from Houston, has visited Lourdes twice and dipped in the baths several times.
"I wanted to heal ... personal things I had inside me. I wanted to cleanse, and I thought this was the best way to do it," he said, noting that life changed significantly for him after his first trip to Lourdes.
Debora Boucaud, a nurse practitioner from the New York borough of Queens, is a volunteer at the grotto. Nearly all workers controlling the crowds and helping at the baths, grotto and votive stations are volunteers.
"As nurses, we are taught (in school) to treat the patient holistically," but in practice the spiritual side is ignored and a patient is treated "in a secular way" with medicine, she said.
"Here at Lourdes, the treatment is the spirituality. You don't have to inquire what illness; it really doesn't matter, the treatment is the same," she said, adding that the job is mentally challenging because "you see all the pain ... all the emotions."