Some years ago I went to Lourdes with Mike Tuchner and a camera crew to make a film for B.B.C. television about the place and the pilgrims. I confess I had no expectation that the experience, though interesting, would be other than melancholy. Generally speaking, I dislike shrinesespecially being told about themand distrust miracles.
Actually, from the moment I got on the train at Victoria (we travelled to Lourdes with a party of pilgrims so as to be able to film en route), I had an extraordinary feeling of light-heartedness. I don't think I have ever in my life been in so cheerful a company as this collection of the sick and the crippled, many of them soon to die, and those who were looking after them. Evcn the restaurant car waiters when we got to Francemen, in my experience, not notable for cheerfulness of disposition, especially when serving breakfast in the early morning to passengers who have just crossed the Channelresponded to the atmosphere. Their smiles and prompt kindly service cannot have been due to expectation of tips; from this point of view it is difficult to imagine a less promising party than ours.
These peoplethe fortitude with which they endured their afflictions, the joy with which life none the less filled them, their compassion for those more stricken than themselves, above all their serene confrontation of the prospect of death in the certain knowledge of God's love and mercyoccupied my mind and spirit much more than Lourdes as a place.
Places, as it happens, have never interested me much, as such, and Holy Places, whether Bethlehem or Lourdes, tend to be marred for me by the sellers of tawdry relics, the bric-a-brac of piety, who gather around them. However, in the grotto where St Bernadette is supposed to have had her visionthe very heart of LourdesI found a marvellous stillness; not due, let me hasten to say, to absence of people. Never a moment, day or night, when there are not some suppliants coming and going, or kneeling in prayeras we found when we tried to film the grotto empty. For most of the time, in all seasons, it is teeming with people. No, the stillness is within, not without; wonderfully peaceful and uplifting. Human beings are only bearable when the last defences of their egos are down; when they stand, helpless and humbled, before the awful circumstances of their being. It is only thus that the point of the cross becomes clear, and the point of the cross is the point of life.
Were there any miracles? Any number almost as many as there were pilgrims. The miracle of faith and the miracle of hope endlessly repeated; of faith that in the totality of our earthly lives we are allthe infirm and the whole, the sick and the well, the crazy and the sanechildren of God participating equally in his loving care; of hope that, as such, our woes and afflictions are no more than bumps and scratches, scarcely to be noticed, soon to be forgotten.
There was even a tiny miracle for me. A woman asked me to go and see her sister who was very sick. So of course I went along. The sister was obviously at the point of death, and like any other glib child of twentieth-century enlightenment, I had nothing to say, until I noticed in the most extraordinarily vivid way, as in some girl with whom I had suddenly fallen in love, that her eyes were quite fabulously luminous and beautiful. 'What marvellous eyes!' As I said this, the three of usthe dying woman, her sister and Iwere somehow caught up into a kind of ecstasy. I can't describe it in any other way. It was as though I saw God's love shining down on us visibly, in an actual radiance. That was my miracle at Lourdes, and whenever I hear the Ave Maria they sing there all the timeotherwise, I expect, a rather banal tuneI remember my miracle with great joy.
B.B.C. broadcast, 7 September 1965
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