Sunday, 2 November 2008

Pilgrim - with camera

How I loved that camera - a tenth-birthday present.

The time is Easter holidays 1961. The place is the pilgrimage town of Lourdes in southern France, where, in the 1850s, the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous was granted a series of visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The occasion was the week-long pilgrimage of the English schools of the Irish Christian Brothers.

We travelled by train, hundreds of boys aged nine to eighteen, and numerous black-habited, chain-smoking brothers.

Full school uniform (my cap must have been in my pocket) was de rigeur for the whole trip, as was attendance at meals at the hotel, some morning devotional activities and at the evening processions.

Apart from that supervision was at a minimum. To be truthful, for most of the week we were completely off the leash, to an extent that would cause cardiac trauma to today's hyper risk-averse teachers.

During those few days we climbed into the hills, smoked our first cigarettes and tippled on French wine and beer - to a greater or (in my case) lesser extent.

And we saw Lourdes - in all its bewildering diversity.

Outside the grotto area, a thousand shops dispensed merchandise to every taste and budget. (I prided myself that not every holy item I purchased glowed in the dark.)

There is no buying and selling at all within the vast, tranquil area that borders the river, and encompasses the basilica and the grotto where the visions took place.

I remember the hundreds of very sick people, some on stretchers, some with deformities that one no longer sees, such as goitre - and their carers.

Some hoped for miracles, I'm sure. But for many, my guess is that the miracle had already occurred.

Thanks to their faith and the support of their friends, they had made the pilgrimage and had visited the shrine, where, despite their frailty, their value and significance had been endorsed, celebrated even, in that extraordinary place.

We dipped in the baths fed by the icy spring water that bubbles up in the grotto, obeying the instruction that true pilgrims don't dry themselves before dressing.

I recounted this piece of piety to my chum Anthony Harcourt, who hooted derisively.

'What a load of rubbish!'

My response was as decisive as it was devout. I grasped my school cap firmly in my hand and whacked my friend repeatedly about his unbelieving head and shoulders.

An action which, I am certain, merited at least a plenary indulgence.

1 comment:

R.E.II™ said...

This is nostalgic.