Today the stream of water flowing in Lourdes has become a source of healings. The sick come to bathe in its waters, and some of these acts of faith result in documented cures. The chapel has become a large shrine, probably the most famous Marian shrine in the world.
First action: search deeply
On February 25th, the day of the ninth apparition, the Lady asked Bernadette to scratch the ground to free a spring that was previously invisible and to drink the water there that was all muddy and then to wash herself with it.
In Lourdes, there is plenty of water! It even falls from the sky. But it certainly flows. Hearing the Lady speak to her of water, Bernadette first went to the edge of the Gave. She has to perform an act of faith – obeying in faith to follow Mary’s directions and go toward the rock. In that way she resembled the servants in Cana (“Do everything that he will tell you”).
The discovery of the spring did not occur at the very beginning of the apparitions. The act of faith and penance that is proposed to Bernadette indicates the familiarity, that was usually silent, of the first couple of weeks. In any case, a pilgrim arriving in Lourdes has already completed part of his journey. He has heard Mary’s call: “Would you do me the kindness of coming here?”
Now that he is there he has to look for what it is that God wants to give him. Like Bernadette, we risk reaching for what is the easiest. Like Bernadette, what God is preparing for us may not be obvious, though it is present in our lives, but hidden. And also like Bernadette, what God wants for us may first appear off-putting. When Jesus speaks to us of the bread of life, or of the cross, or of marriage, the crowds and even the apostles refuse to listen at first.
The invitation has a deep significance: helping to clean around the spring. This work is necessary to make the spring accessible. All this must be done to sufficiently prepare for the start of the first day of a pilgrimage, whether in preaching, exchange or personal prayer.
We can pray, that day, for those who turn away from God or are put off by obstacles.
Second action: wash
The message of the Virgin says, “…drink and wash yourself there.” The order of the two acts is explained well by the very weak flow at the beginning. Progressively, the flow increases (nice parable of grace) and it became possible to gather enough water for her to wash herself.
We propose the reverse order and each one can do as he wishes. Let us begin by washing ourselves.
The ablutions played an important role in the Old Testament, in particular in the book of Leviticus. Numerous purifications are tied to fecundity, death or leprosy. The Gospel shows us the importance that the rites of purification acquired at the time of Jesus. The excavations carried out in Jerusalem, near the Temple, confirm that even in the houses, the ritual baths were maintained carefully.
The baptism of John was a major act in the family of purification rites. John distinguishes well between baptism in water and baptism in the Holy Spirit (“and fire,” he adds) that Jesus will give. Nonetheless, water remains the sign of Christian baptism: No one (…) without being born through water and the Spirit. That is why the New Testament speaks of “bath” regarding baptism (Ephesians 5, 26; Titus 3, 5).
In the Christian world, water automatically reminds us of baptism. It is the origin of the fonts found at the entrance to churches so that those who enter may be reminded of the dignity of the baptised. When making the sign of the Cross (that Bernadette made so well!), they pronounce the Trinitarian Name in which they were baptized at the same time. They enter the church because, through
their baptisms, they became living rocks of the Church (1 Peter 2, 5).
The sprinkling of holy water, which is one of the ways of beginning the Eucharistic celebration, allows everyone to remember their own baptisms. The aspersion also carries with it a penitential aspect, because penance is a return to baptism.
The baptismal interpretation of Mary’s message was so obvious that “wash yourself” translated into “bathe yourself” , with the quasi ministry of the hospitallers who serve at the pools.
For the year 2002, we have decided to offer an alternative to the baths at the pools, allowing the pilgrims to wash their faces. That is why there are now basins across from the Grotto.
We could pray that day, without hypocrisy, like Bemadette, for those “poor sinners who are our brothers. ”
Third action: drink at the fountain
If you ask a child what water means to him, he will almost certainly think of his bath (because he doesn’t like it) or of the sea (because he does). He may not think immediately of the water that quenches his thirst, since he is used to more sophisticated drinks. Nevertheless, it seems that the need for water has become the most strategically serious problem of the new millennium.
The people of Israel had the difficult experience of thirst in two dramatic circumstances -during the walk in the desert for forty years and during the siege of Jerusalem when water was being sold at the price of gold. We know nonetheless thatlife is born in water and that, at least in weight, homo sapiens are made up mostly of water. Those who undertake hunger strikes cannot go long without water. When Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days, it is only written that he did not eat for that time.
We look for water because it is our primordial necessity. Giving water is ~ one of the last gestures that we can do for a dying person.
Drinking is receiving from the outside that which allows us to reconnect with our origins. It is therefore not surprising that the act of drinking is so expressive of faith. By drinking at the fountain of living water, we receive that which corresponds to the thirst of men who are created in the image of God.
Our thirst shows our vocation: “You would not look for me if you had not already found me ” (Blaise Pascal).
Bathing and drinking indicate two complimentary aspects of Christian life. Through baptism, I am plunged into the death and resurrection of Christ. It wraps around me like the white cloth that the neophyte receives: I dwell in him. By drinking his word, by being showered by his Spirit, Christ lives in me: he dwells in me. Saint Paul also uses both of these expressions.
The water that we use, such as that which showers the earth, symbolises the Holy Spirit that enriches and softens (see the Veni Sancte Spiritus and Psalm 65, 10-14).
The verses of John 7, 37-38 are translated differently:
On the last day, the great day of the festival, Jesus stood and cried out: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me! Let anyone who believes in me come and drink! ” As scripture says, “From his heart shall flow streams of living water. ”
From whom do the rivers of living water flow? From Christ or from the believer? And what if the ambiguity was intentional? If not springs, we could be fountains. Didn’t Christ say “I am the light of the world” and “You are the light of the world “. Let us keep this thought for 2006.If we want to give a certain weight to the fact of going to drink at the fountains that distribute the water of the spring, maybe it would be good if we were a bit thirsty
when we arrive, for example at the end of a walk or after doing the Way of the Cross.
We could pray that day for those people who are thirsty and that we may always be thirsty for living water.
Fourth step: taking water back
In February 2001, in a forum, a pilgrimage director said that the pilgrims in his group had taken home between 500 and 700 litres of water. We see entire families in the streets carrying stacks of containers to their cars. Each year, the services of the Shrine send more than 20,000 litres of water taken at the spring throughout the world.
The diffusion of Lourdes water is almost as old as the apparitions. Bernadette was familiar with it and was not opposed whereas she was very vigilant about maintaining a spirit of faith and gratuity in Lourdes.
The spring existed before 1858, even if it only flowed intermittently. Is the water miraculous? Bernadette answered, “People take the water like a medicine… They must have faith. They have to pray. This water will have no special virtues without faith. ” We must remember her answer.
Take water away, send water -we can imagine the possible abuses from this practice. We will find these abuses regarding the other symbols – touch the rock, “light a candle. ” When he was cured of his leprosy after being bathed in the Jordan, didn’t Naaman take a bit of the soil from Israel with him? The prophet did not blame him for it (ll Kings 5, 17).
For an evangelisation of this practice of popular piety, here are two options.
First of all, Lourdes or any other apparitions, any other messages, add nothing new to the Gospel. These free phenomena only tell us, surprisingly, how current the Gospel
is. The water we take home from the spring will continue to flow once we are gone. The spring is the sign of the unfailing faithfulness of God.
Then, if we take water back, it is without a doubt, to give away or to be able to give away. The horrible plastic container becomes the sign and instrument of generosity. Like all grace, Lourdes cannot be experienced for oneself alone, or for only one group of pilgrims. The water that is distributed is a gift from God who comes to meet all mankind, in particular when someone is aware
that he or she has reached a dead end.
No object that pilgrims takes home or that we send from Lourdes can speak as well of God’s generosity than the water from the spring. The water is not for sale and those who want to obtain some would do well to watch out for disguised forms of commercialisation.
Rather than ignore this transport of water by our pilgrims, it is better to help them find the meaning.
On this fourth day, we could pray, obviously, for all those we will find when we return home. With or without a container, let us bring them back a bit of fresh water.
+ Msgr. Jacques PERRIER
Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes