Miracles, Moneymaking and the Moth: My pilgrimage to Lourdes

This is an essay I had published on the Humanistlife website. I retain the rights to it so here it is:

Fifteen years ago, during a cold May evening, in the basilica of St Pius X under the pilgrimage town of Lourdes, a moth flew up to the only source of warmth in a radius of twenty metres – a lone one-bar wall heater – and killed itself flying into the red-hot element.

It’s the only moment I remember out of a two-hour Latin mass. To witness the last two seconds of a creature’s life and the first few seconds of its death was more powerful than the arcane mutterings from the altar. A few from our party, sixteen and away from home, giggled to break the monotony of the monotone priest talking a dead language in a giant concrete hangar. Weary from a thirty-six hour coach journey that had landed us later than expected at the propitious town in Southern France, we were forced to endure the immensely long mass before we had even checked in our bags at the hotel.

The trip to Lourdes wasn’t compulsory, but it was arranged every year by the chaplain at our Catholic school. I chose to go. My parents put up the money. Hearing of the impending trip, Catholic family members put in their orders for litres of holy water, which, they assured me, once rubbed on, could cure a litany of ailments better and faster than any pharmaceutical formulation. Everybody agreed that I was doing a noble and selfless deed, as I would be spending the week with disabled children, pushing wheelchairs and looking after the blind and autistic.

What was my motive for going? I’d like to say that it was one of scientific curiosity. We’d heard plenty at school of the alleged miracles at Lourdes. Would one occur whilst I was there? Would it halt the decline of my dwindling religious conviction and challenge my increasing scepticism? If so, what would it look like? Would the ankles of the hobbling be bathed in golden light?

I’m being disingenuous. The trip was a week away from home with my peers and a break from my A-Levels. We were staying in a hotel that I had been well assured by previous years’ pilgrims served alcohol to students. The benevolent old chaplain, who probably had similar incentives, was too gin-pickled come lunchtime to care if his charges were also indulging.

Yet throughout the trip, and afterwards, I had the nagging feeling that I hadn’t done good at all. My view on this has never changed. The thought that there was something ignoble and perhaps even sinister in taking disabled children around Lourdes came back to me a few years ago whilst watching Richard Dawkins’s documentary The Root of All Evil? During the first episode, Richard travels to Lourdes to find out how many miracles have taken place, and this is certainly the most important scientific question to ask. He concludes that out of the millions of pilgrims who have traipsed through Lourdes over the years, the sixty-eight declared miracle cures are statistically pretty much zero. This is certainly important, but what about the very nature of miracles and cures, and the psychology behind this very Catholic pilgrimage? Having done it myself, a few thoughts occur.

The first thing I noticed was that Lourdes is a racket. My expectation that a holy place would be above the corrupting reality of moneymaking and tourist traps, remaining a place of unalloyed beauty, was instantly dispatched by a view out of the coach window. Soon, there was no divorcing pious faith and the expectation of miracle from the corollary of rabid commerciality. From the streets lined with tawdry shops selling everything from plaster cast Virgin Marys of all sizes; cardboard pictures of the Pope surrounded by flashing LEDs, to millions of frilly water bottles for collecting the aqueous panacea, the town itself is sub-Blackpool in its miles of identical tat-shops. It’s also very busy, as pilgrims descend en masse (pardon the unintentional pun, which, now that I’ve noticed it, must stand) from all over the world, eagerly parting with their money to perpetuate the demand for trinkets and thus swell the Vatican coffers.

Nevertheless, despite my disappointment at the grubby, earthly capitalism of the place, I still held out hopes that the miracle-hunting pilgrims would reassure me of the deep spiritual rewards the town could offer. Before making the pilgrimage I was aware of the alleged healing power of holy water through my grandmother, who used it to ‘cure’ arthritis. But is there a sliding scale upon which the water can work from relief of minor ailments to curing the profoundly sick or afflicted? St Bernadette, who initiated the whole circus, said, “One must have faith and pray; the water will have no virtue without faith.” With enough faith, any affliction can be cured; any miracle is possible.

Whilst I can see that a terminally ill patient may feel moved to hotfoot it to Lourdes out of sheer desperation (and there may be arguments in favour of a change of scene and the benefits of a healthy mental attitude of hope) I wonder if the psychological disappointment of not receiving a cure and remaining in decline after the trip negates any positive influence of undertaking the pilgrimage? What of the other afflicted pilgrims (and I’ve never seen so many wheelchairs and crutches in one place before or since)? A common sceptical objection to Lourdes is, “Why does God hate amputees?”, but I think it’s an awful lot worse than that.

Despite the money-spinning racket of Lourdes, and despite the cruel false hope it purports to lend to the terminally ill, those aspects of it bother me much less than the message it sends to the constant stream of children in wheelchairs, whom during that week I marched up the hill towards the grotto in search of a miracle.

If a medical procedure can make a blind child see, or a paralysed child walk, then where suitable, it should be done. The child would be assessed for the likelihood of success, and no judgement would be made to the majority who are told their conditions are inoperable or irreversible. The same objective treatment of individuals is simply not true when children are lumped together to compete against one another for a singularly unresponsive deity’s favours in declaring them the most devout believer and therefore most entitled to receive a miracle.

An objection to this criticism is that nobody really expects a miracle at all, and it’s all about the experience of taking the pilgrimage and viewing it as a ‘spiritual retreat’. This fails to explain the crutches hanging from the ceiling of the grotto – a clear signal that ‘miracles do happen’ and that the faithful ought to hope for one. The criticism may also fairly be true of other pilgrimages in other faiths, but what makes Lourdes arguably worse is that Catholicism is inextricably bound up with preaching the sinfulness of individuals and their need for confession, absolution and repentance. The hard currency of Catholicism is guilt. We’re all wretched, and ill, and in need of a cure.

For whom the pilgrimage was intended? Had the children asked to go, or were they sent? Presumably, they were undertaking the pilgrimage at the behest of their parents. Certainly the severely autistic children could only have been. What reason had the parents given? What good could have come from taking them to the grotto? The best-case scenario (for a believer) is that they would have been cured: their bones, organs and muscles healed, or their chromosomes realigned. The parents may well ask how dare the faithless scoff or demean any ritual that would give hope to their children.

For me, the custom doesn’t sit comfortably because it can’t help but make judgements and sails dangerously close to infamous unethical ideologies. Why would anyone wish to say that everything the children are is not in itself enough; and that what stands between them and completeness as a person is a miracle, which only sufficient faith can supply? What is meant by a ‘cure’? To the terminally ill, the answer is obvious: a tumour that, instead of growing and spreading, goes into remission; a heart condition that disappears; blood pressure that unexpectedly returns to safe limits even without medication – for such people a cure is almost certainly desirable. It would prolong their lives in the manner they were accustomed to before they fell ill, harking back to or extending a condition of life they could fairly describe as ‘normal’.

No such former state exists for those with congenital conditions. To the children we were escorting around, they hadn’t known a life divorced from their wheelchairs. The blind boy was born without eyes. I for one was not willing to say, or even think, that their existence in a wheelchair, or without sight, or with Down’s Syndrome or autism, is an unnecessary affliction, an aberration from a divine plan, which ought ideally to be corrected.

At the end of the week, did the children, returning home without a ‘cure’, feel they had let the side down, and would continue to encumber their parents with the need for special care? I’ve no doubt that the parents would have been horrified by such a notion, and had no expectation of receiving back a fully-sighted child, or one without autism. Their parental love is unconditional. They rightly love their child for who they are. So why do they not find the ethos of Lourdes troubling? The culture of faith, miracles and cures, accepted by almost all in St Bernadette’s time, is now anachronistic. Society has moved on and we no longer look on, for example, mentally disabled people as being afflicted by devils, which special water and faith can exorcise. The problem may be that the religious get stuck in routines, and don’t question traditions even when they become morally dubious.

I do not know, because I was too polite and unsure of myself at the time to ask, whether or not any of the children harboured any negative feelings about being sent to Lourdes; or to find out if their Catholic goggles were sufficient to immunise them against any doubts they may have had about the merits of such a trip; or indeed whether, fifteen years on, those with sufficient cognitive abilities who are now young adults look back on that trip, and on the well-intentioned adults who organized it, in a different light. Perhaps, as innocent children, they assumed the adults knew best. I’d love to know. What I’m certain about is that if I asked the young man in the wheelchair with whom I work whether or not he’d been to Lourdes and prayed for a cure, I’d be rightly laying myself open to the possibility of disciplinary action. Is it just the age and innocence of the children that entitles others to ask the same question of them with impunity?

It would be biased of me to end my account here, and not mention the one experience of the week that gave me pause for thought. One evening, ostensibly for a laugh, a group of us ventured down to the grotto after dark. Pilgrims were gathered, candles in hand, fervently praying. I found myself choking up with tears because of the overwhelming serenity of the place. I was embarrassed, and it was some time before I looked at any of my colleagues, but when I did, I saw to my astonishment that they too were weeping, some of them hardy Liverpool lads who did not make a habit of showing emotion.

What I experienced was the faith of others: the inner peace they felt by being at the site where they wholly believed the Virgin Mary had once stood. What I temporarily shared in that night was the one and only time when religion, with all its bells and whistles and promises, has ever stirred my emotions.

I must admit that any positive feelings I had after the tranquillity of the grotto at nighttime evaporated the following day when the scouring sun burned the top of my head. I was one of four selected to carry the pillars of a canopy to supply shade for a bishop during a slow-marching procession. Unlike his canopy-bearers, he didn’t even need shade, as his hat was quite big and reflective enough. The pompous ass never even said ‘thank you’. I didn’t feel honoured: only burned, sore and resentful.

By the end of the week, I baulked at the unquestioning reverence of the faithful, but understood clearly how pilgrimage sites like Lourdes perpetuate. Reverence generates a demand for apparitions and miracles that religious authorities are only too willing to exploit.

I am glad that I took the pilgrimage because it opened my eyes and hastened my rejection of Catholicism. I maintain that the organized pilgrimages, especially those on behalf of the young, can only do more harm than good when viewed through objectively, unencumbered by Catholic fog-goggles.

Miracles don’t happen. Is it not better for everyone to accept their lot and get on with their lives, without judging somebody or being themselves judged in need of a cure? Most of the physically handicapped children were bright, inquisitive people, some with extraordinary individual talents that we delighted in at the hotel, staging impromptu talent contests and keeping them up past their bedtime a mile from the site of alleged miracles. How much better it would have been to have spent the whole week celebrating them on their own terms, instead of helping to instil in them the notion that they were somehow ripe to be cured through pomp and ceremony that had to be observed in preference?