Fifteen kilometres from the holy theme park that is Lourdes I veer off the D937 at the sight of castle turrets poking out from behind trees. Closer inspection and an illegal U-turn reveals a picturesque Pyrenees village called Lestelle-Betharram, which comprises a boarding school, a Baroque church and not much more.
The fairytale castle turns out to be a series of magnificent stone follies set along a path that zigzags up a woody hill. These house the Stations of the Cross extravagantly carved representations of Jesus’s grisly journey and I follow them to the top, where a young man in a Scouts uniform silently points me towards a simple church. It’s so peaceful up here, eye-to-eye with the surrounding hills, fat with foliage on this early summer morning.
Opposite the church, three empty crucifixes gleam white like bones in the sun. As I’m making my way back down the steep path the stillness is broken by boys on mountain bikes, brakes squealing and tyres slipping on golden leaves. In their wake, the place seems rejuvenated, enlivened by the fearlessness of youth.
When I reach the seventh station, I wonder if I’ve lost the plot I can hear angels singing. It turns out to be a troupe of Scouts led by a priest in black robes. They are singing a Latin hymn in three-part harmony as they slowly proceed up the hill. They pause before the station and the priest gives a sermon. I don’t understand the words but his voice has me in a trance and I close my eyes and say “amen” with the boys. Nothing exists except the voices of the choir as they carry on singing.
An hour later, I’m in Lourdes trying to choose between a Mother Teresa tea towel and a St Bernadette snow dome as a gift for my nanna. This village, where the Virgin Mother appeared to St Bernadette, is overrun with souvenir shops, hotels and restaurants serving every cuisine from the Catholic Empire.
There are pilgrims, of course, millions of them every year, and tourists too. Down in the Sanctuary, you see the former being carted around in blue wheelbarrows and the latter snapping pictures of the devout at prayer in the gaudy church.
I pass a scrum of pilgrims jostling to fill official and unofficial vessels with holy water and find myself at the place where it all began. I don’t join the queue of people waiting to be admitted to the cave where Mary is said to have revealed herself to the young shepherdess but watch on as a woman cries out to the Virgin, pressing her palms to the walls.
At that moment, I hear music heralding from above. It’s the sound of bagpipes reverberating off the cliff-face above the cave. With the sound comes a procession of Scottish pilgrims wearing tam o’shanters as they’re pulled towards the cave in their blue carts.
The bagpipes stop and a priest gives a Scottish sermon. When the music starts again, the pilgrims are helped through the cave and I realise: on a big scale or small, the Lord works in mysterious ways.
Something About Mary, The Sun-Herald, May 3, 2009