Lourdes / by Robert Hugh Benson


I SAID a midnight Mass that night in the same chapel of the Rosary Church as on the previous morning. Again the crush was terrific. On the steps of the church I saw a friar hearing a confession; and on entering I found High Mass proceeding in the body of the church itself, with congregation so large and so worn-out that many were sleeping in constrained attitudes among the seats. In fact, I was informed, since the sleeping accommodation of Lourdes could not possibly provide for so large a pilgrimage, there were many hundreds, at least, who slept where they could -- on the steps of churches, under trees and rocks, and by the banks of the river.

I was served at my Mass by a Scottish priest, immediately afterwards I served his at the same altar. While vesting, I noticed a priest at the high altar of this little chapel reading out acts of prayer, to which the congregation responded; and learned that two persons who had been received into the Church on that day were to make their First Communion. As midnight struck, simultaneously from the seven altars came seven voices:

"In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen."

Once more, on returning home and going to bed a little after one o'clock in the morning, the last sound that I heard was of the "Gloria Patri" being sung by other pilgrims also returning to their lodging.

After coffee, a few hours later, I went down again to the square. It was Sunday, and a Pontifical High Mass was being sung on the steps of the Rosary Church. As usual, the crowd filled the square, and I could hardly penetrate for a while beyond the fringe; but it was a new experience to hear that vast congregation in the open air responding with one giant voice to the plain-song of the Mass. It was astonishing what expression showed itself in the singing. The Sanctus was one of the most impressive peals of worship and adoration that I have ever heard. At the close of the Mass, all the bishops present near the altar -- I counted six or seven -- turned and gave the blessing simultaneously. On the two great curves that led up to the basilica were grouped the white banners of the miraculés.

Soon after arriving at the Bureau a very strange and quiet little incident happened. A woman with a yellowish face, to which the colour was slowly returning, came in and sat down to give her evidence. She declared to us that during the procession yesterday she had been cured of a tumour on the liver. She had suddenly experienced an overwhelming sense of relief, and had walked home completely restored to health. On being asked why she did not present herself at the Bureau, she answered that she did not think of it: she had just gone home. I have not yet heard whether this was a true cure or not; all I can say at present is I was as much impressed by her simple and natural bearing, her entire self-possession, and the absence of excitement, as by anything I saw at Lourdes. I cannot conceive such a woman suffering from an illusion.

A few minutes later Dr. Cox called to me, and writing on a card, handed it to me, telling me it would admit me to the piscines for a bath. I had asked for this previously; but had been told it was not certain, owing to the crush of patients, whether it could be granted. I set out immediately to the piscines.

There are, as I have said, three compartments in the building called the piscines. That on the left is for women; in the middle, for children and for those who do not undergo complete immersion; on the right, for men. It was into this last, then, that I went, when I had forced my way through the crowd, and passed the open court where the priests prayed. It was a little paved place like a chapel, with a curtain hung immediately before the door. When I had passed this, I saw at the farther end, three or four yards away, was a deepish trough, wide and long enough to hold one person. Steps went down on either side of it, for the attendants. Immediately above the bath, on the wall, was a statue of Our Lady; and beneath it a placard of prayers, large enough to be read at a little distance.

There were about half a dozen people in the place -- two or three priests and three or four patients. One of the priests, I was relieved to see, was the Scotsman whose Mass I had served the previous midnight. He was in his soutane, with his sleeves rolled up to the elbow. He gave me my directions, and while I made ready I watched the patients. There was one lame man, just beside me, beginning to dress; two tiny boys, and a young man who touched me more than I can say. He was standing by the head of the bath, holding a basin in one hand and a little image of our Lady in the other, and was splashing water ingeniously with his fingers into his eyes; these were horribly inflamed, and I could see that he was blind. I cannot describe the passion with which he did this, seeming to stare all the while towards the image he held, and whispering out prayers in a quick undertone -- hoping, no doubt, that his first sight would be the image of his Mother. Then I looked at the boys. One of them had horribly prolonged and thin legs; I could not see what was wrong with the other, except that he looked ill and worn out. Close beside me, on the wet, muddy paving, lay an indescribable bandage that had been unrolled from the lame man's leg.

When my turn came, I went wrapped in a soaking apron, down a step or so into the water; and then, with a priest holding either hand, lay down at full length so that my head only emerged. That water had better not be described. It is enough to say that people suffering from most of the diseases known to man had bathed in it without ceasing for at least five or six hours. Yet I can say, with entire sincerity, that I did not have even the faintest physical repulsion, though commonly I hate dirt at least as much as sin. It is said, too, that never in the history of Lourdes has there been one case of disease traceable to infection from the baths. The water was cold, but not unpleasantly. I lay there, I suppose, about one minute, while the two priests and myself repeated off the placard the prayers inscribed there. These were, for the most part, petitions to Mary to pray. "O Marie," they ended, "conçue sans péché, priez pour nous qui avons recours a vous!"

As I dressed again after the bath, I had one more sight of the young man. He was being led out by a kindly attendant, but his face was all distorted with crying, and from his blind eyes ran down a stream of terrible tears. It is unnecessary to say that I said a "Hail Mary" for his soul at least.

As soon as I was ready, I went out and sat down for a while among the recently bathed, and began to remind myself why I had bathed. Certainly I was not suffering from anything except a negligible ailment or two. Neither did I do it out of curiosity, because I could have seen without difficulty all the details without descending into that appalling trough. I suppose it was just an act of devotion. Here was water with a history behind it; water that was as undoubtedly used by Almighty God for giving benefits to man as was the clay laid upon blind eyes long ago near Siloe, or the water of Bethesda itself. And it is a natural instinct to come as close as possible to things used by the heavenly powers. I was extraordinarily glad I had bathed, and I have been equally glad ever since. I am afraid it is of no use as evidence to say that until I came to Lourdes I was tired out, body and mind; and that since my return I have been unusually robust. Yet that is a fact, and I leave it there.

As I sat there a procession went past to the Grotto, and I walked to the railings to look at it. I do not know at all what it was all about, but it was as impressive as all things are in Lourdes. The miraculés came first with their banners -- file after file of them -- then a number of prelates, then brancardiers with their shoulder-harness, then nuns, then more brancardiers. I think perhaps they may have been taking a recent miraculé to give thanks; for when I arrived presently at the Bureau again, I heard that, after all, several appeared to have been cured at the procession on the previous day.

I was sitting in the hall of the hotel a few minutes later when I heard the roar of the Magnificat from the street, and ran out to see what was forward. As I came to the door, the heart of the procession went by. A group of brancardiers formed an irregular square, holding cords to keep back the crowd; and in the middle walked a group of three, followed by an empty litter. The three were a white-haired man on this side, a stalwart brancardier on the other, and between them a girl with a radiant face, singing with all her heart. She had been carried down from her lodging that morning to the piscines; she was returning on her own feet, by the power of Him who said to the lame man, "Take up thy bed and go into thy house." I followed them a little way, then I went back to the hotel.

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