As I mentioned, it was my plan to tell you about my experience at the baths (piscines) in Lourdes, but first I must take a second to lament about this man who won’t stop annoying me on the train. I took my (assigned) seat (I did get a reservation to Paris – not at the exact time that I wanted, but on the next one) and settled in. As we started moving, a man came up and said a bunch of stuff in rapid French and pointed at the seat next to me (by the window). Mind you, this train is EMPTY. There are maybe four people in this whole car of 40 seats.
So he sat there for a while, and of course he reeks of alcohol and his pits haven’t seen deodorant in years and tries to talk to me, and I can’t understand it. He sits there for a while, and then after maybe twenty minutes, he makes me get up again and moves across the aisle. Then he comes back. Then he leaves. Then back, then leaves. Now he’s back.
If I knew how, I’d ask to see his ticket and send him where he belongs (because somehow I doubt it’s next to me). Anyway, although this is my assigned seat, between the annoying disruption and the stench, I’m moving back a row. If someone shows up at some point, I’ll just move again.
Anyway, about Lourdes: They do the baths twice a day, at 9:30 in the morning and 2:00 in the afternoon. The baths are segregated into men, women, and those that cannot walk for whatever reason. Those individuals, obviously, do not have to wait, which makes sense. I had read to get there about 45 minutes early, but when I walked by at 1:00, the line was already so incredibly long, I decided to get in it. Good thing, because only another 35 or 40 women later, and they locked the gate.
At this point you’re either sitting on rows of wooden benches, or sitting on a stone wall just before the covered area with the benches (as I was) in rows of metal gates. It was strangely reminiscent of waiting to get on the Indiana Jones Adventure ride at Disneyland when it first came out (and before they invented that FastPass thing).
By my estimate there were 200 of us in line, and there were women who showed up around 1:30 p.m., and were so distressed that the queue was filled for the afternoon, that they started trying to scale the gates! I saw one woman say something angrily to her friends, and then throw her cane over the top with a look on her face like she didn’t care what happened, she was climbing the thing. It was kind of amusing to see that even in a place of devotion and worship, people’s true character still comes through!
Meanwhile, at this point the women are led in singing Ave Maria while we wait. Again, it’s a different version of what I normally think of as that song. This was a pretty simple hymn, and there seemed to be no end to the middle verses – like a Catholic ‘Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall’ – and sung by varying volunteers with a microphone. That part was like open mic night or karaoke. Sometimes the versus were sung by groups of women who were clearly part of a tour group, other times by these two women with French Polynesian accents who were rather painfully tone deaf. One I think must have been nervous, because her voice kept cracking the entire time. Lastly, there was a little elderly French nun who had a beautiful voice and she sang for quite a while.
Meanwhile, each and every time the women (and maybe the men on the other side of the piscines. I couldn’t hear them, but there weren’t nearly so many as there were females) were called upon to sing the refrain. What’s funny is that there was a man in a suit (a volunteer) conducting us like he was leading a philharmonic orchestra and instructing us to smile. He was also calling out those who weren’t singing or who were making a sour face. It was quite cute – he took his role very seriously, and was tireless in his duties!
At that point, you wait. And wait. And wait. And then the baths begin and you slowly shuffle forward, scaling half along bench every four or five minutes. Eventually you are moved inside, and then called into an individual room. In there, they try to determine what language you understand (everyone kept thinking I was German for some reason?). There are about four other women either waiting or just having finished the bath, and a volunteer assigned to each of us.
From there, they hold up a blue piece of material – kind of like a top you’d get at the doctor, but without any arm holes – and you are to strip down naked (with your bra in your right hand, an element of the process that really threw me). Then you hold the blue shirt (which is already pretty wet and very cold) around yourself until it’s your turn.
When it is, three other women bring you into a room which has a deep white marble bath. They take the blue top away and wrap you in a FREEZING COLD AND WET white sheet. At this point, apparently, you are to say a prayer and cross yourself when you are done. However, a trifecta of events – I had stupidly worn my glasses and they were now back in the other room, so I was a little bit worried I’d slip and crack my head open, the strangeness of having my bra in my hand (was my bra somehow holy or ???), and the fact that I was given these instructions in really broken English – made it such that I didn’t really understand that. So we all stood there for a while and they asked, “Fini?” and I realized then what she meant and quickly made the sign of the cross.
Someone took my bra from me, and they led me down two steps into the pool. At the end is a statue of Mary to whom I said, “hi”. Then you sit down and the three of them lay you back into the icy water. As they lift you and lead you out, there is a quick prayer uttered to Mary and Saint Bernadette, and they take the sheet off you and two of them put your bra on (at last the whole thing with the bra makes some sense! And I’m glad I didn’t have on a sports bra or a bra that clasped in front or some other complication).
You’re led back to the other room – I made an immediate grab for my glasses – and then, and this was very unusual, but sweet, the women dress you. I had worn leggings, so I did that part myself (they were a little tricky to get on, as you’re not toweled off and still a bit wet), but otherwise, they put on all my clothes. I had on a shirt with a lot of little buttons, and a woman very tenderly buttoned them all closed, and then did the same with the buttons of my vest. Then they put on your shoes and give you a hug and send you away.
I had read a priests’ recollection that the process is an act of trust and faith like a child. You’re naked and vulnerable and you have to trust other people to lower you into the water and lift you back out. He didn’t mention the dressing part (maybe they don’t do that on the guys’ side?), but he did think the sheet was a form of penance. I think the sheet is probably to protect some modicum of modesty, and maybe get you a little bit ready for the cold bath.
As for me, what I experienced was less like vulnerability and more like being cared for and treasured like a child. It was incredibly sweet and kind of amazing that they do this for hundreds of people each day. Even if the water isn’t miraculous, something about that act of human generosity is.
I walked around the grounds a little bit, and realized that I felt dry. I had read that the water dries off miraculously, and although there was still a little wet spot on my leggings, otherwise I did seem to be completely dry.
I’m still not 100% sure to make of it all, but in the end, I’m glad for the experience. Lourdes is not an easy place to get to (perhaps a bit easier from Paris, however?), but if you ever found yourself in the neighborhood, I would highly recommend it…if for nothing but the spectacle. On my way back to town I came across a man in a suit looking at the dozens and dozens of shops selling Mary statues and rosaries and other paraphernalia, and he made a face at me like, “This is the most insane thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
And I have to agree: inane, and excessive, and vibrant, and pious, and ultimately quite touching.