Solitude and Gratitude: My Solo Pilgrimage to Lourdes

June 19, 2024 Travel

When I learned I would be flying to France to attend the 77th Cannes Film Festival, the first thing that came to mind was that it would be my chance to go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France. 

Lourdes, a small town at the foot of the majestic Pyrenees mountains, is one of the world's most important Catholic pilgrimage sites. In 1858, the Blessed Virgin appeared here eighteen times to a young French girl named Bernadette Soubirous in a cave called Massabielle. During the sixteenth apparition, the Lady revealed herself as the Immaculate Conception, confirming the belief that the Virgin Mary was free from original sin from conception.

I traveled solo to Lourdes, feeling a bit anxious as it was my first time taking the train in France. But I prayed that someone would always be there to help whenever I needed it; sure enough, they were. The journey lasted nearly ten hours. I began in Nice, where I stayed for two nights after visiting Cannes, then traveled to Marseille, from Marseille to Toulouse, and finally from Toulouse to Lourdes.

Arriving in Lourdes was surreal. Unlike in Manila, where the sun sets at around 6 PM, it was still bright when I arrived. From the station, I followed Google Maps to my hotel, Chalet St. Louis, which I chose because of its good reviews on Agoda.

I didn't waste time. As soon as I dropped my bag in my room, I set out for the sanctuary, a 15-minute walk from my hotel. 

Millions of pilgrims visit Lourdes from every corner of the earth each year. You will hear conversations in a multitude of languages and see people of all ages and nationalities. 

It didn't take long for me to hear Filipinos, which I had hoped to bring me a sense of home and comfort.

We walked inside the vast sanctuary, also known as the Domain, which covers an area of 52 hectares and includes several religious buildings and monuments. 

The Grotto, the heart of the sanctuary, was the first place I sought to say a little thanksgiving prayer. 

This site is so important that hundreds of replicas, known as "Lourdes grottos," are located around the world, including in our family home in San Carlos City.

That night, I also joined the torchlight procession, one of the most profound experiences I had in Lourdes. The procession was deeply moving, with thousands of pilgrims carrying candles. Singing "Ave, Ave Maria" in unison with everyone was incredible. The diversity of languages, especially hearing the Hail Mary in Filipino, was overwhelming. The candlelit procession was a stunning sight.

The next day, I explored the rest of the sanctuary. The sanctuary is home to 22 places of worship, including three basilicas: the Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, the Rosary Basilica, and the Basilica of St. Pius X. The first, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, overlooks the second, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary. The third basilica is underground and extends along the great esplanade of the processions. They are known as the upper, lower, and underground basilicas.

The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, also known as the Upper Basilica, is the oldest building at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. It bears the name revealed by the Virgin to Bernadette. 

Between the two basilicas is the crypt, the first sanctuary. 

The Upper Basilica, the Lower Basilica, and the Crypt are all called 'The Basilica.'

The Rosary Basilica is the third of the churches to be completed on the site (after the Crypt and the Upper Basilica). It has a mosaic of Our Lady above the sanctuary. Our Lady is depicted as a young woman, resembling Bernadette's description. It is said to be more faithful to that description than the statue at the Grotto.

The Basilica of St. Pius X is a vast underground church near the East entrance to the sanctuary grounds. It has several entrances into an oval-shaped underground area that is 190 meters in length and 60 meters wide.

Aside from the basilicas, another important place is The Baths. Along with the Grotto rock and candlelight, water is one of the main symbols of the pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Lourdes. 

During the ninth apparition, Bernadette began to scrape the muddy soil in the depths of the Grotto, then scooped up the resulting mixture of water and mud with her hands and drank it. She also washed her face with it. "Go and drink from the spring and wash yourself there," were the instructions the Lady gave, heard by Bernadette alone. After this discovery, people came to the spring to drink and splash the water on their faces. The first miraculous healings occurred in the following days. 

Previously, people could take actual baths, but because of the pandemic, pilgrims could only wash their hands and faces and drink. 

Volunteers guide pilgrims who want to perform the "water gesture," which starts and ends with prayers.

In addition to the baths, there are eighteen drinking fountains located next to the Grotto. The number eighteen symbolizes the number of apparitions. 

Apart from attending the Holy Mass at The Grotto and the Rosary Basilica, participating in the water gesture, and going to confession, I dedicated my day to meditation, prayer, and simply relishing the moment. I ended the day by joining another torchlight procession.

My visit coincided with the International Military Pilgrimage, a significant gathering for the Catholic military chaplaincy, which added color to the entire experience.

On my third day in Lourdes, which I spent exploring the town, I capped my day with another torchlight procession, but this one was very special. 

After attending mass, I noticed they were cordoning off the "Rosary Square," the open space in front of the Rosary Basilica. My original plan was to go outside, have dinner, and look for a toilet, but I decided against it. Thinking it was my last night in Lourdes, I spent it at the Grotto. I was very blessed because I was among the few pilgrims at the Grotto when the torchlight procession started. It was very rare to see the Grotto without the crowd; it was very quiet. From the Grotto, we watched the procession of the participants of the International Military Pilgrimage. 

After the military delegates, I joined the procession with so much gratitude and love.

I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to travel solo and visit Lourdes, where Mama Mary once stood, a journey filled with solitude and gratitude.

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