Lourdes, a village in the Pyrenees Mountains of France, is one of my favorite places in the world to pray. It was there, in 1858, that the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous, transforming a garbage dump into a beautiful grotto for Our Lady. Every time I sit in front of the grotto and pray, I sense the love of Mary. Gazing up at the Madonna of the grotto, I am caught up in the beauty of the Blessed Virgin, the Immaculate Conception.
On the last day of one of my many visits to Lourdes, I found myself at one of my favorite restaurants in town. I had just finished my meal when another American walked in to dine. While in Lourdes, whenever I hear someone speak English, my ears perk up, and typically I start a conversation with the person. This was true for the American who just walked in. Let’s call her Anna.
I was wearing my Green Bay Packers fleece jacket with pride. As Anna passed by my table, she shared that she was from Chicago, whose football team is one of the archrivals of the Green Bay Packers. I asked her if this was her first time in Lourdes, and it was. She joined me at my table and ordered her meal and I began to tell her what she must do during her three days there. Whenever I talk to someone in Lourdes, I ask the person, “What brought you here?” It is a place known for healing. And the stories of people find a way into my heart and my prayer. What Anna shared was a beautiful spiritual story detailing her European journey. She traveled alone, as I do, and Lourdes was neither her first destination nor her last.
Anna had been in a difficult marriage , and after only a short while, she and her husband separated. This led her on a spiritual journey of prayer, retreat, pilgrimage, and healing. She traveled a lot for work and had amassed frequent-flyer miles and hotel points, and at some point, she decided she needed to make a religious pilgrimage to Europe. It was not going to be like any pilgrimage you or I have ever taken. She wanted to spend a few months on this journey. She had a plan and a reason for all of it, and she also relied on divine providence to guide her.
The first leg of her trip was to complete what is called El Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James. This is a pilgrim’s journey on foot, beginning in Spain, France, or Portugal, to the town of Compostela, in Spain. During these days of walking, a person experiences a lot — physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Anna wanted to walk the Way of St. James so she could let go of a lot of anger and hurt. A person walks the Camino with all his belongings in a backpack. Along the way, he might have to let go of something to make the bag lighter and easier to carry.
After she completed the Camino, Anna headed to Fatima, Portugal, the site of a series of Marian apparitions received by three children in 1917. Our Lady, in her messages there, encouraged the recitation of the Rosary and taught the children some additional prayers, one being what is called the Fatima prayer, often added to the end of each decade of the Rosary: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell; lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of Your mercy.” Anna said she went to Fatima because she was looking for forgiveness. It seemed like a natural progression: after she spent some time letting go of her emotional and spiritual baggage, she wanted to seek the Lord’s mercy. She believed Fatima was the place for that.
From Fatima, she headed to Lourdes, where she sat across from me in the restaurant. Many physical healings have happened at Lourdes, but spiritual and emotional healings happen as well. In Lourdes, people immerse themselves in the piscines, or baths, and wash themselves in the healing water discovered by St. Bernadette in 1858. Anna was seeking the healing of her soul, her heart, and also seeking healing from a physical infirmity from which she suffered.
Anna told me that she planned to visit Poland next, especially the Shrine of Divine Mercy. In the 1920s, Jesus began appearing and speaking to St. Faustina. These experiences are recorded in her diary, Divine Mercy in My Soul. The popular image of Divine Mercy, of Jesus with red and white rays coming forth from His heart, has the words “Jesus, I Trust in You” at the bottom. For Anna, after she let everything go, sought forgiveness, and prayed for healing, she wanted to develop a greater trust in God.
I share Anna’s story because I was privileged to be a part of it and to share in it. Her sharing her faith in God, manifested through pilgrimage, touched my soul. I hope and pray that Anna received what she sought on her European pilgrimage. I also share her story because I think it is the movement of our hearts and spiritual lives during Lent. Our meditations in these pages, spanning the season of Lent, will be a journey similar to Anna’s.
In the first week, we will let go of our sins as we examine ours and later seek forgiveness through the sacrament of Reconciliation. In weeks two and three, we will respond to Our Lady’s request to pray for specific intentions, focusing on one each day. In our fourth week, we will learn different methods of prayer and give each a try, and in the fifth, we will focus on the need for in our lives and in our world. During the Triduum — Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday — we will move to a reflection about Mary in those days of Jesus’ life. During the Easter Octave, we will continue with a postlude to our Lenten journey and turn our focus to St. Faustina, just as Anna ended her pilgrimage to Poland and the Shrine of Divine Mercy. During these days we will focus on developing greater trust in God.
Art for this post on Lent with Mary: Cover and featured image used with permission.