Several weeks ago, I was blessed to be part of a spiritual pilgrimage to France with 32 other people. We visited many places associated with great saints, like St. Margaret Mary at Paray-le-Monial, St. John Vianney at Ars, SS. Francis de Sales and Jane Frances de Chantal at Annecy, St. Therese at Lisieux and St. Joan of Arc at Rouen.
We also went to Lourdes, the beautiful shrine of healing, nestled in the Pyrenees Mountains. Highlights there included celebrating a Mass in the grotto at 6 a.m. with a full moon shining, participating in the rosary candlelight procession, going into the baths and climbing up to the fortress which overlooks the town.
The most compelling and moving part of Lourdes is the vast number of people who are suffering a wide variety of illness, maladies and disabilities. They come to this remote French town in the tens of thousands, triumphing over obstacles and enduring discomforts just to get there. As pilgrims, they have come to pray and to bathe in the waters of the spring which the Virgin Mary had instructed St. Bernadette to discover in 1858.
Most will not find a physical healing, although thousands have over the years, but they will come away with a deeper experience of God’s love for them, a stronger resolve to bear the cross of their suffering, a deeper peace that comes from acceptance and surrender.
One of the things that strikes me about Lourdes is that the sick and disabled receive preferential treatment, in the baths, processions, Masses and walkways of the shrine. They are the most important people there. Such a practice is a startling inverse of how the “world” often is, where the powerful, beautiful and elite often receive the pride of place.
Lourdes is a profound incarnation of the Catholic conviction that Christ comes to us in the disguise of the poor, the sick and the weak and awaits our merciful response through them. An attendant at the baths drove this point home to me, as I awaited my turn to go in, saying, with tears in his eyes, that his work at Lourdes was a privilege, as it allowed him to bathe and care for the Body of Christ on a daily basis. This holy shrine is a divinely chosen site where the fullness of human weakness and suffering converge in a startling fashion with the fullness of God’s merciful and healing power.
It may be tempting at times to wish we lived in a world completely free of suffering, poverty, weakness and illness, yet would that be a good thing? Obviously, in the name of the merciful Christ, we seek to eradicate disease, malnutrition, unemployment and homelessness, but we can never fully escape the cross. As maddening as that may be on a human level, could it be that we all need some level of suffering to humanize us?
If I was completely self-sufficient, living with no neediness, weakness or dependency, I would be tempted to shut myself off from other people and maybe even God himself. Suffering in those we love opens up deep reservoirs of compassion in us, as our own inadequacies compel us to reach out to others. How often in our lives, has a harsh encounter with the cross led us to a deeper faith, prayer and awareness of our radical need for God?
Societies that do not tolerate human weakness and imperfection often end up eliminating those who do not measure up to some mythical standard of sufficiency. The Third Reich comes to mind. Our rich Catholic spirituality and theology of suffering can deeply inform and shape our national debate on end-of-life issues, euthanasia and health care. Pope John Paul’s letter on the meaning of human suffering, “Salvifici Doloris,” serves as a foundational document to deepen our understanding of how God and our human weakness intersect in Jesus Christ.
Lourdes reminds us that we do not have to be perfect, strong, healthy and beautiful to be loveable, that God actually finds our disabilities to be attractive, that he is drawn to our weakness, that our sin arouses his compassion.
Ted Turner famously said that Christianity is for losers. I could not agree more. Only those who know they need a Savior can find the crucified and risen One who can heal, forgive and love us into eternal life.