O Brother Where Art Thou? is easily one of my favorite movies of all time.
Funny and quirky, brilliantly acted and directed, with a soundtrack that can stand on its own merits. It’s infinitely quotable, with nuances that reveal themselves only after multiple viewings.
I love the movie for all those things, but I also love the disjointed, dreamlike, mythological quality of the story. With monsters that are all too human, including the cyclops, the sirens, and “the great Satan, hisself.” And with heroes who fumble their way to fame, fortune, and a salvation of sorts.
It’s that dreamlike, pseudo-reality of the movie that I want to invoke here as I relate our time spent in Lourdes, France. For this is a town that seems only tangentially connected to the terra firma, with its eyes ever toward heaven, on tip toes, believing it can fly at any moment.
A town of last resort when all trials have failed, and when hope is all but abandoned. A town of stubborn optimism in the face of death and disease. A town of dedication and service.
But, above all, it is a town of faith.
As the story goes, in 1858 an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared to a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous, instructing her to drink and bathe in the spring water coming from a small cave-grotto in Lourdes. The same vision came to Bernadette over a period of several months with further instructions to build a chapel at the site and encourage pilgrims to attend the place in procession, and that the water had healing properties.
Although her fellow townspeople were initially skeptical, official investigations and interrogations by the Catholic Church and the French government found Bernadette to be telling the truth about her visions. Moreover, people began drinking and bathing in the water, and some reported miraculous cures to a wide variety of ailments.
A church was built over the grotto. Word of the miraculous cures spread. And the visits became a pilgrimage.
Today, the small church has been replaced by a massive religious and medical complex comprising an area of 51 hectares, including the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, and no less than 21 other places of worship. And every day at 5:00 PM, the Blessed Sacrament procession takes place, where the devout and the ill line up to receive both water and blessing from the grotto.
And we knew none of this.
For us, Lourdes was just a convenient stop, situated in the northern foothills of the French Pyrenees on the route between Bordeaux, France, and Andorra. A place to rest and take in some mountain views.
We knew something was different, however, when we left the hotel in search of a bottle opener.
Having purchased three six-packs of Westy 12 when we were in Belgium, I was getting a bit tired of carrying them around and decided to lighten the load by exactly one six-pack. But we didn’t have a bottle opener, and I wasn’t running the risk of breaking a bottle through unconventional opening methods.
We ducked into the first souvenir shop along the way and found no bottle opener. But we did find lots of religious paraphernalia, including rows and rows of the same, tiny statue of the Virgin Mary. A bit odd, but we are from the South and can certainly recognize a Bible store when we see one.
Moving along to the next shop, however, the items were almost exactly the same. Statuary, crucifixes, Bible verses in French.
Now, this is where the story starts to feel like we’re playing a part in O Brother Where Art Thou? The three of us stepped into the street and, for the first time, really looked at the town we were visiting. Religious symbols in abundance, and essentially the same souvenir shop in an infinite iteration of store fronts.
And nuns. There were nuns everywhere.
In a bit of a fog, we actually found a bottle opener. Quite naturally, it had an engraving of Jesus on it.
Then we sat down at a street-side café for a bite of dinner when the sirens from the movie began singing in my head, “Go to sleep you little baby. Go to sleep you little baby.”
Unbeknownst to us, the daily procession was gearing up.
People in wheelchairs began filing past where we were sitting. One or two at first, then several in a group. Then people with walkers being helped by husbands or sisters or, when they had no one else, teenage volunteers. People walking with the support of a priest under each arm.
Next came the bedridden. People attached to medicine drips and attended by doctors. People wracked with pain. The feeble. The old. The dying.
For over an hour, they shuffled past where we sat. Hundreds, if not thousands of them.
We asked the server if we had stumbled (once again) upon some special pilgrimage day. Surely these people had only endured the pain to travel here for some glorious, rare, annual service.
“No,” he smiled. “This happens every day.” He then looked down the line of broken humanity and said, “Actually, it’s a pretty small turnout tonight. Would you like dessert?”
It seemed callous of him, but I guess the server was just doing what doctors do when they observe all of that suffering every day. It’s got to grind you down until you’re turning a hard eye on it if only for self preservation.
After the last of the pilgrims passed, we followed the line down to the grotto in silence, listening as the service had begun. Incantations of priests and echoed responses from the crowd. Candles passed out and lit by strangers. The sun sinking behind the shining golden dome.
And three tourists who had entered the secret ceremony without knowing the password.
It was beautiful and agonizing in a way I can’t fully describe. All of that faith. All of that hope. Founded on the visions of a sickly young girl over a century ago, and made real by something I don’t fully understand or appreciate.
But everyone was welcome there, regardless of their reasons. Including me. And maybe that was a salvation of sorts.
“Come on in, boys. The water is fine.”