In summer, as Chaucer observed at the opening of his great poem on the pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas à Beckett, “people love to go on pilgrimage”. Ease of travel and improved communications have made the pilgrim path much easier. Indeed though many lament what they see as a withering of faith, the number of pilgrims, especially to Marian shrines around the world, rises every year.
Among the most popular of these shrines for the last 150 years has been Lourdes in the foothill of Pyrenees. From this beginning the shrine attracted the attention of all France, and so of the wider world. Even Emile Zola, the sceptical novelist, a convinced positivist, found the atmosphere absorbing as he wrote in his novel about the pilgrimage of 1892.
Interestingly he observed how the renewed Church was incorporating the crowd, that is to say ordinary people, into its ideas, in a way the liberals of that time were then rejecting. He seemed to suspect that the crowd itself was a part of the curative process. Others, in the language of today, saw in the crowd the “People of God”.
At first Lourdes was not fully appreciated. The first French national pilgrimage was organised only 1872, immediately after the ‘Debacle’, the country’s defeat by the Prussians. However it was not until 1913 that the first Irish national pilgrimage to Lourdes was organised by the Irish bishops, so Canon Liston reminds us. Since then, bar times of war, countless thousands have gone since, both on organised pilgrimages, or individually.
Many have been in search of healing. Many simply wish to visit a place (in the words of T. S. Eliot about another famous shrine), “where prayer has been valid”.
This book has been written by Canon Liston of Limerick to mark the centenary of that first pilgrimage, and it will be read with interest and no little profit by those who travel to day.
The book falls into two parts. In the first part Canon Liston retells the story of Lourdes, of Bernadette, of the apparitions, and of the consequences. This narrative fills about half the book. The rest is devoted to the reflections that arise from the place, the saint, the pilgrims and the pilgrimage. In these pages his aim is to make the events of a century and half ago relevant to modern pilgrimages in the devotional language of today.
However, at the end of the book are two crucial pages devoted to “possible questions to support a review of life”. Here is pointed up what should be in the minds of pilgrims: the shared experience, not just of faith, but of fears and hopes as well; the feelings that arise from these new friendship, that the real purpose is to try to understand the "action of God in our lives, with the help of the scriptures”; and finally “a call to conversion”.
It is perhaps inevitable that for many people, sometimes even the most pious, the pilgrimage has been merely “a nice part of the holiday”. Canon Liston’s emphasis is on understanding ourselves and what the experience of Bernadette really was and means. There is no question of a search for that rare thing, a miracle; his call is for greater communion with God and with each other. The outer journey is merely a disguise for what should in fact be an interior voyage.
An early Irish poet many centuries ago understood this very well when he wrote (in the translation of Frank O’Connor):
To go to Rome,
Is little profit, endless pain.
The Master that you seek in Rome
You'll find at home, or seek in vain.
– Peter Costello, The Irish Catholic, 1 August 2013