Saturday, June 23, 2007

All about Lourdes!!!

A couple hundred years ago, a fourteen-year-old went to a secluded grotto to pray, and saw a divine personage appear. (This story seems weirdly familiar, doesn't it?) The divine personage was of course the Virgin Mary, and the fourteen-year-old was later canonized as Saint Bernadette.

Lourdes is one of the most popular religious pilgrimage sites in the world. According to Wikipedia, it has more hotels than any city in France besides Paris. The Catholic church has officially declared that the waters of Lourdes have the power to miraculously heal people, so Lourdes is the prime destination for every Catholic whose health requires a miracle.

Lourdes is a popular spot for healthy Catholics as well. I mentioned to a colleague that I was going to Lourdes, and he told me his story of visiting Lourdes when he was a kid, in Catechism. The healthy push the sick (in special wheelchairs of Lourdes) to the healing waters to bathe. An endless procession of the dreadfully ill marinate in the miraculous pool from morning until night. Then it's your turn to get in. "That you don't get sick from it -- that's the miracle!" he said.

I haven't participated in any of the religious aspects, but I've learned a lot about Lourdes by observation. One popular custom I've noticed is to buy candles and place them in one of these candle-boxes:

Those are just the little ones. If you need a heavy-duty prayer candle to help your miracle along, you can buy a 20 kilogram candle for only 150 euros!

If you look closely at the photos above, you can see the candle box says (in several languages) "This flame continues my prayer." So apparently you start praying, and lighting a candle holds the line open with God while you go off and do something else. I thought it was pretty hilarious when Mr. Deity called dinner blessings "spam", but the Catholics have gone one step farther -- they actually call up God and put Him on hold!!!

(The things God has to put up with -- it's a wonder Mormons aspire to take that job...)

I was a little taken aback when I saw there was a medical station (open 365 days a year) right on the plaza of the Basilica! But... what do you need doctors for when you have the miracle of Our Lady of Lourdes right there? Never mind, don't answer that...

The best thing about Lourdes however is the souvenirs!!! Downtown Lourdes is an endless collection of block after block of the kitschiest holy souvenirs you've ever laid eyes on!!! The Wikipedia article warns that some may be shocked by the crass commercialism, but shocking is really the wrong word here. I think the word they're looking for is "hilarious"!!! I don't care whether you're one of those grumpy atheists who's always lamenting the popularity of magical thinking or one of those prudish Christians who thinks that religious items should be respectful and dignified -- when you actually get here and see this stuff, you can't be shocked because you're too busy rolling around on the ground laughing!!!

Seriously, for this alone Lourdes is worth the trip.

Some of my Catholic friends have told me about playing games like competing over who can find the tackiest souvenir in all of Lourdes. I keep wanting to play that game (or the variant where you count how many different household items can be made in the shape of the Virgin Mary), but we almost never have any time for souvenir shopping since we go there to visit our aunt who is too old to walk all the way to town. I know I shouldn't be disappointed -- I should be thinking about aunty and not about my own selfish desire to take a million outrageously wacky photos to post to my blog. Still it would have been great fun if I'd had time to see if I could find myself a glow-in-the-dark rosary or a magic 8-ball Jesus or perhaps an authentic shroud of Turin replica lampshade.

As it was, all I got this time were a few photos I took through the window of the taxi on the way back to the train station:

The other thing I was curious to see was the wax museum. It boasts life-size wax statues of the entire Last Supper (DaVinci style) and of Pope John Paul II!!! I'm a little hesitant about that place though because it may cross that fine line between tacky and scary...

Oh well, maybe next year!


Anonymous said...

Oh wow - cheesy souvenirs are one of my hobbies, and I've been missing all of THIS? I must make my pilgramage posthaste!

I admit, I sometimes like to light a candle. But I wouldn't prolly go for the Eur 150 one. Unless I really really needed to get god's attention. How can anyone ignore such a costly candle?

I know hollywood starlets and their wannabes can't. Else, Jo Malone and Diptyque would have gone under years ago. I hope for Eur 150, the candle at least contains some essential oils and fabulous miraculous fragrances that make you appear more intelligent and good-looking than you actually are.

-M said...

Very interesting this Lourdes. All I knew of it was really from the Richard Dawkins documentary "The Root of All Evil". The behaviour of these people when in a large group astounds me. I doubt that they would behave the same way on their own. It like a religious mob mentality. I suppose you can't bring your own candles, is it only the ridiculously prices candles from Lourdes that keep the line open?
-Skeptic from

Anonymous said...

The wax museum in Krasnodar Russia was also very odd and a little creepy. And there was an American figure there, FDR (WWII and all).

I agree that religious pilgrimage sites are fascinating. As well as all of the souvenirs...

btw, I spoke with one of our uncles who went to Israel about some holy land visiting he did. I guess there are shops there that cater to not just Christian pilgrims - but LDS pilgrims as well. Who knew??

Anything for a buck I suppose. A snow globe with JS on the mount of olives - now that's a treasure.

King Aardvark said...

The catholics sure love their candles. I remember in 1994 when my family took a trip to Europe and we stopped at several famous cathedrals. They were all selling candles to be lit there. Hell, my atheist family partook in the ritual just to say that we did. I don't remember the area around the cathedrals being quite so tacky though. Maybe I just blocked it out of my memory.

Anonymous said...

"The best thing about Lourdes however is the souvenirs!"

Do they have shot glasses? I would love to have a Lourdes shot glass!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Wry Catcher!!!

If you like cheesy souvenirs, you definitely don't want to miss this!!!

True, those 20 kg candles were pretty impressive. On the other hand, I wonder "If I were omnipotent, would I really be impressed by 20 kilograms of wax?" On the other other hand, the Biblical God felt threatened by some Babylonians building a really tall tower, so it's not unreasonable to imagine a big candle would get His attention...

Hey M!!!

I doubt they'd throw you out if you brought your own candle or refuse to let you put it in the candle box or something. But then your candle would be different from everybody else's. And I imagine the profits from the candles go to some monks and nuns or something...

Hey Aerin!!!

That's hilarious!!! I'm holding out for the "Magic 8-ball" Joseph Smith though...

Hey King Aardvark!!!

I think most Cathedrals don't have quite this many souvenir shops. Lourdes is special... ;^)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Greta!!!

I'd be really surprised if they don't have shot glasses. Hell, some of the best liquor in France is made by monks!!! If you're looking for ironic shot glasses, a fab one is to go to Utah and get the Salt Lake Temple souvenir shot glass (and, yes, it does exist... ;^))

Jul said...

LOL - totally sounds like my kind of place!

And the best ironic shot glass in my collection is from Amish Country. :)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Jul!!!

The Amish one sounds great!!! Now that I think about it, a collection of souvenir shot glasses would be a great way to honor the religions of the world... ;^)

On a completely unrelated note, I'm going to be visiting Zurich in a few weeks -- is there anything I should be sure not to miss?

Anonymous said...

Okay, now I want to buy several candles (here in the states where the prices are cheaper) and mold them into some wax-museum-like religious idolotry, but leave a wick in it.
Then I'd kneel and intone:
"Will you pay attention to my prayer now, or do I light this Joan of Arc candle?"

C. L. Hanson said...

LOL anonymous!!!

Would you really be that mean to poor little defenseless God? ;^)

Anonymous said...

A couple hundred years ago, a fourteen-year-old went to a secluded grotto to pray, and saw a divine personage appear. (This story seems weirdly familiar, doesn't it?)

One of the many, many reasons to read Michael Quinn's Early Mormonism and the Magic World View is for his discussion of "theophanies," or accounts of visions of god--as Quinn writes, "Devout claims of seeing God were quite common, particularly by adolescents." In other words, ALL the cool kids saw god (or his servants), and the coolest wrote some little account of the vision. They were incredibly popular in late 18th and early 19th century New England, and sold extremely well.

Re: the souvenir aspect--
I've been to the Joseph Smith farm and wandered through the "sacred grove"--ain't nothing to buy, not even cross-stitched depictions of Joseph on his knees! Seems like you could do a brisk trade in that sort of memorabilia without seeming too crass.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Holly!!!

That's an interesting point. I'd heard the canonised version of JS's first vision parallels a later vision published by a teeanger in Nauvoo (or something like that).

Sister Mary Lisa said...

They won't sell souvenirs at the Sacred Grove, because they're too busy trying to give out Books of Mormon and convert people. Imagine: get one one-time-only dollar amount of $3.95, or get some poor sap who is willing to give 10% for the rest of his days...

Give a man a [souvenir], feed [the church] once. Teach him to [pay tithing], feed [the church] for LIFE!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sister Mary Lisa!!!

Good point!!! Although sincerely I'm surprised that they don't try to do both...

fitzhamilton said...

Like the post.. Even if my memories of Lourdes are from a different pov than yours..

Should point out that the Church hasn't said anything about the waters at Lourdes being miraculous. She's only said that it's permissible to believe, in that the purported apparitions do not contradict orthodoxy.

Bernadette's (the visionary's) body lies incorrupt somewhere in Paris, by the way. Must be that secret order of embalmer nuns keeping up appearances .. Might be worth a further visit.

People believe that healings occur, of course, and there is a medical board staffed by neutral (in many cases non Catholic and non believeing doctors) to examine all such claims.

Zola said that all the crutches left at places like Lourdes would never impress him. He would only believe if an amputee sprouted a new leg, like a frog. That's not happened, yet. But many other odd things demonstrably have..

Just a little more wacky ju- ju to spice up the scene for you atheistical tourists.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Fitzhamilton!!!

Thanks for the additional perspective on Lourdes!

We actually saw one of those miraculously preserved dead people in the chapel at Santa Caterina del Sasso. I don't think it was Bernadette though. In the chapel there was an embalmed body in a glass casket like Snow White (except that the body didn't have quite the same preservation level as Snow White). That aspect of Santa Caterina del Sasso was a little creepy, but the chapel itself -- built into the side of a cliff -- is amazing!

Unfortunately my photo server appears to be temporarily down, but come back later for my Italy photos here.

p.s. Are you sure frogs can regenerate legs? Apparently newts can, so maybe frogs can as well...