I have arrived back from Lourdes in a tired and shattered body but with my spirit very much renewed. After five days in a distant land on pilgrimage with a group from home the overwhelming experience was one of joy.
There’s nothing like being away with a Folkgroup to keep you young. Although their energy was infectious, being in the company of their parents, grandparents and other more senior pilgrims definitely helped me to feel young.
From beginning to end the whole trip was like a rollercoaster. I never really recovered from the 4am beginning to our adventure on the Friday morning when the bus left Trench Road.
Thankfully I slept most of the two hour flight which was under the command of a woman captain. I can never slag woman drivers at the best of time, the flight was excellent but thankfully the male co-pilot parked the plane. Well you’ll be glad to know such smart remarks came back to haunt me.
On such a female dominated pilgrimage, six men to thirty five women, it wasn’t wise to make sexist remarks in an attempt to stir matters. On the Saturday afternoon the weather was so beautiful we decided to walk from the hotel to the City of the Poor. Being a typical man I wasn’t quite sure where we were going but I wasn’t going to stop to ask for directions, consult a map or use a sat nav. I knew we had to turn left leaving the hotel and when we reached the first roundabout I tried to hide my panic. You’ll be glad to know I got the group lost not once, not twice but three times, the journey was more like the Stations of the Cross. On Saturday night we witnessed one of the most remarkable storms any of us have ever seen as the skies darkened, the wind rose and hail stones the size of pebbles fell.
While many people felt frightened, those lovers of the fresh air otherwise known as smokers weren’t to be deterred. No golf ball sized hailstones were going to stop them from hanging out the hotel room window puffing.
On Sunday in an effort to entertain the troops we took the younger members of the group to a park in a neighbouring French village. It was like a journey back in time, coats were used as goal posts, there were about fourteen members to each team, the ball was more like an egg and worst of all, I was one of the last picked.
I wish I could say the teams were fair but when the opposition contained a current Irish International left winger from Creggan, what chance did we have. However miracles do happen. By the end of the day we struggled back onto the bus with sun burn, grazes and one seriously bruised international footballing reputation.
All I’ll say is this, when the chips were down someone missed a penalty in the deciding shootout and it was left to a twelve year-old girl to win the day. The young people were amazing, from singing at all our ceremonies, to spending time to sing at the baths in Lourdes as people queued.
The Folkgroup conducted themselves brilliantly, freely sharing their time and energy. Lourdes’ message is simple; it’s a place of healing. One of the signs of God’s Kingdom is the experience of being healed and the greatest healing occurs in our souls, namely the gift of forgiveness.
In a world where people are too readily written off and discounted, where young and old are thrown on the dump heap because their lives are seen as worthless when measured in terms of money and prestige, in a society where many men and women wander our streets or remain hidden in their homes struggling with rejection, emotional scars and loneliness, there can be no greater sign of the need for God’s healing.
As brothers and sisters in Christ we have a responsibility to care for one another. Having returned from Lourdes I feel in the doldrums because I miss the company and the experience of belonging which comes from being a part of a family or community. In truth we carry one another and the beginning of wisdom is recognising our own need of healing and of being carried and the need to carry others.
True healing is a community event and celebration when we allow one another to forget the past and look forward to God’s future with shared hope and renewed commitment.
We cannot justify ourselves in the eyes of God, the key to God’s kingdom is the realisation that despite our weaknesses and failures God’s grace is more than enough. No sin is too great, no problem insurmountable. Recognising the enormity of God’s love for us is the foundation of our hope. We need to help one another over the canyons of despair, the mountains of hopelessness and fear.
Only as a community and as a people can we realise the image of God within us, true communion is founded on living out our calling to love God above all things and our neighbour as ourselves.