William F. Buckley’s Pilgrimage to Lourdes

    Pilgrims pray in front of the Grotto of Massabielle (lower right) in Lourdes, France, in 2016. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

    We would be remiss to let this day pass without linking to Bill Buckley’s 1993 National Review cover story on his pilgrimage to Lourdes.

    He also included reflections from his book on faith, Nearer, My God. He briefly writes about Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old girl who was graced with a series of apparitions of Mary in 1858. Lourdes has become a place of great healing — and scientifically confirmed ones.

    He writes:

    The sense of the visit is rapidly communicated. There are thousands of gurneys (voitures, they are referred to) for the malades, the all-inclusive French word for the sick — again, propelled exclusively by volunteers. Perhaps every malade harbors the hope that he or she will be cured, but it is not reasonably expected; yet somehow it seems irrelevant as larger perspectives take hold. It is a part of the common faith that prayer can effect anything.

    By way of example, he then quotes from the Memorare prayer:

    Remember, most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy assistance, or sought thy intercession, was left unaided.

    He goes on to say that “incantatory hyperbole is simply a ritualized form of docility.”

    WFB continues:

    The sick who travel to Lourdes are there, yes, because of the undenialbility of recorded miracles, but that isn’t what brings as many as fifty thousand people a day to Lourdes, the great majority of them healthy. The reason so many people come, many of them on their second or tenth visit, is that what is effected is a sense of reconciliation, if not well-being. Hardly miraculous, unless one chooses to use the word as most appropriate for that buoyancy experienced on viewing the great processions, sharing with almost thirty thousand people an underground Mass, being lowered for three bracing seconds into one of the baths, suddenly noting the ambient serenity. These are Christians feeling impulses of their faith, and intimations of the lady in white.

    They are in Lourdes because of this palpability of the emanations that gave birth to the shrine. The spiritual tonic is felt. If it were otherwise, the pilgrims would diminish in number; would, by now, have disappeared, as at Delphos, which one visits as a museum, not a shrine. What it is that fetches them is I think quite simply stated, namely a reinforced conviction that the Lord God loves His creatures, healthy or infirm; that they — we — must understand the nature of love, which is salvific its powers; and that although we are free to attempt to divine God’s purpose, we will never succeed in doing so. The reason is that we cannot know (the manifest contradictions are too disturbing) what is the purpose behind particular phenomena and therefore must make do with only the grandest plan of God, which treats with eternal salvation. Our burden is to keep the faith: to do this (the grammar of ascent) requires the discipline of submission, some assurance that those who are stricken can, even so, be happy; and that the greatest tonic of all is divine love, which is nourished by human love, even as human love is nourished by divine love.

    I got to go to Lourdes a few years ago, helping lead a pilgrimage with an auxiliary bishop from Los Angeles. Here’s my interview with Bishop David O’Connell shortly after our visit. We talk about Mary and Jesus and suffering children — and you may know that suffering children is an important theme at the National Review Institute’s Center for Religion, Culture, and Civil Society.

    And one more: Here is late friend Karen Goodwin, on her own visit to Lourdes as a cancer patient. She was not physically healed, but she was ecstatic with gratitude. She wrote:

    C. S. Lewis wrote that there were times he thought people don’t want to go to heaven, “but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else.”

    It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.

    I live now in the rippling echoes of Lourdes. I am mindful of the yellow roses on the bare feet of Our Lady. I live in the Way of Beauty, albeit with the thorns of those yellow roses. Eucharisteo!

    She had earlier explained: “I felt what they call Eucharisteo, the deepest kind of gratitude.”

    Gratitude is another focus of some of NRI’s activities, in no small part because it was important to William F. Buckley Jr. It is legacy to be grateful, especially as our nation and conservatives, too, need to find our bearings anew.

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