For two weeks now, I have been on holiday in France with my family. We have made quite a tour of the country, dropping all the way down on the eastern side via Nancy, Mâcon, Le Puy-en-Velay and Narbonne, then going west within sight of the Pyrenees via Lourdes; now we have found a place in the woods of Les Landes, part of old Aquitaine. We have seen the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean in one holiday.
Lourdes was wonderful, but a bit dismaying all the same. I seem to recall a story of St. Bernadette coming back after many years and feeling sadness at how her visions had changed her hometown. The place would have been unrecognizable; it now crawls with hotels and tourist shops selling religious articles, one after the other, bigger and more conspicuous than in Rome. They do have beautiful items, though; I especially appreciated the pale statues of Our Lady with a deep purple garment.
The sanctuary itself was busy, but not as overcrowded as, say, St. Peter’s Basilica. Passing the church, I saw a round structure with many normal-looking water taps, which I couldn’t believe was Lourdes water until a volunteer told me; people were just as noisy and careless as they are at any other bottle-filling place. But they were silent and respectful at the grotto where Our Lady appeared in 1858; people went in there and ran their hand across the stones. I went to the entrance to the pool without going in, and took pains to explain to my sceptical siblings why sick people went to bathe there if the water had no healing properties and healing was not guaranteed.
The church was awesome. There are mosaics everywhere, especially in the dome. It contains a large image of Mary as a young girl, as she appeared to St. Bernadette; on the walls are the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary. By staircases or ramps the top of the church can be accessed, where the visitor may find a great golden crown (Our Lady’s), St. Bernadette’s crypt and a chapel; and on top of all that another chapel. Thus it is a three-tiered church. On the roof one can cross a road and walk the Way of the Cross in the mountains of France.
At 9pm a movie about Bernadette was shown in cinema with Dutch subtitles (just goes to show), but we did not go for general lack of interest. However, my parents and I did attend the 11pm Mass at the grotto. There were five priests there and a sizable crowd of visitors. After Mass there was Eucharistic Adoration; most of the people stayed. After a short while, we went to look at the candles, where my parents put some of the candles upright, touchingly enough.
Le Puy was interesting too. It is a small city, built around a hill with the cathedral on top and two big rocks close by. One of them, close to our camping, is topped with a thousand-year-old chapel dedicated to St. Michael; two chapels to the other Biblical archangels were added later at various points on the way up. The other rock had a large statue of Our Lady (now entirely wrapped up for restoration purposes). The cathedral had a special feature: somewhere in the middle, between altar and entrance gate, a large staircase came up in the middle of the floor out of the city centre. Inside the cathedral, flanking the main aisle, were two statues of France’s two warrior-saints, St. Louis IX and an unusually masculine St. Joan of Arc. There was also a big statue of St. James, with his famous seashell, because this was a site on the way to Santiago de Compostela.
I went to Mass there at 7am, a pilgrims’ Mass. It was the memorial day of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, about whom my friends at Popin’ Ain’t Easy have written well. The priest present gave a weighty homily, mentioning St. Lawrence’s effort to send soldiers to the Battle of Vienna, and the opposition – ‘not only a difference’ – between Christianity and Islam. Islam, he said, rejected the two chief doctrines of Christianity, the Trinity and the Incarnation: the mystery of God-become-man, on which our whole redemption rests. He concluded on a note such as this: ‘The Church has thought long about what constitutes a just war, and the Battle of Vienna is an example of it; but to support this would require further reflection, which I cannot give today.’ At which he left the ambo.
At the end of Mass, a benediction was given to the pilgrims, who gathered around the statue of St. James.
The homily fits well with the book I have been reading. It is Joan of Arc, by the famous agnostic writer Mark Twain. He was fascinated by the little girl who became commander-in-chief of the French army at 17, and this awe is perceptible on every page of the book. Joan of Arc is shown as a staunch patriot, naturally bashful but completely convinced of her divine mission to save France; an unflinching leader of battles, but with truly human feelings for those who suffer in war.
I think St. Joan of Arc should be given as much attention as that other famous French girl, St. Therese of Lisieux. She gives a unique answer to the question where God is on the battlefield. We people of today, in love with the soft power of potential but full of sentiment about weakness, will be inclined to seek the face of God in the suffering wounded or the medical staff. That God could shine in the general in the brunt of the battle is a foreign idea to us. What does God care about petty human affairs? Why would God send Michael the Archangel (no less) to put a pathetic figure like Charles VII on the throne of France, honouring the ancient (but human) Salic law rather than the recent (but equally human) Treaty of Troyes? I’m not sure myself, but Sainte Jeanne’s generalship did not stem from human ambition. Let the doubters read doubting Twain.