Mission trip back to Lourdes

I shudder when thinking back to my mental and emotional state prior to my first service pilgrimage at Lourdes. I was twenty-two years old and a year away from graduating DePaul University's prestigious theatre school with a BFA in Acting. I was also in the midst of a slow and silent nervous breakdown.  Conservatory life for artists is far more difficult than a typical university experience. You're surrounded by the same thirty people 24/7, teachers grade according to their personal preferences, students ego's are stroked or destroyed regardless of how much time or effort they have put into their work. By third year, I spent each night sobbing on the phone with my mother wondering whether or not I could make it in this business. My mother, the dearest person in my life, would often say 'When the world says NO, God is whispering yes', but I would shurg her words off as something only a mother could believe. Lonliness and depression became a silent burden. When you're so close to your own darkness, it's hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The more immersed in darkness, the more I felt like God too had abandoned me. I slipped into despair and no longer knew how to love myself. What was there to love if even God could abandon me? To outsiders; my classmates, teachers and acquaintances, I seemed fine. I smiled and worked hard. The blackhole that was slowly suffocating me was invisible to everyone surrounding. They'll never know how great of an actress I really was, pretending to be happy each day.

You're wondering at this point what all of this has to do with Lourdes. No worries, I'm getting there!

My mother, the saint that she is, called me up one evening and said 'Your father and I are giving you your graduation present a year early! It's time for you to get out of that theatre school and remember what life is actually about: loving others.'

I was so caught off guard, I could barely grasp what she was saying. She went on to explain she'd seen a special on the Catholic tv network EWTN about Lourdes and working in the bathes. I sat their in a fog. My only emotion was sheer guilt for their spending money on me, knowing that finances were tight at home. Once this emotion subsided, I felt a pang of anger toward God wash over me.

Why should I spend ten days of my vacation on pilgrimage? Why should I go find out a bunch of people in France thought I wasn't good enough either? God abandoned me, why do I keep so faithful to Him?!

I got off the phone frustrated, mostly because I knew that I couldn't get out of this trip.

The day finally arrived to begin my pilgrimage. When I stepped off the bus in Lourdes, after a long and stressful travel experience...I was surprised to find that I still had the energy and desire to take everything in.

Do you know that feeling that washes over you when you see or smell something that reminds you of a childhood memory? That moment of being swept away into another time or place? Arriving in Lourdes felt a little bit like a distant memory. Like running into my mothers arms after being away from her for some time or crawling into my father's lap to hear him tell me a story. A calm washed over me, for no apparent reason.

And so, my first miracle occurred. For the first time in three years, I felt inexplicably...at peace.

My second day in Lourdes was spent visiting the places where St. Bernadette's family had lived. As first years in the stage program (which, in that moment I had no idea what the program was) we were required to have a day of history on the town. Our tour ended at the grotto.

A second miracle. I began to cry! I know, I know. I just told you that I'd been sobbing to my mother every night for two years, but these were not angry, resentful or desperate tears. They were healing tears! I felt like Christ scooped me up into His arms in that instant. I felt so at home in this tiny French town.

I spent a great deal of time praying at the grotto that day, preparing myself for the bathes. But. I'm not sure any amount of prayer could have prepared me for my service.

I'll explain the stage program before detailing the bathes. Lourdes is run by volunteers. Less than one percent of the people working their are paid. How is this possible? People come, and never want to leave! But, of course, we must leave and go back to our own lives. So, they have established a program called the Hospitality. As members of the Hospitality, you work for different departments. I requested to work in the bathes, and this is where I have been stationed these past three summers. Each time you come back as a stage you receive further instruction on St. Bernadette's life, as well as the attributes we are meant to emulate as volunteers. The goal is to become a lifetime member, a volunteer that spends their holiday each year in service to Our Lady. Before you are inducted though, you are meant to come back five times to prove you are serious...after your five services, you undergo your 'engagement' to the hospitality and Our Lady. I am currently entering my fourth year of service, in hopes of making my engagement and lifetime commitment in July of 2016.

Back to the bathes! Day three was a jumble of emotion. I sat in my white nurse's uniform at breakfast with many of the American girls wondering how the day would unfold and what I'd gotten myself into. It was common knowledge that your first day in the bathes you learned on the job, and would be more fully instructed AFTER the day. I was nervous, but the peace that had washed over me when I first arrived dominated all other emotion.

I arrived at the bathes early, my shiny hospitality badge that gave away my American nationality and inability to speak French stuck out like a sore thumb...but the other volunteers smiled and greeted the young American girls with as much joy as they had for their old friends they were seeing for the first time since last service. This is where I first realized how devoted to the service these women were. I was meeting women in their 70s who had first come as young women like me. They had never intended to come back every year, but Our Lady stole their hearts and for fifty years they spent ten days each summer serving others.

The first lesson I was taught in the bathes was to always smile and remain calm. Our job as volunteers in the bathes was to undress the sick, elderly, and able bodied without judgement or confusion. We were the first people the pilgrims met while they anxiously awaited their turn, and the people they hugged before leaving. Calm was vital. Smiling, especially when you had very little command over the French or Italian languages (which more often than not are the majority of those we serve), was the easiest way to bring the frenzied to a place of prayer.

My first leader was Italian. She spoke no English, and all the volunteers in my bath were French and spoke no English. With this, I learned how to communicate through gestures and glances. I became vital to my particular bath, as there was a pilgrimage from Cork Ireland visiting that day and I seemed to lead the pilgrims through their undressing and preparations. I recall my first stretcher. A woman, nearly 97, from Cork. Her eyes glowed and she quietly told me that the last time she had been in the bathes she was just 19 years old. She was lucid, but frail as a feather. My heart swelled with love as she quietly whispered to me. She asked my name and where I was from. I tried my best to have her focus on praying, but she was just too nervous to keep quiet. I helped undress her, and reminded her of how cold the water was. She smiled warmly at me and stated 'As long as you're nearby, I'll be fine.'

I wanted to weep.

Here was a woman that, in the states, would probably not be shown such care and attention. Yet, here in this moment, felt safe and loved. We lowered her on the stretcher into the water, and she gasped. My heart ached, wishing there was warmer water for her...but then, I saw the smile on her face. She looked like an angel, a young and joyfilled spirit. She seemed as if she had seen Our Lady, and found joy in knowing her life would soon extend into heaven.

She thanked me a million times, and when she was wheeled away I realized their were tears in my eyes. My leader smiled, grabbed my face and simply proclaimed, 'Bella!'

Toward the end of my first day, I was asked if I would like to take a bath. Without hesitation I jumped at the opportunity and began prayerfully getting ready for my turn. As an artist the concept of undressing in the midst of a bunch of women did not bother me, but as I sat with the sheet wrapped around me to preserve my purity...I could not help but cry. I'd seen other able bodied and elderly begin to cry before going into the bathes, but I couldn't imagine why they were so overwhelmed prior to their bath. But there I was, and it dawned on me: the vulnerability, the trust it took to pray in solidarity as we sat waiting for our bathes only covered in sheets...it was vaguely reminiscent of how I imagined waiting at the pearly gates would be. Years of guilt, sadness and depression rushed through my mind's eye. I could feel the weight of my college experience weigh on my shoulders. Before I knew it they were ushering me behind the curtain. A long marble bath, one I recognized from my work all day, stood in front of me. A statue of our Lady stood at the end of the bath. I made my intentions, a wet sheet replaced my dry one and soon I was being led by two women toward Mary. I was pulled back into the water, and as I stood and felt the water fall from my body...the weight of the darkness I'd been carrying around for so long fell with it. I was glowing, grinning with amazement. The freezing water that had first been unbarable was now warm. As soon as I walked out of the water, it almost magically dried. I couldn't think clearly. I was just. Happy. I wanted to run around screaming, "GOD IS HERE! MARY IS HERE!", but I just sat their sheepishly grinning like an idiot.

I had heard once that you could offer your bathes for people who could not be present. I rushed to the gift shops and bought ten rosaries, engraving each with a name of someone near and dear to my heart. The next day, after my long and arduous day in the bathes, I offered my bath for those ten people, wearing the rosaries around my neck as a reminder. This became a tradition after the first summer. My first bath was for me, but all other bathes were offered up for those who generously donated to my trip or any sick who had asked me to remember them while on stage.

The time flew that first summer. Anytime not spent in the bathes would be spent at the grotto in prayer, at mass, in adoration or simply walking about the town and imagining where St. Bernadette had trod. I spent little to no time with the group I'd travelled with and for once, I was okay with this. God had called me to mend my own heart, and that ten days was the most romantic time I have ever spent with Christ. I was so in love with Him and His creations, I didn't want to leave this little heaven on earth.

Unfortunately, the trip had to end. When I arrived home I had a hard time adjusting back into secular life. Seeing elderly pass me on the street and not being able to smile or say hello without an odd look back was strange. My life was turned upside down.

The day I arrived home I looked at my mother and said, "I have to go back. I will go back."

They say you do not go to Lourdes on your own accord, but rather Our Lady invites you. Our lady has sent me an invitation these past three summers and I know she wishes me to return this year and all the years to come. The children, families, elderly and sick I have been able to love through service changed my heart. Changed my view of life.

I was blessed these past two years. My parish in Chicago allowed me to speak to find donors, and I was able to raise my flight. Unfortunately, this year they have politely told me I cannot fundraise with them.

When the world says 'No!', I have learned that God whispers 'Yes'...

I ask, humbly, for your support to return to Lourdes this summer to represent all the sick that cannot make it. I ask your prayerful support...I ask for your smiles and cheers. I want to carry you all in my heart as I go into the bathes and serve those who are searching for hope. But I cannot do that without your financial support.

I know I am asking for a lot, but I promise you, it will not go to waste.

Thank you for your prayerful consideration.

Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us!

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Katey K. 
Chicago, IL
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