Carren's Pitch

Life by Design

Text and Photos by: Carren Jao
Published: December 2008

IF there was a time that would come to represent the microcosm of all human life for me, it would be the Marian pilgrimage that I undertook, centering on two famous Marian sites - Fatima and Lourdes.

Solicitous beginnings

I began my journey through a confluence of events; I was experiencing the urge to get out of myself and explore. Tucked in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean on the Philippine Islands, I felt the need to get away. “Anywhere!” in the words of Baudelaire, “So long as it is out of the world!” Fortunately, my mother was also on the market for a traveling partner to Europe; the opportunity was there and I could not refuse. No matter that it was a Marian pilgrimage and my intentions were less than holy, for me, it was a God send.

Located in West Central Portugal, Fatima was already our third stop in almost as many days. After a dizzying onslaught of air and land travel, I arrived exhausted. Breakfast consisted of various breads and cheeses, which made me miss my daily dose of rice, a staple food in my home country. Nevertheless, my mother and I - and 15 other older women in our group - persisted and ventured outside of our hotel rooms.

Fatima is a site that attracts around two million pilgrims each year because of several Marian apparitions that occurred around the area at the beginning of the 20th century. On significant days like May 13th, the day of the first Marian apparition to the children Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco, and October 13th, the day of the final apparition, the site would fill with pilgrims all over Europe and the world. As we arrived at dusk, the crowds were already beginning to form for the traditional procession and novena mass.

As we walked along a little path, The Fatima Basilica rose before us magnificently. The Basilica is one of the largest Catholic shrines in the world; its Sanctuary Square was twice the size of St. Peter’s Square in Rome and could hold up to a million people. Nevertheless, its immense size did not intimidate. Instead, it comforted. Under the dark blanket of night, the shrine shone with soft lights, welcoming pilgrims for the ritual Rosary.

As I made myself comfortable amidst the warm bodies of pilgrims, a familiar prayer cadence began, “Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with you…” To my right, surprisingly, I heard my native tongue pronouncing that very same prayer, “Aba Ginoong Maria, napupuno ka na ng grasya…” Slowly, as my ears grew accustomed to the influx of sound, I could hear a melody of different languages in chorus, praying the same prayer. The little Chapel of Apparitions, sheltering hundreds of pilgrims on the side of the Fatima Basilica, rang with prayers to Mary in the cold night air. The experience was breathtaking.

My homeland, the Philippines, lies at the outskirts of the Pacific Ocean and is perhaps one of the only few highly Catholic countries in Asia. As such, we have always been isolated in our faith – my community always felt like my neighborhood, small and easily traversed. Hearing all of these different languages suddenly brought home the fact that this belief I had wasn’t simply my own – it was shared by a world bigger than myself. After the novena, we all retired for the night, ready to explore the rest of Fatima in the light of day.

Fatima used to be a sleepy country town at the beginning of the 1900s, whose main product was olive oil. Though it has grown to enormous proportions with the Basilica and the presence of the new Church of the Most Holy Trinity, the 4th largest Christian Church in the world, the air still felt rural and almost rustic. Small shops selling trinkets, warm blankets, and simple toys dotted the countryside. And nary an electric sign or fancy gadget mars the horizon.

Fatima was a place where one could settle in peace and quiet. It echoed the peacefulness in life we are all allotted sparingly in this lifetime. The atmosphere of serenity hung like an autumn leaf on a branch and somehow reflected the fragility of human co-existence. And, as if sensing this tenuousness, people took time to be kinder to each other. It was an approximation of Utopia.

Ominous opposition
Unlike Fatima, Lourdes, our 7th stop, was not as comfortable. Lourdes is a French Pyrnees village that gained fame as one sickly, destitute girl, St. Bernadette Soubirous, became the recipient of numerous Marian apparitions. While learning more about her and the apparitions at Lourdes, I found myself equating my Lourdes experience to St. Bernadette’s life. Of course, I do not presume to have gone through the hardships of sainthood, but my time in Lourdes has certainly been uncomfortable in a way that was cleansing.

It began with the weather. As we arrived in Lourdes, grey clouds were thick overhead, permitting no sunshine to pass through. The rain fell continuously on us and transformed the Domain, a collective term for the myriad of Basilicas and Chapels that have grown over Lourdes for the past century, into an intimidating collection of buildings. The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception’s spires thrust triumphantly upwards, while the Rosary Basilica’s Byzantine Romanesque ramps were huge arms that surrounded all pilgrims in a suffocating embrace.

Then, it was our lodgings. Our group stayed at the Hotel dela Grotte, a tired hotel that strangely boasted of four stars. Serving pilgrims as far back as 1872, this hotel certainly showed it age. From the smoky lobby to overly stylized rugs, the hotel fairly heaved and coughed with age.

Dark orange lights greeted us as we walked along the hallways to our rooms. For senior citizens, the mish mash of elevators and stairways going to their rooms came as an unpleasant surprise. I looked forward to resting on a comfortable bed despite the initial letdown, but I was not going to be so fortunate. Their rooms were cramped and filled with doors, compartmentalizing each portion of the room. I felt claustrophobic and could not sleep. Instead, I stayed up that night watching American movies dubbed in French for lack of better programming.

Finally, it was Lourdes herself. Lourdes is known for its healing waters, so much so that a pipe with faucets ran around the grotto, allowing pilgrims to drink and, hopefully, be healed. Hundreds of pilgrims would line up in Lourdes’ gender specific bathhouses each day to submerge themselves naked in a tub of healing water. It was one of the main pilgrim activities in Lourdes and, though it went against my prudishness and fondness for warmth, I lined up for a Lourdes bath.

The prospect of the baths was daunting. As I lined up behind dozens of other women, with hundreds more behind me, I heard internal alarm bells going off. There were so many unknowns on this challenge. Would I be able to handle taking my clothes off in front of other women? Would I even handle the freezing Lourdes waters? What about a change of clothes? I had none with me. All these questions blazed through my head and, as I glanced at the line that formed behind me, I wondered if I would give up my place to ruminate some more.

Perhaps it was peer pressure or the prospect of a lifelong missed opportunity that pushed me, but I went through with the challenge. I found the helpers at the baths to be especially respectful, taking care to guide the sick, elderly, and first-timers alike. Covered only in a thin blue cloth, all the women inside were as meek as sheep, saying their prayers.

Then, as I dreaded, it was my turn at the bath. Held by two women on either side, I felt the biting cold of the Pyrenees Lourdes waters and my mind blanked out; all good intentions and prayers were obliterated in the cold. I could only remember the simple prayer in Fatima, “Hail Mary, full of grace…”

As I surfaced, the air around me seemed warm in comparison. My senses were awakened. Maybe it was the change in temperature or simply the work of the Lourdes water, but I felt alive and invigorated.

Wrapped up
Looking back on it, the Marian pilgrimage was an experience of a lifetime. It served to re-orient an internal compass of faith and also opened me to new –sometimes-intimidating experiences. The pilgrimage was in itself a mirror of human life – alternately blissful and miserable. And the invaluable lesson there was to be present to all that was happening – good and bad – and cull wisdom from all of it as I go along my own pilgrimage through life.


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