Saints - Saint Bernadette

In September, Carfin Grotto will be hosting the relics of Saint Bernadette. For many Catholics in Scotland, this will be a joyous occasion, and there will be pilgrimages to Carfin to remember, reverence, and ponder the little teenage girl who saw Mary in 1858, and changed the course of history for our Church.

Coincidentally, I had the blessing to go to Lourdes this past summer – the home of Bernadette and the site of the apparitions. Lourdes might be the most famous Catholic pilgrimage spot in the world. Known for its healings, thousands upon thousands flock to Lourdes every year. Some go for physical healings, others for spiritual healing, others for spiritual nourishment. Some go for historical reasons, and some with scepticism. I, myself, went to Lourdes with a great excitement – my first Catholic “pilgrimage”. I also went trying not to expect too much -  I had no idea, once I reached Lourdes, if I would “feel” anything – I actually had fears I’d be the only Catholic who,  in 160 years of history, left this blessed place feeling “eh”.

Imagine my surprise when my train reached the Lourdes station – and I got off the train and started to cry! I was amazed at my own reaction. I’m still pondering why stepping off the train would bring such an         onslaught of emotion. It might be because I didn’t really believe, with all the struggles of getting to France itself the week before (including a very stressful last-minute struggle to find our “proof of vaccinations”, and a covid scare in the family), that I would really “make it” to Lourdes. Maybe it was because I knew I was about to walk where Bernadette walked. Whatever the reason – my first half hour in Lourdes, stepping onto the train platform, chatting with the taxi driver who grew up in Lourdes and asked if I was a “first time pilgrim” and being greeted by the hotel staff with glorious smiles – I was overwhelmed.

There is so much I could write about my two days – I met other English speaking people, two particular “new” friends, who shared their family stories and life’s complexities with openness, sadness, and joy; I toured Bernadette’s childhood home, seeing first hand the tiny space 6 members of her family shared, reminding me of the poverty of this young illiterate girl and her often hungry family; I splashed my face with and drank the healing waters; I was part of the evening candle light procession, praying with Catholics and others from every part of the world. I went to the tacky trinket shops, bought snow globes and saint cards, and queued up for English Confession. I feel like I experienced a week full of activities in 2 days times and yet I felt refreshed, peaceful, and simultaneously engaged, especially with the life stories of my new friends. Sitting at the cave/grotto, experiencing outdoor Mass – one in French and one in English – were experiences I don’t have words to describe.

So how does this relate to Catholic Worker spirituality? The phrase that occurs to me as I type this is “communion in our poverty” – a being with – a sharing of joys, sorrows, and faith even in the midst of extreme poverty, illness, loss and shame. One of the “charisms” of the Glasgow Catholic Worker is “fellowship” – we never want to feed the hungry body, without also feeling the hungry heart and soul. When we ran the soup kitchen, the conversation, the jokes, the “being with” ended up being just as important – if not more so – for some of the men and women we served. And they served us too, by offering friendship, and a glimpse into their lives, and giving us an opportunity to live un-selfishly for even 3 hours a week. I never left the soup kitchen without a deep sense of appreciation for the blessings of my life, and a peace that only comes from serving others in love. I was a very on-again, off-again helper at the soup kitchen, unlike others who showed up every week. But that on-again, off-again attendance always left me with a “knowing” about the shared anguish and beauty of life, and that “knowing” was felt in abundance at Lourdes.

I’m looking forward to visiting Bernadette again when she comes to Carfin next month. My hope is that all who pilgrimage to Carfin – whether from Glasgow or from farther spots in the UK – feel the fellowship, and the outpouring of love this little teenage girl has inspired world-wide for almost 2 centuries. Bernadette was a real person – with problems, flaws, heart aches, joys, temptations, and at times - holiness. Her story can inspire all of us to try and be what she was – humble, truthful, simple, and strong – and willing to “start again” when she got it wrong. If we all leave Carfin Grotto with renewed love of God and others, I think Bernadette will be smiling at us from above.

Tamara Horsburgh