3 SEPTEMBER 1898, Page 13


A VISIT TO LOURDES. [To VIZ ED/TOR Or THE " SPECTATOR."1 SIR,-It is a very beautiful and a very gracious place. I have no cause to plead, either of creed or of medicine. Only to record the fact that a visit to Lourdes during a pilgrimage is something so singular in its nature as to Impress our " curious hearts" as nothing else in this world can, and to leave us pondering as deeply as Hamlet himself on the more things in heaven and earth than any philosophy has yet been found to dream of. Nothing that the miracle plays and mysteries can show can be so vivid and so mystical as this. We came upon the place this year on our return from a winter spent in Spain, which the present writer attempted to describe in this journal but a few weeks since. In the passing of a train we were plunged from wars and rumours of wars, and the wild contrast of beggary and bull-fights, into what I may venture to call pure Bible Land. It was the pool of Bethesda over

again. A large pilgrimage from Belgium arrived upon the same day as ourselves, biding their time for the waters of the healing well. Against the fairy background of the Pyrenean hills sloping upwards from the mountain stream which runs through the quaint old village, and brawls under the windows of the inns, an easy ascent leads through a new and cultivated garden up to the steps of the grand cathedral which surmounts the grotto of the Virgin, where the story runs that she appeared to Bernadette. All round and about the place are striking new hotels, which might be the sign of a new-fashioned and fashionable health resort but for the character of the guests, and the absence of all the usual tokens of pleasure. No man or woman at Lourdes remarks upon another's dress, or wears a dress upon which a remark could be made. The business of the place is prayer. By the side of the hotels are mighty hospitals, all built out of the funds which the rush of pilgrims brings, and admirably tended. Bands of delicately nurtured women and men officiate as nurses for the sick, bound by a temporary vow. On every form of stretcher and of couch they carry down their poor patients to the healing waters, in all the stages of suffering, of patience, and of pain. And as they go they chant in rhythmic time the Latin responses of the Litanies, which are celebrated all day long, and well into the night, both in the church above and in the grot below. By hundreds and hundreds the visitors are all kneeling or standing round, with heads bare and in the deepest reverence, joining in the prayers or listening to the short and loving addresses of the officiating priests, with no sign of intermission or of weariness. And from time to time all are drinking of the spring, or dipping their cups into the water to touch the afflicted part of the body, for which they hope so much. Very pathetic were many of the pictures that we saw.

One poor old man brought down his son, who looked as old as he, and looked with blind eyes upon the spring. " Can you see now, my boy ?" said he. " I'm afraid not, father ; I'm afraid not." On the other side an excited group was forming round a quiet little nun, who, after paying a few visits to the well, suddenly threw her crutches away, and walked. A young priest who was with her turned very pale as he went with her to the medical office, where she was sub- mitted to a strict examination as to her antecedents and place of birth, the length and nature of her illness, and everything else that might disprove a fraud. The doctors at Lourdes are very strict, and not given to sentiment. But the least sentimental amongst them finds argument sometimes at fault. It was, of course, the theory of Dr. Charcot, who examined so closely into the question and laid the foundation of Zola's view, that no limit has been discovered to the power of the human will, and to the effect of faith upon the course of healing. But on my return home, on board the ship which brought us from Bordeaux, I met with a pleasant and quiet Anglo-Indian doctor, some time retired, old and matter-of- fact of manner, who was very full of the subject when once I opened it. Lourdes had been a favourite study and a common haunt of his ; and he professed himself entirely unable to account for many of the cases for which the evidence was clearly too strong, in any known or reasonable way. A French friend of his, he told me, suffered from an affection of the eyes for which he had consulted the oculists. They had all agreed that it was a well-known organic affection for which there was no remedy, and that blindness must certainly result from it. The English- man from his own experience could only confirm the sentence, but moved by his friend's deep distress, he merely said to him,"Try Lourdes." "But I have no faith in these things," was the reply. "No more have I," said the doctor. "My faith is entirely suspended ; but there are qualities in the Lourdes cases which I do not understand, not to be accounted for by any explanation within our present knowledge." The Frenchman tried the waters. He went alone, not as a member A any of the pilgrimages. And after a few visits to the well the cloud passed suddenly from his sight, and he was cured. The affection did not recur. The Englishman examined his eyes, and found all traces of the malady gone. I tell the story as it was told to me, but the character of my informant left me no room to doubt its absolute truth. The strangest part of the story was that, while thousands of the faithful appeal in vain, this was no case of faith-healing, but healing against the reverse of faith. " All I know is," said the doctor, "that in this especial case anything like hysterical action was, and must have been, conspicuously absent. But I can gather for myself no certain conclusion, except the strengthen- ing of my belief in agencies as yet quite unknown. There may be qualities in the water which cannot be analysed." " But that," I said, "scarcely removes the wonder. It only shifts the ground. Why should the water which sprang from the earth after the reported `vision' act in this strange, capricious way ? It is the faith of others, not the patient's- own, which is supposed to work these sudden cures from time to time, for purposes and meanings which are dark to us. Now, as of old, the 'one is taken and the other left,' as if, above and outside the ruthless and unresting forces of Nature, there were some Power at work which can, and does, set those forces aside for the hour, and lend a world of mean- ing to the Story of the Valley of Ajalon." But it never did, and probably never will, give any reason why, search and dive into the endless riddle as we may. These cures of Lourdes,. for merely to deny them is really idle, may be no more miraculous in the stricter sense, if all were known, than the cable or the telephone. They may be merely the applica- tion of an unknown law. Then why the caprice of them ? It looks, at all events, more like the setting of known laws aside, and it is there at present that the riddle of the healing lies. As to the mere question of the water, it is, I believe, true that the springs of Wildbad in the Black Forest, which bubble up about you as you lie upon a bed of firm white sand, have equally escaped the results of analysis.

I hardly purposed to tell my little story when I set forth upon this letter, but it is too interesting and too charac- teristic istic to omit. I was glad, however, that I heard it after my visit instead of before, as I was able to look at Lourdes without any prejudice the one way or the other, and to regard, it simply in its singular Biblical beauty. From that stand- point it stands alone among the sights of the world. There are, of course, the usual and inevitable signs of vulgarising- Something like a trade is already driven in relics, and at times the sellers rather tiresomely beset you. And the pickpocket is busy at the most crowded season, so I am told. But these drawbacks have been always with us, as much in the days of the Temple as in these times of our own, and though they jar they do not affect the realities. Ridicule is powerless, too, upon a place like this ; and one can only be sorry to see Lourdes written of in any flippant vein, or to read clever remarks upon the wooden figure of the Virgin, which is so entirely beside the question. It is not in the effigy that the suppliants believe. Ridicule recoils in such a case as this, and falls away. The gravity of these things is too grave.

It was the intense reverence and simple faith of all the worshippers that left the deep mark upon our minds at Lourdes. It did not appear to me that there was anything distinctively Roman Catholic about it,—rather the catholicity of the Christian world gathered at this little Mecca of the Christian's faith. Except for the words of the prayers and Litanies, there was nothing that should have failed to appeal to Protestant feeling, unless the fact that the Virgin, with the child Bernadette, was the central figure of the story which brought the people together, should be read in any narrow light. Some such thought, I suppose, must have been in the mind of an English clergyman whom I saw there, sitting on the river-wall at the back of the crowd, when every head was bared and every knee bent, with his hat defiantly on and his arms crossed, looking darkly on the scene. He may have meant well, but it was not calculated to promote a liking for the English in the native mind. Though indeed, Benedick-like, nobody marked him. Others of our clergy there were, and more than one who passed reverently with the rest through the little grotto, and came thoughtfully away after joining in the responses and prayers. Rain fell much of the time when we were there, and prevented the great evening procession, which we had hoped to see. But it seemed to have no effect upon the gathered worshippers, who knelt on uncovered in the wet until the dark. "It is impos- sible," said a young French lady to us whose husband had been taken away from her for service in the East, and who had gone to Lourdes to pray for him and think of him, "that the good God should remain unmoved by such a con- course as this." So we all try to hope, even though the great silence wraps it all, and the very caprice of care seems to make dark darker to the outward eye. It is, at all events, something, and more than something, to find but a day or two of retreat in a place so detached from the interests of the -world, and in its tendencies so distinctly ennobling.—I am, Sir, M.