A Reluctant Pilgrim at Lourdes

Lourdes Basilica

Many Catholics would be eager to be given an all-expenses-paid trip to Lourdes, but there are some who might decline. After all, not everyone is keen on overseas travel, not to mention the huge crowds that gather there.

And as the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes approaches on Feb. 11, I find myself wondering what I would do.

There is a lady whom I hold dear who went, albeit reluctantly, on a pilgrimage there – and then shared the details in “The Habit of Being.” And although we’ve never met, I have considered this lady a spiritual director of sorts ever since writing a book about her.

You may have guessed it already: Flannery O’Connor was the reluctant pilgrim who went to Lourdes.

She lived a quiet life with her mother on Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville, Ga., and after her death was hailed as one of the finest Southern authors of the 20th century. She was a funny and brilliant person, and a faithful Catholic, who died at age 39 from lupus.

And here are the details: In 1958 there was a diocesan pilgrimage planned to Lourdes, and an elderly cousin, Katie, offered to treat Flannery and her mother to a trip. This shrine has been the site of 67 authenticated healings since the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858.

Katie was praying for her younger cousin’s healing, especially because medications were causing Flannery’s hipbone to deteriorate, and she was on crutches.

Flannery, however, was not thrilled by the idea of flying overseas, and also dreaded the prospect of immersing her limbs in the healing waters.

“The lack of privacy would be what I couldn’t stand,” she noted, and admitted her reaction was neither “right nor holy” – but it was the truth.

Now fans of Flannery’s fiction know she had a gift for plumbing the dark side of human nature in stories that often featured such shocking events that some of her family members were scandalized.

However, many stories also underscore the miraculous gift of the Lord’s grace, offered in the bleakest situations. And this emphasis on grace makes sense, given that the author definitely embraced a belief in divine intervention.

She was well aware, however, that miracles were a “great embarrassment” for self-proclaimed “modern” folks. But, as she assured friends teetering on the brink of nihilism, without miracles Christ would be reduced to a fallible teacher, not God – and the heart of Christianity would crumble.

Believing in miracles on an abstract level, however, was not enough for her. Faith, she wrote, had to be lived out, and that entailed sacrifices. So, in the end, like a character in her fiction, Flannery was given sufficient grace to squelch her misgivings about planes and privacy –and head to France.

The “pilgrims” in her group, she reported, included four priests; four old ladies who constantly got lost; two little boys; two secretaries – one of whom (a red-head from Albany, Ga.) saw the entire trip as a shopping spree – and “me and ma.”

As for Lourdes itself, Flannery described it in her inimitable fashion as a commercial nightmare defaced by what she darkly called “religious junk shops” filled with tacky paraphernalia.

Still, she didn’t want to disappoint her cousin, so she put aside her qualms about commercialism and crowds, and bathed in the healing spring. But, as she divulged later, when she reluctantly took a step into the water, it was not her health she was praying about.

A few months after the pilgrimage, doctors reported that her hip bone was somewhat stronger, and she was able to walk – at least for a while – without crutches. This improvement, Flannery noted, might have been due to Lourdes, or to someone’s prayers, but in either case, she was grateful to God.

There was, however, another healing in her life, which meant more to her. It seems her attempts to write a second novel had been stalled for some time, and she had prayed about this at the shrine. And when, not long after, she finally completed the first draft of “The Violent Bear It Away,” she credited Lourdes.

Like Flannery once did, I spend huge chunks of time in my study pounding away on a keyboard. I am also a homebody who flinches at the notion of overseas travel.

Still, if I had the chance to put into practice my belief in miracles, I hope I would follow her example by sacrificing my misgivings about flying and my qualms about crowds – and become another reluctant pilgrim at Lourdes.

Like this lady whom I hold so dear, I’d also be on the lookout for outpourings of grace in my life. And however this grace manifested itself, I hope I would accept it as humbly as she did, and be thankful to God.

Lorraine is the author of The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey (St. Benedict Press).  Lorraine’s web site is www.lorrainevmurray.com

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About the Author

Lorraine is the author of “The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey.” She also has written three mysteries, most recently “Death Dons a Mask.” Her email is lorrainevmurray@yahoo.com. All of her books can be seen on her website is www.lorrainevmurray.com.

Lorraine V. Murray grew up in Miami, and graduated from Immaculata Academy High School. One of the nuns there predicted that if Lorraine went to a secular college, she would be in great danger of losing her faith. Lorraine thought that was funny, but in fact the sister’s prediction came true.

Majoring in English at the University of Florida, Lorraine bid farewell to her Catholicism when she was 19. She went on to get a Ph.D. in philosophy and became a radical feminist and atheist for over 20 years.

After teaching courses in English and philosophy on the college level, Lorraine worked as an editor in a university publications office. In her forties, the Lord called her back to her Catholic roots, and she went on to write about her conversion journey in her book “Confessions of an Ex-Feminist.”

Her recent books are "Death of a Liturgist," a fun-filled mystery featuring murder and mayhem in a Georgia parish, and "The Abbess of Andalusia," which explores Flannery O'Connor's Catholic journey. All her books can be seen at www.lorrainevmurray.com (link provided below).

Lorraine writes regular columns for the religion section of “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution” and “The Georgia Bulletin.” She lives in Decatur, Georgia, with her husband, Jef, a Tolkien artist and book illustrator. In her spare time, she bakes bread, watches hummingbirds, and chases squirrels out of her garden.

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