The Hopeless Unbeliever


In 1954, my father, then just fifteen years old, made a pilgrimage to Lourdes.
It was, by all accounts, a life affirming trip, made all the more memorable by the monumental effort it had taken my father, and his friends from the local youth club, to raise the necessary funds.

For three years they had toiled away to get the money they needed. No fundraising effort was too exhausting or bizarre- raffles, variety shows, bob-a-job, laundry, shoe shining, even a snooker tournament – you name it, they tried it.

And when the funds were raised, they boarded their bus and made the three day long journey to the south of France.

I suppose we forget, these days, just how time consuming and exhausting travel used to be.

A bus. From Glasgow to Lourdes. In 1954.

It gives me muscle cramps just thinking about it.

But for my dad and his friends, this effort was an important aspect of the trip.

It was supposed to be an effort, supposed to be special, supposed to be out of the ordinary and memorable.

Just as the destination itself, the holy shrine in Lourdes, was special, out of the ordinary and memorable.This extraordinariness, is what turned the journey from a simple trip to France into a pilgrimage.

Faith played a huge role as well, of course.

That unshakable belief that the grotto in Lourdes really was a holy place, a place of miracles. The sacred ground where a marvellous apparition had occured.

For my father and his friends, Lourdes was more than just a small town at the foot of the Pyrenees. It was a place to be close to God.

Fifty four years later, I found myself holidaying in France, just a couple of hours drive from Lourdes and decided to pay a visit myself.

In contrast to my father, my little excursion was a casual, effortless affair, imbued with no more significance than any other holiday excursion would be.

It was simple curiosity which took me there, rather than faith.

Nevertheless, I found myself promising that I would light some candles at the shrine and, if not pray, then at least pause to think about those friends and family that were ill or departed.

It’s not something I have a problem with, performing these little acts of faith, despite my agnostic/atheistic tendencies.

For me, such symbolic acts offer an opportunity to pause and reflect. To step aside from the moment, from the mundane, and simply think.

Little concentrated moments of reflection. That’s all they are.

So I was surprised to find myself slightly overcome with emotion as I stood in line at the grotto, candles in hand and a list of people in my head – requests for votive offerings having been passed on to me over the phone.

Of course I knew that Lourdes was a place of pilgrimage. A place where the sick and the old came to pray in one last effort to fend off what is, for all of us, the inevitable.

But prior to being there, all of this had seemed so very abstract.

Confronted with the reality of the long lines of “les malades” being helped forward to the shrine however, I was suddenly struck by a strange mixture of melancholy, rage, pity and confusion.

The young boy, lying prone in his bed being wheeled in front of me. The baby so sick it was being fed through a tube in its navel. The old woman, bent and buckled and vacant. The able bodied whose eyes nevertheless revealed a sadness and a pain that afflicted them just as much as any illness. Were they here to pray for sick relatives, for dying friends?

I looked at them all and felt my throat thicken and my skin burn.

All that pain. All that hope.

I clutched my candles and tried to keep pushing forward. I’d promised I would do this, so there was no going back.

But as I stood there, a rage took hold of me. Quietly I dug my nails into the wax and shuffled forward.

All these people, so ill yet so hopefull. Struggling, despite infirmity, to make it to this place in the hope of what? Some miracle cure, some salvation, some relief?

For that is what is on offer here, no?

Release from all that pain.

That’s the hope that brings them here, year upon year.

Yet how many of them will go on home, to linger, to die?

I watched them all and felt my anger turn to confusion.

What was I doing here, with my candles and my rage? If this is all such nonsense to me, then why am I doing it? Surely it would be better to simply turn around and pass my candles on to someone in the crowd, then leave?

But I kept on going.

Too afraid to turn back, I suppose. Because I was on a promise. Because I was caught up in the spectacle of it all now. Ushered along through the lines of people, closer and closer to the shrine.

At some point it just becomes too late to turn around.

At the altar I lit my candles and started once again to recall the people I was doing this for.

And in an instant, the whole circus around me disappeared. All there was was the thoughts in my head. The fleeting memories as each name entered my head. Little snapshots of happier days. Days before these candles were needed.

It made me happy, at that moment, almost despite myself.

Is this what all the others feel, I wondered?

Is this what the believers feel? This small, timeless, transcendental moment.

A moment of bliss, which curbs my anger and makes me happy but which gives them hope and brings them closer to God? ….

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