It was in 1958 that Catholic author Flannery O’Connor took a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, where the young peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous experienced apparitions of the Virgin Mary a century before. Lourdes is internationally renowned as a healing shrine. Often it is bathing in the waters of Lourdes that has helped many pilgrims reach healing, both physical and – perhaps more often – spiritual.
Flannery O’Connor, who, as a reluctant pilgrim, was talked into going to Lourdes by a relative, Cousin Katie, described her attempts at bathing in Lourdes water with humor and even a little irony.
Writing to her friend Elizabeth Bishop, the famous American poet, in a June 1, 1958 letter from Milledgeville, Georgia, O’Connor spoke of her experiences at Lourdes:
Somebody in Paris told me the miracle at Lourdes is that there are no epidemics and I found this to be the truth. Apparently nobody catches anything. The water in the baths is changed once a day, regardless of how many people with running sores get into it. I went early in the morning and it was clean; sat in a long line of peasants to wait for my turn. They passed around a thermos bottle of Lourdes water and everybody had a drink out of the top.
I had a nasty cold so I figured I left more germs than I took away. The sack you take the bath in is the same one the person before you took off, regardless of what ailed him. At least there are no society trappings along with the medieval hygiene. I saw nothing but peasants and was very conscious of the distinct odor of the crowd. The supernatural is a fact there but it displaces nothing natural; except maybe those germs.
Despite an occasionally sardonic sense of humor, O’Connor was deeply moved by her experiences at Lourdes. She wrote compassionately of the effect that the suffering pilgrims had on her: “The thing about Lourdes is that you are not inclined to pray there for yourself at all as you see so many people worse off.”
These words are especially thoughtful, and possess a certain nobility to them, when we consider that Flannery traveled to Lourdes on crutches as somebody suffering from the life-threatening, and physically excruciating, condition of lupus, the same disease that killed her father when Flannery was a fifteen-year old girl. That is one of the reasons that Flannery went to bathe in the Lourdes waters so early in the morning when a lesser number of people would be present. As a woman who spent much of her life on crutches, she was very self-conscious of her disposition and how awkward it may be for her to publically bathe in those healing waters.
The sadder side of Flannery’s life may, in fact, be the Cross. As a young woman she was diagnosed with lupus. The life-threatening condition that killed her father and – eventually – took Flannery’s own life relegated her to spend most of her life with her mother, Regina, in Georgia, on the farm in Andalusia. For years she suffered severe bodily pains, fatigue, and had to endure the physical (and emotional) struggle of operating on crutches.
Was it, therefore, a healing that Flannery was seeking through the waters of Lourdes, through her pilgrimage?
Not exactly. As mentioned, although being a devout Catholic, Flannery was a reluctant pilgrim in traveling to Lourdes. It was Cousin Katie who, realizing that there would be a diocesan pilgrimage to both Lourdes and Rome, insisted that Flannery go with her mother, even offering to pay for their expenses—though Flannery, given her condition, was not crazy about the idea of traveling abroad. Yet, Flannery was still very open to the mystical dimensions of her Catholic faith.
And a mystical occurrence may have transpired in Flannery’s own life after the Lourdes visit. Even after bathing in the waters of Lourdes, though not experiencing a complete healing, Flannery experienced significant (unlikely) improvement in her bones. She always wondered whether it was the result of Lourdes.
Author Lorraine V. Murray explains: “‘Maybe this is Lourdes,’ Flannery wrote to another friend a few months later, after the doctor reported that her hip bone was stronger. He was even permitting Flannery to walk around the room without crutches. Flannery expressed hope that if the improvement continued, she might no longer need them in a year or two.
“And even if the improvement was not due to a Lourdes miracle, she deemed it ‘something to be grateful to the same Source for.’ Two days before Christmas that same year, she shared the good news with Father [James] McCown, saying she was willing to ascribe the improvement either to Lourdes ‘or somebody’s prayers’.” (The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey, by Lorraine V. Murray)