Our Catholic faith is a faith of the senses, especially during the celebration of the Eucharist. We taste Our Lord Himself, receiving Him into our mouths at holy Communion; we listen to God’s word; we smell incense; we touch holy water to our skin; we see the priest elevating the body and blood during the consecration. It is through our senses that we encounter our incarnate God, where we come to know Him and worship Him.
But the great history of our Church allows our senses to be fully engaged outside of Mass, too. One of those places that is most effective at this is at the Marian apparition shrine in Lourdes, France, where I had the great fortune to visit at the end of January. There, in the quiet off-season at the holy site, where hundreds of millions of pilgrims have come since the latter decades of the 19th century, the faith is brought to life through sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.
At the famous Grotto of Massabielle, where Our Lady appeared to the 14-year-old French peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous 18 times in 1858, pilgrims can see the serene white Carrara marble statue of Our Lady with its famous blue sash standing in the place where Mary did. They can touch the dark, wet rock of the cavern, smoothed by those who have rested their fingers, hands, arms, and faces upon it through the years, begging for the heavenly intercession of our Blessed Mother for healing of body, mind, or spirit. They can hear running water of the mountain stream that bubbled from nowhere out of the earth when Bernadette dug at Mary’s direction. They can smell the wax and smoke of the tower of candles blazing next to the stone altar. Nearby, at the baths, they can participate in a “water gesture,” where they drink from the same mountain stream. It is a literal feast for the senses, an experience in which a pilgrim can become fully immersed.
It is to this kind of place that believers come in throngs in the warmer months, bringing their troubles and worries — and praise God for this faith. But it occurred to me, as I experienced this feast of the senses at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, that this is also exactly the place where we should be encouraging as many nonbelievers as possible, whether they be those who have fallen away from the faith, or those who may doubt in the existence of God, or those who may have never encountered Him at all.
I thought of the story of Doubting Thomas from John’s Gospel, in which the beloved apostle wrote: “Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then He said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.’ Thomas answered and said to Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed’” (Jn 20:26-29).
Indeed, we must have faith to believe what we cannot see. But we also know that sometimes, as was Thomas’ experience, belief is easier when there is something to see, something to touch. We know that faith is sometimes more easily embraced when we can see where Mary stood or drink the water from the same place that has brought about the healing of thousands of people.
Many replicas exist of the Lourdes grotto. There are statues of Our Lady of Lourdes in churches and pilgrimage sites around the world. Novenas and prayer cards are in gift shops, churches, and homes of the faithful. Bottles of Lourdes holy water can even be supposedly purchased on Amazon. But to visit the actual sanctuary, to experience its blessings and richness wholly with one’s senses, is an experience beyond comparison.
Because of Jesus’ great love for us, and because of the love of His Blessed Mother, Marian apparition sites exist around the world. But I would argue that perhaps none engage the senses quite as fully as that of the peaceful grotto in southern France. And perhaps none might be quite as powerful for those who struggle to believe. May Our Lady of Lourdes, whose feast we celebrate on Sunday, February 11, pray for all our hearts to cry out “My Lord and my God.”
Gretchen R. Crowe is Editor-in-Chief of OSV News.
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