BY Amanda Connelly | August 17 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

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In Lourdes I learned what God was asking of me

Amanda Connelly struggles to find the words to describe a powerful pilgrimage that taught her the value of listening

As a journalist and writer, keeping your reader engaged with the stories you publish is part and parcel of your job. You have to captivate your readership, invite them in to the scene you are describing, draw out the emotion inside them, and make them understand exactly what it is you want them to see, to know, to learn.

But what happens, then, when words fail the writer? How can we write and speak about the seemingly indescribable: that which escapes our words and cannot be spoken or written down, only felt and experienced?

For the past three years, I’ve come home from Lourdes each summer to write an article on my time there, and every year I’ve been left somewhat dumbstruck. For a girl that has so much to say, Lourdes is perhaps one of the few things in life that can, in equal measure, leave me both brimming over with a fullness in my soul, yet so devoid of the words I need to accurately convey what I feel inside.

While hammering away at a computer keyboard and trying to find the words to best describe this pilgrimage, futilely typing and hitting the delete button, that old phrase of ‘two ears, one mouth’ played over in my mind. In today’s world, how often do we find talking all around us that we hear without really listening to? Lourdes, a bubble so detached in many ways from the world outside, presents us with the opportunity to instead open our ears and hearts.

The job of young people in the Motherwell ALMA group, of which I was a member, is to assist the sick, elderly and disabled pilgrims of our diocese, helping them to and from the Masses and services each day. As you take each pilgrim to the Grotto, on to daily Mass, spend time with them having a coffee, or go around the shops, you begin to learn more about each ­individual as the week steadily goes on.

Fast forward two years on from my first visit, and I realise more than ever that while it may be us young people that help on a practical level, pushing wheelchairs and getting pilgrims from A to B, it is evident that, in taking the time to listen, each of the pilgrims return the ALMA group’s efforts tenfold.

Each day brings a new story from another pilgrim, and an opportunity to get to know someone that little bit better. In Lourdes, that gift of listening to one another proved to be healing for us all. In listening to the lived experiences of others—the advice, positivity, wisdom, humour, and life stories—you realise it is in fact you, the apparent helper, who is most helped. The burdens you held inside become that bit lighter when listening to and learning from those with a little more life experience.

All of us come to Lourdes with unique histories and backstories, pilgrims and helpers alike, and it’s said we are each called there for a reason. Visiting the Grotto for the first time, the hollowed-out rock worn smooth by the hands of many a pilgrim across the decades, it’s special to be at a place of such significance, where Our Lady first appeared to Bernadette all those years ago.

Passing the colourful uniforms and banners from groups across the world; the snaking sea of candlelit processions as the evening sun sets; and the people of all ages as they laugh, pray, cry and just simply be; you’re struck by the powerful pull Lourdes has for so many—united against the odds in this one little town.

But beyond the colour and expression, the hustle and bustle, there is simply just… something more. Going down to the Grotto in the dead of night, I found a place markedly different to the Grotto of the daytime. Sitting in darkness at the foot of Our Lady’s statue, I closed my eyes.

The River Gave bubbled its way downstream somewhere past my head. The faint crackle of candlewicks met my ears. The unknown intentions of others, caught in their own suspended moments of prayer, were distant murmurs hanging in the air, mingling with and punctuating the ringing sound of ‘almost-silence’ swirling around me.

It was in that ‘almost-silence’ of Lourdes that I had the clarity to instead listen to what God was truly asking of me in my heart —the deeper rumblings under the everyday surface noise to which we become so accustomed. Just as St Bernadette listened to what Our Lady told her in that same spot 160 years ago, so too, in those breaths of silence that life brings—be it in Lourdes or at home—can we take the opportunity to listen and hear what is meant for only us.

The Holy Hour and Confession were pivotal moments for myself, and I’m sure many others. The shuffling footsteps and turning wheels as each pilgrim approached the monstrance caused me to look up. Framed by Ronan’s gentle piano playing and Rebecca with her guitar, we all made our own personal encounter with Christ in that moment. The beautiful words of Deacon Mark’s reflection on the Prodigal Son were absorbed by each and every one of us, opening up hearts of all ages and stages.

Later that evening, the youth members of the ALMA group gathered together for Confession. Arguably, it’s the Sacrament that fills many with fear—myself included. A familiar, creeping dread swamped the pit of my stomach, and I tried to cease my mind’s nervous chatter. I focused on the lyrics of the music playing softly and the sound of those around me; gentle inhale and exhales, and even some quiet tears.

Sitting in Confession with Fr John Paul was a beautifully cathartic experience. Pouring out what was on my mind, yes; but also listening to the response I received in return. Returning to my seat, I filed in beside my parents and my brother Matthew, who I was lucky enough to have with me on this year’s ALMA journey. That contentment felt by so many, I’m sure, after ­Confession was made fuller when surrounded by the three most important people in my life.

Out of seemingly nowhere, one our ALMA group softly started humming along to Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons, which was drifting out from the speaker next to us. As if by some kind of magic, that one voice filtered through many in the dimly-lit room, forming a slowly-growing chorus.

There was a rawness and a wholeness in that singing—a moment of unity that can be seemingly hard to find in today’s world. Singers and non-singers alike, it was one of those ‘Lourdes moments’ that you just can’t find anywhere else.

Alongside the pilgrimage’s reflective moments comes a great deal of joy and fun. It never fails to surprise me how, when you step on that bus at 5am, bleary-eyed and weighed down with an over-packed suitcase, you depart as strangers and return as firm friends.

While the conversation almost never paused for breath—the jokes kept running, and tears and laughter flowed in equal abundance—it’s telling too when you step back and listen to what’s going on around you.

Having the chance to talk, but also listen, to other members of the youth group each day—be it night-time catch-ups (admittedly, often well past our 1.30am curfew) with my roommate, sharing a pizza in the Carrefour, quiet moments in the Grotto, or countless other points during the week—were particular highlights, helping us all form so many wonderful connections with one another in such a special place.

The sound of the ALMA group’s sing-songs echoed round the cafes, bars and hotels each evening, and laughter rang out in its plenty among our group. Abba’s Dancing Queen blasted on the boat home from Bruges—our stop after Lourdes—and glasses clinked ‘cheers’ in the sunshine. It was the sound of summer, friendship and Faith, and brought us all together in ways I’m sure we will never forget.

Feeling that you cannot quite grasp the words when you so desperately want to describe something is frustrating—particularly as someone who writes for a living. Yet there are places and moments in life that transcend the words we could ever hope to find. They rely on something more than talking and writing in order to truly grasp them in their entirety.

Lourdes is undoubtedly a transformative experience for those who visit, and this year was no different for me. It offers us the opportunity to forget the words that might have failed us, and instead to listen. It was in listening that I learned so much about myself, others and my Faith, and heard words greater than those that any writer could ever hope to capture.


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