The Pyrenees and Pilgrimage, Part 1 — Lourdes

cathedral bridge 3

The beautiful town of Lourdes, France is located in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Two structures dominate the town and its history — the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Lourdes, situated on the wide, flowing Gave de Pau, and the thousand-year-old fortress, the Chateau-Fort de Lourdes, built on a high rocky bluff.

Lourdes fort 2

Lourdes has a rich and varied history.  Artifacts dating from the prehistoric times to the Roman  have been found in the area, and “the town and its fortress formed a strategic stronghold in medieval times.” (www.Britannica.com)

However, the town is best known as a place of pilgrimage for Catholics the world over, visited by millions every year.

cathedral crop

The identity of Lourdes as a market town, mountains crossroads, and fortified stronghold forever changed in 1858 when a young girl, Bernadette Soubirous, experienced numerous visions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto near the river.

bernadette photo enlarged

“The visions were declared authentic by Pope Pius IX in 1862, and veneration of Mary as Our Lady of Lourdes was authorized. The underground spring in the grotto, revealed to Bernadette, was declared to have miraculous qualities, and Lourdes became a major pilgrimage site.” (www.britannica.com)

cathedral eve 4

Lourdes is an international destination, a place of hope for many who cannot walk or are battling sickness or a chronic condition. They line up to hear mass given in front of the grotto, and fill up bottles with the sacred grotto water from numerous taps. Behind the cathedral, alongside the river, are private bathing rooms where pilgrims line up to bathe in the waters, hoping for a cure or improvement.

Even in the offseason, the shops and crowds can make the place seems touristy, but the solemnity with which the pilgrims pray and believe, and the sheer beauty of the place, preserve the sense of the sacred.

cathedral way flowers

The Gothic-styled cathedral, with its soaring spires and long narrow windows, was built above the grotto in 1876. It is made of the same gray stone as the rock beneath it and seems to have risen directly from it.

L maples

cathedral river

The chateau-fort, which was never conquered, sits high above the town and is today a museum. Like the cathedral, it is made from the gray granite of the Pyrenees and appears to be a continuation of the thrust of rock on which it was built.

Lourdes fort

From the fortress top, you can see that the village itself is nestled in the strong arms of the valley mountains. The vantage point offers spectacular views of the town and valley below.

fort view 2

museum view fort

“The château fort de Lourdes is strategically placed at the entrance to the seven valleys of the Lavedan. The castle’s origins go back to Roman times….The oldest remains date from the 11th and 12th centuries” and was reinforced several times in later centuries. (www.wikipedia.com)

“Within its walls there is a botanical garden at the foot of the 14th-century keep, and the Pyrenean Museum.” (en.lourdes-infotourisme.com)

museum stone

The museum is filled with artifacts and offers a glimpse into local life of the past centuries. Several exhibits are dedicated to marriage customs, clothing, farming and husbandry, and day-to-day living.

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museum bedroom

As daytime draws to a close, the crowds disperse, the sounds of the day shift to the soft sounds of evening, and a tranquil beauty pervades Lourdes.

Cathedral eve

From one of the bridges over the river, you can look back and see the cathedral and, in the distance, the fort. These two main structures of Lourdes — perhaps representative of two opposing human impulses — today rest comfortably together in the valley town.

cathedral candles tree lit

With the church bells ringing, the grotto candles lit, and the lights coming on in the town, you realize that Lourdes is unique — a sacred site of hope and prayer, rich in layers of history — a town born of the awe-inspiring beauty of the Pyrenees.

The Eclipse — A World Still Full of Wonder

Crowds are gathering across the United States to watch tomorrow’s total solar eclipse. For months, excitement has been building. Small towns along its path have swollen in population, tents have been pitched in the path of the umbra, and eclipse chasers are poised to witness this celestial event.

“Totality begins in Oregon at 10:16 a.m. PT. It ends in Charleston at 2:48 p.m. ET. That’s only about 90 minutes for the eclipse to cross the entire county….The path of totality follows just a tiny sliver 67 miles wide as it runs from coast to coast.” – www.usatoday.com

map of Aug. 2017 eclipse

“The last time that a total solar eclipse crossed over the entire continental United States was in 1918” (www.newsweek.com), and it will be another seven years before it happens again. “According to NASA, on April 8, 2024, a total solar eclipse will stretch diagonally across the U.S. from Texas through the Northeast.” www.Time.com

Though we view the eclipse with excitement, throughout history the sudden darkness instilled terror and dread. It portended disaster, great calamity, and even the end of the world.

Medieval day darkening

“Many ancient cultures worshipped the sun and the moon [and] a violent and sudden darkening of the sun was a cause for alarm and foreboding. Several East Asian cultures believed the eclipse was caused by a giant frog eating the sun, and in China, myths tell of a dragon doing the devouring, [while] in Norse mythology, the eclipse was the result of two sky wolves chasing and finally eating the sun.” – www.newsweek.com

Later, centers of learning used science to explain the mysterious event.

Fascinating facts about solar eclipses and our place in the universe:

  1. “Our position in the universe is incredibly unique. Our moon is the only moon in the entire solar system that eclipses the sun perfectly.” – history.com
  2. “By cosmic chance, the sun is 400 times wider than the moon, and 400 times farther away.” And so from Earth, the sun and moon appear to be the same size. – nationalgeographic.com
  3. “There is a solar eclipse somewhere on earth every year or two.” – nationalgeographic.com

 

Perhaps the most remarkable fact about an eclipse is that we still stand in awe of it. It forces us away from our phones and jobs, our tight schedules and day-to-day concerns, and reminds us of our tiny place in the magnificent universe.

An eclipse gives us a moment like the one in the illustration of the Medieval scholar poking his head outside of Earth’s realm: and we gasp and throw out our arms in stunned amazement as we catch a glimpse of a much wider world.

colored illustration