Have you ever had one of those experiences that was a big turning point in your life? In the moment, perhaps you didn’t know how it was going to affect your future, but you knew you’d be different as a result of it?
Yeah, well that was me after I went on a nine-day pilgrimage to France this past Christmas.
A pilgrimage is a journey made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion, but traveling to different holy sites in France with four friends of mine was so much more than an act of religious devotion — it was a spiritual adventure. I left life behind, logged off all my social media accounts, put my phone in my backpack, and embraced where I was.
Setting out on the trip, I had a few questions stirring in my heart. At 23, I was unsatisfied with my current career path, and wanted clarity on the future, so I left. I don’t know that I was searching for answers to those questions as much as just a greater depth and understanding of who I am, who God is, and what I’m being called to do with my life.
I knew by getting to know the One who created me more intimately, I would understand more about life, myself, and the questions on my heart. The trip gave me the opportunity to quiet my heart and just be. I went in with a wide open heart, and though I didn’t find any concrete answers to the question about where my life was going, I came back with a sense of profound peace.
While I experienced many beautiful blessings on the trip, the biggest ones occurred in Lourdes, a place in France people visit to seek healing because Mary appeared there.
Over several months in 1848, Mary appeared a number of times to a 14-year-old peasant girl named Bernadette. The young girl had little education and when she tried to explain what happened to her, everyone thought she was making it up. During one of the apparitions, though, Mary instructed Bernadette to start digging in the ground and drink from the spring that would appear. People became concerned as the young girl began digging, eating dirt, and drinking muddy water, but soon, a miraculous spring came forth.
That same spring continues to flow even today and has been the source of many miracles. The Church eventually approved Lourdes as an official Marian apparition site and millions of pilgrims began journeying there each year seeking physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental healing.
And I get it. To many people in the world today, miraculous waters may sound like some kind of ploy to get attention or money. But if Christians really believe the Son of Man performed miracles while He was alive, why couldn’t He work miracles through the waters of Lourdes?
I personally wasn’t expecting anything extraordinary to happen to me on the trip. I’ve never been the type of gal to get lightning-bolt revelations from God. I suppose some people get those kinds of profound signs in their lives, but not me. For me, it’s more like a quiet whisper. A calm feeling in my heart. An inner peace of just knowing something is right — so subtle that if I’m not paying close attention, I miss it. That’s how God talks to me — in the quiet of my soul.
So coming to Lourdes, I wasn’t seeking a miraculous cure like some pilgrims might. I was simply seeking a whisper.
Arriving at Lourdes, the first thing I noticed was the prayerful ambiance of the place. I expected such a popular pilgrimage destination to feel touristy, but it didn’t. I could sense everyone was there for a reason. Some were physically disabled and hoping for a cure after bathing in the Lourdes water, others may have been seeking mental or spiritual healing. Some came perhaps out of curiosity to see what all the fuss is about. And some were like my friends and me: we simply wanted a quiet place to reflect and open our hearts in a deeper way.
Now, one of the highlights of journeying to Lourdes is obviously the waters. When Mary appeared to Bernadette she instructed her to “drink at the spring and wash in it.” Today, the shrine has rows of fountains to fill up water bottles. And then there are the baths — attendants take people in one by one, ask them to state their intentions for the Blessed Mother, then bathe them in the waters.
The last day in Lourdes, I got the opportunity to enter the baths. When I went in, I had two very specific dreams for my life on my heart, keeping in mind what I’ve been told: while God doesn’t always give us what we want, He always gives us what we need. So going into the baths, I asked the Lord to heal me, through the intercession of His mother, of anything I may need healing from. I knew they know me better than I know myself. So I trusted they would give me exactly the things I needed — even if they weren’t the specific things I wanted.
The ice-cold waters of the Lourdes bath shocked and chilled my body, but I was more profoundly affected by the interior peace that flooded my soul. Walking out, I felt clean and pure.
I immediately walked over to the main Church to sit in silence and pray. As I looked up at the altar, to the tabernacle where Jesus is present in the Eucharist, I felt empty — but not in a bad way. I felt empty in the sense that I had nothing weighing me down. I felt as if I had left all my burdens, questions, and concerns in the waters. For possibly the first time ever, I didn’t have anything to say to God. Because I was empty, I was able to just sit and love Him.
And I could finally hear that whisper I was seeking: “I love you. I love you. As many times as you need to hear it, I will tell you again, I love you. This is all for you.”
I could hear His words of affirmation and feel the comfort. I was able to know to the depths of my soul that I was deeply loved and pursued by the Creator of the universe. And because I was empty, He could fill me up — I didn’t need anything else. And in that moment, I just knew everything was going to be okay.
Coming home, my life isn’t different. I still don’t know what my future looks like and there’s still the same uncertainty that I had before. But I’ve changed. The feeling of peace I received at Lourdes has spurred me on, making me live life with more conviction, unafraid of the uncertainty of my future. I’m confident because I know I am loved.
So I don’t know where you are in life. I don’t know what your relationship with God is like. I don’t know how He speaks to your heart. But I know from experience that most of the time, it’s in the whispers that God gives us the best advice and the most consolation. And you don’t need to go to a foreign country to feel that. No matter where you go (or stay), a pilgrimage is simply a disposition of the heart.
Start today. Go on a pilgrimage. Wherever you are, take some time — 5 minutes or an hour — and spend it in silence. Go to a quiet place and open your heart. Relationships are not built in the noise, but in the silence. So quiet your heart. And maybe you’ll hear that same whisper I felt in Lourdes.