Lourdes: A Lesson In Radical Vulnerability
A talk on healing given at Youth 2000 Courageous at Derby Retreat Oct 2017
5 million people descend on Lourdes each year, that shrine in the south of France where Our Lady appeared to St Bernadette 160 years ago, but interestingly only 100,000 of those people are officially registered as sick or disabled. Which has me asking, so what on earth draws the other 4.9 million people to that great place of healing? It is a question I ask myself as participate in my favourite Lourdes past time, people watching at the Grotto where Our Lady appeared. It is such an intensely prayerful atmosphere but I am forever distracted by the streams of people that flow through the place, reaching out to touch the rock and draw close to their heavenly mother. It is so compelling to watch, like a scene straight out of the gospel, a mash up between the healing of the parlaytic man and the women who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment. Young, old, families, priests, couples, children, religious, sick, healthy, disabled, bishops- they all fall to their knees in that place. But why does it move me so deeply?
We live in a world that tells us everything has to be insta-perfect, and if it isn’t perfect then let’s put a filter on it and tweak that status so people think we have everything together…and I wonder if those filters have become an acceptable euphemism for those masks we wear, the walls and defences we put up to protect our hearts? But what if I told you that this isn’t how we are supposed to live? That the key to unlocking the fullness of life promised to us by Jesus can be found in the very thing we try to mask- our vulnerability and weakness?
Vulnerability is lived out in a really radical way in Lourdes and having spent just over a month there this Summer and I believed that the lesson I learned during this time is one that will help us enter more fully into tonight’s service.
When I go to Lourdes, I work in the baths. And for those who do not know what these are, they are big stone bath tubs filled with the waters from the spring Our Lady asked St Bernadette to dig and the pilgrims who bathe there do so in response to Our Lady’s invitation to go drink and wash at the spring. Alongside a team of women from across the world, I help female pilgrims bathe in these waters. In this place you take nothing with you into the waters, everything is physically and metaphorically stripped away. You take nothing with you as you enter the waters, except that which is on your heart. This moment of complete vulnerability is often the highlight and climax of many people’s pilgrimage to this place and we will do all we can to help you make this act of faith, even carrying you into the waters on a stretcher if you are really sick- it is all very gospel!
Aside from the woman’s desire to make this radical act of faith which inspires my faith so deeply, there is also something else at play here which is worth considering as we prepare for the healing service this morning. In this moment, she finds herself in an environment in which she is given the courage to become vulnerable, to let her mask slip and to come before the Lord exactly as she is, holding nothing back. And she does so supported by women like me, who she has never met before…. We try to make her prayer our prayer, her burdens become our burdens and sometimes we even cry with her. In that moment she is not along, for the privileged glimpse of what she carries on her heart is met with complete love and acceptance by the volunteers and gives her the courage to abandon herself completely to the Lord, for we stand with her as one family. And this is deeply liberating and healing for all of us in that place.
Does God Heal?
So the next question is how then, does God respond to this act of faith? Does he even respond? YES of course he does- the many 1000s of miracles recorded and unrecorded in Lourdes testify to this. You can be sure that God’s response to our desire for healing is always a loud and resolute YES but that doesn’t always mean now, nor does it come in the ways we imagine, for his ways our above our ways but we can be sure He is our loving father and knows what is truly best for us. We live in a world where we want everything now and this can make us blind to the work that God is doing and wants to do in our lives. We also love in a world that demands we project a picture perfect version of ourselves and this can mean that not only are we unwilling to share our own vulnerability but at times we often do not want to touch the vulnerability of others.
I am guilty of both. But the great paradox of the gospel is that God’s power is made perfect in weakness and if I am being honest: my deepest healing has come from a place of great vulnerability and not from the strength I try to project all too often. As some of you might know, I suffered some of the worst kinds of abuse for many years of my childhood and teenage years, and that leaves some really deep wounds. I entered young adulthood, bruised, battered and hurting. I built a fortress so high around me, that it was more like one of those electric fences that dispensed a million volts if anyone got too close- I thought it was self-protection when in fact it crippled me. But God being God had a plan. Upon coming back into the church about 7 years ago, I heard from the first time just how much God loved me and the barriers began to come down, there was a little chink in my armour. The process of healing began but the anxiety, nightmares and post-traumatic stress continued to plague and paralyse me at times. I remember getting involved in Youth 2000 and have to confess I became a little disillusioned with these healing services, I stepped out in faith every time wanting instant deliverance from all this hurt and it never came. But last night, I had a bit of a revelation as Jesus was placed on the burning bush, I was just completely overwhelmed with deep gratitude for all that he has done in my life the last few years- for the wounds he has healed and is still healing, for the darkest places of my heart he has transformed and is transforming. Did He answer the request for healing I made at so many Youth 2000 Healing Services and in Lourdes, YES, giving me so much more than I could ever have imagined. His faithfulness over the years since my conversion tell me YES he did answer, not in the way I wanted but he stuck by me and brought me to a place of greater freedom and peace. He also placed people in my life- a priest and a married couple- who gave me the courage to be vulnerable, seeing me in some dark times with all of my sinfulness and woundedness on display they still loved me and that was deeply healing. Through these friendships I have been given the freedom to address some of these issues from my past and to move a little closer to becoming the person who God created me to be…but some healings take time.
And to return briefly to the other dimension of this radical vulnerability we often struggle with, and that is not always wanting to share in the suffering of others. It is easier to see our own wounds and pains, even if we don’t always want to address them but I know I can be less accepting of the wounds of others- Pope Francis speaks of keeping the wounds of others at arm’s length and I am guilty of that. I remember one shift in Lourdes this year, before heading to my service I spent some time in adoration with Jesus and as I prepared to leave I just thought I am leaving our Lord in adoration to meet him in my sisters who want to bathe this afternoon. So being young and a little full of it, I thought great Lord I will see you there. Well the first stretcher through my cabin was a great leveller. As the stretcher came under I was asked to help undress this lady, who spoke no English and was so frail. I took her shoes off, easy. I rolled up her trousers to take her pop socks off and her legs felt like a dead weight and were riddled with the most disgusting disease and scabs and I was expected to touch this. I have no idea what it was as I have a legal not medical background and I just remember recoiling and turning away in horror as I tried to recollect myself before continuing. I then heard a little voice whisper- Collette did you not say you would meet me here this afternoon, why are you turning away from me? The Lord was here. So I turned around and tried to love and serve this woman as best I could, as I held her legs I thought the saints would have kissed them… and here I am running away. Stretch my heart Lord for I want people to have compassion for my brokenness but I am not willing to extend the same love for the wounds of others. And is not my reaction to those scabs, a euphemism for the weakness, limitations, anxieties, sin and sorrow of others we often gloss over in our everyday life? Yet these are moments where Christ desires to encounter us, if we have the courage to draw close.
We live in an individualistic culture that at times, has us asking with Cain, am I my brother’s keeper? And maybe this is why the radical vulnerability on display in Lourdes disarms and unsettles us. Perhaps because we are not accustomed to it in our society, we are instead programmed to keep our barriers up and our hearts guarded because love and vulnerability cost…they have the potential to hurt us. And I wonder whether this perfection projection has seeped into the Church? Which has me asking, is this what Jesus Christ wanted for His Church? When I read the gospels I think not. He came for the sick, wounded, the burdened and weak…Pope Francis paints an image of the church as a field hospital. Imagine if we took Jesus at his word and sought to make this a greater reality in our Church today and in this place tonight? To bring our brokenness before him with complete confidence and trust that we are loved and to meet the brokenness of each other with that same acceptance and love. This vulnerability is amplified in Lourdes and it brings healing in all sorts of ways- physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, seen and unseen- and I wonder what would happen if we lived that radical vulnerability as a Church tonight and indeed every day?
The Lord of the Vulnerable
How then can we learn to be truly vulnerable? To learn how to open our hearts to all that God desires to do in this place? He can (point to Blessed Sacrament) for isn’t Jesus Christ the Lord of the vulnerable?
Pope Benedict said that Jesus Christ came as a little baby at Bethlehem so we wouldn’t be afraid to draw close and love him. He became so small, so fragile so that might simply love him and when we love Him our hearts are transformed by His love. And we see this vulnerability of Our Lord in the Church today…. In the fragility of the men he raises up to be his priest. Men who know they are weak and sinful, the Lord knows this and calls them anyway…so that we might not be afraid to draw close to them and experience the love and mercy of Our God in the Sacraments and especially in confession. But what about the fragility of that little white host? That God himself would come down from heaven and dwell in fragile bread, so that we might draw close to him. That astounds me. He invites us to come to him tonight, but he knows the barriers we put up and he personally removes those barriers by coming to us in the Eucharist, hidden behind simple bread so that we can draw close to him without fear…and that stuns me. Tonight he comes to you, he comes to and desires that you meet him in this place.
The Queen of The Courageous
As I finish this talk, perhaps you are struggling with what I have said or how to become more vulnerable, wondering what to bring before the Lord tonight in this service. Let me give you a piece of advice- call on Mary. Call on Mary your mother, for she is the Queen of the courageous, for in the face of great adversity she said yes to becoming the mother of the one who heals us from all of our brokenness. And it is in her littleness, her vulnerability or as her great Magnificat puts it, in her lowliness that God drew close to her and made her great, and to this day all generations still call her blessed. Millions around the world have a special affection for Our Lady of Lourdes- for in Lourdes and indeed everywhere, she pours out the healing balm of her son onto our wounds and the wounds of the whole world. So I encourage you to let tonight become a little Lourdes right here in Derby, let it be for us a space of radical vulnerability, a place of deep encounter with Jesus Christ who loves us deeply and wants to love us into the fullness of our being. Let us have the courage to come before him tonight exactly as we are, leaving all of our filters at the door. Let us carry in our hearts the same hope of complete healing the woman with the haemorrhage had when she approached Jesus… but let’s do something different, unlike her let’s not sneak through the crowds trying to touch Jesus’ hem crippled by shame and fear… NO… let us have courage to carry each other to Jesus tonight, unashamed to put our masks to one side and together to claim our identity as his beloved sons and daughters.