Maeve Boyle (or as you might also know her, Meadbh Ni Bhaoill) is a journalist, practicing barrister and Advocacy and Communications trainer who lives in Dublin, Ireland. Since 2002 she has been a member of the Hospitalité de Notre Dame de Lourdes in Service St Jean Baptiste and has sat on the National Executive of the Irish Hospitality of Our Lady of Lourdes since 2005. In 2018 she was an official blogger for the World Meeting of Families 2018 in Dublin. She is currently building a digital and oral archive on the history of the Irish in Lourdes and is threatening to write her first book.
Granny’s bowl and the pathway to Lourdes
Everyone’s route to Lourdes is different.
My path started with a gift from my grandmother. When I was about four, she, my aunt and uncle headed off from Northern Ireland during a dreary spring – to this unimaginable place of mythical qualities. Over the door in my room in her house was a small glow-in-the dark statute of Our Lady (apparently, they were all the rage in 1958 when Granny probably bought it during her first visit there). I used to watch it fade at night after the bedroom light was switched off and wonder about this Narnia-like place filled with poor shepherdesses and strange visions to which my Granny was traveling.
On her return Granny called her younger grandchildren together and started what our family ironically called “the solemn distribution” – when gifts were distributed in a tongue-in-cheek ceremony. There we received cereal bowls with our names painted on the back. On the front, was a picture of the three Lourdes basilicas. To my four-year old eyes, this inexpensive little stoneware bowl was as precious and beautiful as any Ming-dynasty vase and I couldn’t wait to put my porridge in it the following morning.
But tragedy struck the very next day. When washing my bowl, my name came off. I was distraught: The name had gone; only the basilicas remained. But this was Granny’s bowl and from it, my porridge tasted all the more sweet and seemed all the more wholesome. And I ate from it every morning growing up.
Through thick and thin, student days and house moves, that bowl has remained with me: My link to Granny and her legacy of Lourdes. When she died, I even nabbed the little luminous statue from above the door and it remains by my beside every night.
Who knows why we all come to Lourdes. There are as many and as varied reasons as there are pilgrims. For very many, the reason for their first visit, is not the same as the reason for their subsequent ones. I’ve heard of those who’ve followed potential partners, those who’ve resisted every step of the way – until they got there – and those who have accidentally strayed upon the service. But none of that matters. What is important is the reason why we stay and why we remain faithful to the place and its message.
My own journey to service is a dull one. After my ‘A’Levels, my Mum and I joined a pilgrimage with my old RE teacher around the Shrines of France that culminated in three days in Lourdes.
I’ll never forget my first sight of the grotto. We arrived on a bus from Lyon one chilly July evening. It had been raining – in fact it had probably been thundering – and the roads were slick with water and reflected lights from the shops. But even the portentous weather couldn’t stop me from racing down to the domain with one of the elderly gentlemen from our pilgrimage (whose name I’ve long- since forgotten, but who’s smile and gentleness will always remain with me).
As I rounded the corner under the arches at the corner of Rosary Square, I thought I knew what to expect given all the photos and pictures from around our house. But these were way off. The sky that night may have been churning with heavy gunmetal clouds but the grotto itself shone like a beacon. And the smell; the sweet smell of the old trees along where the taps used to be, drying in the night air. No photo – or no much loved, worn bowl – could ever capture the beauty of the grotto that evening.
Over subsequent university years I worked on various youth pilgrimages and then having been away from the shrine for about 10 years, I felt the calling to return. I went back with my Mum as a regular pilgrim and whilst it was wonderful, there was something missing…for a time, I couldn’t quite identify what. It took another three pilgrimages to realize that I missed working with the pilgrims.
Then in 2001 it appeared – the one and only time I’ve ever seen it – a poster in the domain advertising stage. I took down the web address and in January 2002 (as one of my New Years Resolutions) emailed the then English Language co-ordinator, Fr. Liam Griffin. On the 31st July 2002, I arrived to start my first stage – an ambitious 3 week one.
Everything about it was overwhelming; the emotion, the work, the friendships. By the end of my first shift in the baths, I knew I was hooked. There was just something about the water and the intimacy of the pilgrim encounter; it was like we, stagiaires, were being invited into the deepest corners of the bathers’ hearts and souls. It was an honor, a privilege and at times, if truth be told, a burden. There can be no denying that service can be physically and emotionally grueling – particularly in the piscines. But one thing is very clear; you’ll either love it and stay – or loathe it and leave. And that too is the beauty of service in Lourdes – there are so many different ways in which we can serve – we all can find our own rhythm.
So you see, my call to stage did not come like some Old Testament thunderclap or burning bush. Nor was it the result of friends cajoling, coaxing or persuading me to give it a go. It didn’t even come about as the natural progression from youth pilgrimage services into adult ones. Nothing about it was dramatic; instead, it came as a subtle yearning to close a circle or fill a gap or follow in Granny’s footsteps. It was as quiet and gentle as the breeze that alerted St. Bernadette to the presence of Our Lady in the grotto all those years ago.
And your interest or desire to give stage a go may be similar. So don’t dismiss that gentle seed of interest, that softly spoken question deep within. Because whatever inspires you; however the Blessed Virgin or the Lord invite you – open your hearts, open your minds and answer the call.
The name may have come off my bowl and it may now be chipped and largely unusable but that bowl and those three basilicas on it have remained and remain deeply precious to me. I think, if she were alive, my Granny would be pleased to know that her inexpensive little gift to me had inspired and led me to a lifetime of joy, friendship and service.