I have never been to Lourdes, but I'd love to go. Especially this year. The French town is celebrating its 150th anniversary as the Mecca for healing miracles.

The story of the place has been documented on stage, screen and television — as they say. In 1858, a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette saw the Virgin Mary there. Bernadette was told to drink the water from the fountain, but there was no fountain. Then, miraculously, a stream gushed from the ground. That water became known for its healing powers. Over the years, tens of millions of pilgrims have made their way to Lourdes. Almost 5 million pilgrims visited the site in its first 50 years. Stories of cures abound.

Of course, I have my own theory about the water of Lourdes. I don't think it's the water that cures people, but the buoyant — almost palpable — sea of faith that seems to emerge whenever thousands of believers pool their hearts.

I have visited several other Catholic shrines. And in each case, the faith of the believers — past and present — makes you feel as if you were floating, as if you were walking on water.

I don't know how it happens. I just know at the Shrine of Guadalupe in Mexico City and at Chimayo — the little New Mexican shrine with its famous "healing soil" — it's hard to keep your feet on the ground. You move through those places like a helium balloon in the hand of a child. At Guadalupe — the old basilica, not the new one — I remember seeing the edges of the benches worn down from millions of believers moving in and out of the pews. The wooden rails where so many pilgrims had knelt over the years had indentations in the wood. Even the stone floor had been hollowed out by the feet of pilgrims.

That same spiritual sense of being "hoisted" has shown up in religious artwork for centuries. Angels are always standing in the air, saints get spirited away to heaven like Elijah. People of faith feel the pull. They levitate. They ascend.

And at Lourdes, the internal feeling quickly becomes external.

It's as if the water of the grotto buoys people up, supports them, makes them weightless. When Jesus called himself the Living Water, maybe he meant more than merely quenching thirst. Maybe he also meant he will sustain people, carry them, take those who wade into him with a faithful heart and make them feel light, supported, weightless.

Over the course of the year 1858, Bernadette had 18 visions of the Virgin Mary (Our Lady of Lourdes) at the grotto. The visions ran from February into late July. Each time she was "carried away" in ecstasy.

When the movie "The Song of Bernadette" was released in 1943, the legend of Bernadette was set in stone.

As for that healing water at Lourdes, water and Christianity, it seems to me, will forever be linked — from the seas, rivers and wells of the New Testament to the holy water, baptismal waters and sacred waters of the sacraments in our own day.

But the water itself will never be the vital element. The vitality comes from what people bring to that water. The miracle is in the H20 of faith.


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