There's a film out at the moment about a pilgrimage to Lourdes
, which has won a lot of awards at various film festivals. I'd had in the back of my mind that I wanted to see it, and then I read this article
in the Guardian this morning which has put me in two minds about it.
The journalist, Sara McCorquodale, talks about her experience of Lourdes as a "Holy Blackpool" and her experiences as she describes them certainly jibe with mine. Lourdes was a place to work hard, play hard. The 6am shifts? I remember them; getting up after an hour's sleep because there was no-way I was going to miss work, no matter how late I'd got to bed. The dullness of the overnight shifts - the medical staff in the hospitals were motivated and on the ball and we were, after all, volunteer hospital porters at that point. We were pushing people to the loo in wheelchairs as quietly as we could, with long gaps in between where the only conversations were whispers.
But I remember other things. I remember the heavy metal blue carriages that we would use to pull around pilgrims who couldn't walk. Not just in the Dominion - the area around the Grotto, nice and flat with wide paths and no vehicles to fight with - but also through the town up and down hills as we took people out to see the sights, to get lunch or a drink. I remember the heaviness of the metal handle - shaped like a spade handle. I remember trying to drag one of those uphill, and the relief I felt when the brancadier in the queue behind me reached out and pushed my carriage for a little while, even though they were also pulling one of their own. And I remember how that made me make sure that I could reach out and push the carriage of the person in front of me. My load had been lightened. Why shouldn't theirs?
I remember the camaraderie. I had my heart broken in holiday romances, and had my shoulder cried on as other's hearts were broken. I remember long and involved questions about faith and belief, both with those for whom the trip had reignited the fire in their heart, and with those for whom it extinguished it. I remember sitting in Le Carrefour - the bar by one of the bridges that was the Shrewsbury Diocese bar for the two weeks we were there, and having multilingual conversations with young brancardiers from across the world - often having to shout in English "Does anyone know the French for ..." just as they were shouting something similar in French. I remember smiles being an acceptable substitute for vocabulary.
But most of all I remember the silence. Post pub, post shift, at 3am or 6am, before the day had really started, we would go into the Dominion - always with respect - your friends would be sure to mention if they thought you were too drunk or too loud to go - and we would sit on the slabbed area before the grotto, and we would just be quiet.
The Dominion was always quiet compared to the town. No vehicles, and people rarely talking above a murmur unless it was to sing. But at 3am there was silence. Companionable silence. I was always aware that my friends were nearby, and if I really needed to talk to someone then I could - we would withdraw a little so that we weren't disturbing anyone else, lie on the warm stone and talk. But more often than not, we would simply sit, quietly, and let the waves of the world wash away from us. I don't know that I've ever experienced the serenity of those moments since.
The film about Lourdes seems to have captured the bustle of the town, and the tension between faith and scepticism. My fear is that it won't have captured the calm.