In the Jubilee year of 2000, we were able to go on a very short pilgrimage to the Marian Shrine in Lourdes. Although we had three children at the time, Noah and Isabella were toddlers, so we decided not to take them, since it would be a difficult trip. Joe and I just took Charlie with us. Charlie was 9 at a the time and since he has autism, we were, of course, hoping for a miracle, but willing to take any grace God would grant us on the trip.
Charlie's autism was exacerbated by some food intolerances he had to gluten, casein, soy, chocolate and corn. When these foods were in his diet, it was almost impossible for him to get any sleep and they caused laughing fits that could sometimes last for 15 minutes. Needless to say, he was on a very restrictive diet and so it was quite a challenge to pack the proper food for him. This was part of the reason we needed to make it a short trip.
Joe had worked for Swissair for many years and the previous year his department was dissolved and everyone lost their jobs. One of the benefits negotiated in the severance package was that the former employees would be able to use their flight benefits for a year after being let go. We were using these benefits, but a caveat was that we had to fly standby.
When we arrived at O'Hare Airport there must have been a run on tickets to Paris, because there were no seats open on any of the airlines we were able to fly on. I, of course, started to panic. Joe went over to the flight attendant and told her where we were going and why. She was very sympathetic and tried to get us on a flight. No luck. Finally, she talked to another attendant at an airline that doesn't honor our standby tickets. It turned out that there were plenty of seats open on their next flight to Paris, and, miraculously, he let us on the plane, no questions asked.
We had about 10 hours to spend in Paris until the high speed train left for Lourdes. Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame had recently been released and it was Charlie's favorite movie. So, when we emerged from the Metro station and the cathedral loomed in front of us, it was touching to see the look of joy on his face. We spent hours in the cathedral, looking at the stained glass windows. Charlie was in awe. He enjoyed being there, bathed in the colorful light of the windows, gazing up at their beauty. We were also fortunate enough to go to confession and Mass at Notre Dame. After a brief break for dinner and to shoot over to the Eiffel Tower (how could we be in Paris and not see the tower??), we went to the train station and headed down to Lourdes. It was an overnight trip and early in the morning we arrived in the mountains and stepped off the train at Lourdes. Although it was the end of June, with July just days away, there had been a cold snap and there was a bit of a chill in the air. I was so thankful we had bought Charlie a sweatshirt while we were in Paris. He needed it.
The baths at the shrine were just opening so we headed straight there. They are separated by gender, so Charlie had to go with Joe. There were several women ahead of me on line, so I sat tight until it was my turn. Joe and Charlie, however, went right in. When I came to the head of the line, I was amazed at the efficiency of the whole process of bathing in the miraculous spring water which, at the direction of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was discovered by St. Bernadette a century and a half earlier. The people assisting pilgrims were all volunteers from different countries. They worked together in pairs, but didn't necessarily speak each other's language. You would think that this would make the process confusing, but it didn't. There was a lovely spirit of cooperation there that underscored the holiness of the shrine. The first thing we pilgrims needed to do was to remove all of our clothing. By holding up several sheets, the workers were able to allow us to do this in a completely modest way. Once I had disrobed, the women assigned to help me brought me over, sheets and all, to a bathtub that was carved out of the rock at the base of the hill. At the far end of the tub, there was a statue of our Blessed Mother. They told me that I should get in the water and I could submerge myself if I liked, but Mary's instructions were to 'go and wash in the spring,' so they said I could splash some water on my face and wash as well. Then they said they would wait for me to pray and if, as an act of faith, I wanted to touch the statue and ask for Mary's prayers, I was welcome to do that. Given that the water was absolutely frigid, I decided not to dunk myself. But I did pray for a healing for Charlie and asked that the Lord heal anything in my family that needed to be healed. Then I sloshed through the water to the statue. In a gesture symbolic of my trust in the prayers of the woman who bore Our Savior, I put my hand on her heart and consecrated my family to the Sacred Heart of Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
When I was done, I went back outside and sat on a bench to wait for Joe and Charlie. I was surprised that they weren't out yet, considering that they went in before me. After what seemed like an eternity, they emerge from the men's area. Joe looked stressed. I asked him what happened. He told me that there was a little 'accident' and it took longer than usual.
Here is what happened. When they went in, there were two men assisting them. Joe explained as best he could to them men about Charlie's autism, since neither spoke English or each other's language. Charlie got undressed and Joe was hoping to help Charlie just step into the pool, or put a little water on himself, since it was way too cold to spend any amount of time in there. But, Charlie was a little boy and it was cold and he was naked and so Charlie did what any cold naked, slightly wet boy would be inclined to do. He peed. Not on the side of the bath tub...into the bath tub. My son peed into the holy water at Lourdes. Anyone who knows me would say that they were not surprised. Honestly, our last name should be Murphy, given all the crazy, outlandish things that happen to us... But I digress. Only one of the men saw Charlie. He tried to tell the other man, but there was a language barrier. Finally, Joe told me, after much gesturing and frustration, the first man hold his finger in the air like he just got an idea and says, "Peepee." The other man, looks at him and says, "Oh, ho, peepee!" And everyone was on the same page. Joe and Charlie had to wait while they drained the tub, scrubbed the tub and then refilled the tub. After that they just washed Charlie with a bit of the water and Joe took him out.
After the polluted bath incident, we went to adoration, which was held under a large tent in a beautiful meadow. We walked around a bit to orient ourselves and then headed to the town for lunch. I can't remember what Charlie ate,, but I do remember we were running low on his food, so I must have found something at the restaurant that he could have. There was a Eucharistic procession that evening and we took Charlie and prayed. When Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament passed by, I heard myself pray, "Jesus, son of David, have pity on my son." Those desperate words, originally spoken by blind Bartimeus, were a comfort to me.
We stayed in a lovely hotel overnight and the next day headed back to the shrine, this time avoiding the baths. There was an English Mass in a conference center that we decided to go to. At the time I was still learning about my faith and didn't know about many of the feast days. That particular day happened to be the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Our Lord. Later, I would learn that this feast day is a powerful one and we would decide to have our children receive their first holy communion on this day in the Church calendar. But as far as I was concerned, on that day in the mountains of France, 11 years ago, it was Sunday Mass. There were very few pilgrims there, but about four priests presiding. So, it was Joe, Charlie, me and several elderly people at this Mass. One of the priests kept looking at us during Mass. Not in a weird or rude way, but in a loving, fatherly way. When it came time to receive communion, Joe and I made a snap decision to have Charlie receive. Charlie's first holy communion was scheduled to be at our parish later in the summer, but we thought that it would be special to have him receive Our Lord at the shrine with us. The priest that was looking at us came over to us at communion time and gave Charlie communion. After I received, he touched me on the arm and said, "If you need anything, please let me know." I thought that was sweet of him. After Mass, as we were leaving I thanked him for his kindness. He told me that, in Ireland, he was in charge of all the families with autism in his diocese. "Your son is a profound gift from God," he said, "Never forget that." I never got his name and I still regret it, but this compassionate priest remains in my prayers.
After Mass, we were all hungry. We went for a little walk around town and then settled on a friendly looking cafe for lunch. Charlie, who had very few words at the time, actually said to us, "I want pizza." Now, Charlie knew that he couldn't have pizza, but he made the tremendous effort to ask for it anyway. Joe and I thought about what to do. Joe finally said, "Let's just give him the pizza as an act of faith. If he has a reaction, we are here with him and we'll take care of him." So Charlie ate a personal sized pizza for lunch. When he was done with that, he asked for another. We obliged. After the second pizza, he asked for chocolate cookies. Lots of language for this little guy! We left the cafe and found a bakery and got Charlie some chocolate cookies. That night, he slept peacefully. The next day, he was fine. Still had autism, but no reactions to the foods he ate the day before. We went to the grotto one more time before our train left. While we were there, Charlie took the empty bottle from the water he had just downed, went over to the spigot for the Lourdes water, filled it up and drank it all. I'd say he got his fill of Lourdes water that day!
We took the high speed rail back to Paris only to find out that there was an air traffic controller's strike and we couldn't get out. So, we went back to the cathedral and took the tour that brought us to the roof. The view was spectacular, but, as I have a deathly fear of heights, I didn't enjoy it as much as the guys. Charlie was thrilled to see the gargoyles up close, though. That night, we stayed in what was probably the last hotel room in Paris and spent some time calling around to figure out how to get out of Paris with the strike going on. I re-read the literature that came with our rail passes and realized we could take the high speed train to Belgium for a small fee. There was no strike in Belgium! So, the next morning, we stopped for an early lunch at a Parisian McDonald's (the burgers were so much better than in the US, but, ironically, not the fries) and hopped on the train to Belgium. At the airport, we quickly realized that there were a lot of other people who had the same idea as we did. I began saying the rosary and asking for God to help us get home to the two little ones who were waiting for us at their grandparents' house. Joe went to check out the flight situation. They put us on a waiting list for the next flight out. It didn't look too good. There was a connecting flight due that would fill up the plane. I continued to pray. Finally, several minutes before the flight began to board, Joe found out that the connecting flight wasn't going to make the connection and we would get on the plane after all.
At home, we cautiously began to add foods to Charlie's diet that were on the forbidden list. No sleepless nights, no giggle fits. Within a couple of months he was off the restrictive diet but retained it's benefits. Maybe it's a coincidence. I like to think it was a gift from God.
Several months after our pilgrimage, I checked on Charlie in his room and he was crying softly. I wrapped my arms around him and asked him what was wrong. He said, "I want Lourdes." I told him that maybe someday we would be able to go back there, then I asked what was it about Lourdes that he missed and he put his hand on his heart and said, "Lourdes, spirit." That was all I could get out of him, but I think he had a very profound encounter with the Holy Spirit on the Feast of Corpus Christi at the Shrine at Lourdes. It was at this same place where the Holy Spirit sent His spouse to work through a simple, humble peasant girl to make a call for conversions. And I hope and I pray that someone may hear the story of my sweet, simple child and his experience at Lourdes and their faith might be strengthened by it.