We were in Lourdes again next morning a little after six o’clock; and already it might have been high noon, for the streets were one moving mass of pilgrims. From every corner came gusts of singing; and here and there through the crowd already moved the brancardiers—men of every nation with shoulder-straps and cross—bearing the litters with their piteous burdens.
I was to say Mass in the crypt; and when I arrived there at last, the church was full from end to end. The interior was not so disappointing as I had feared. It had a certain solid catacombic gloom beneath its low curved roof, which, if it had not been for the colours and some of the details, might very nearly have come from the hand of a good architect. The arrangements for the pilgrims were as bad as possible; there was no order, no marshalling; they moved crowd against crowd like herds of bewildered sheep. Some were for Communion, some for Mass only, some for confession; and they pushed patiently this way and that in every direction. It was a struggle before I got my vestments; I produced a letter from the Bishop of Rodez, with whom I had lunched a few days before; I argued, I deprecated, I persuaded, I quoted. Everything once more was against my peace of mind; yet I have seldom said Mass with more consolations than in that tiny sanctuary of the high Altar.... An ecclesiastic served, and an old priest knelt devoutly at a prie-Dieu.
When the time for Communion came, I turned about and saw but one sea of faces stretching from the altar rail into as much of the darkness as I could discern. For a quarter of an hour I gave Communion rapidly; then, as soon as another priest could force his way through the crowd, I continued Mass; he had not nearly finished giving Communion when I had ended my thanksgiving. This, too, was the same everywhere—in the crypt, in the basilica, in the Rosary Church, and above all in the Grotto. The average number of Communions every day throughout the year in Lourdes is, I am told, four thousand. In that year of Jubilee, however, Dr. Boissarie informed me, in round numbers, one million Communionswere made, sixty thousand Masses were said, with two thousandCommunions at each midnight Mass.... Does Jesus Christ go out when Mary comes in? We are told so by non-Catholics. Rather, it seems as if, like the Wise Men of old, men still find the Child with Mary His Mother.
At the close of my Mass, the old priest rose from his place and began to prepare the vessels and arrange the Missal. As soon as I took off the vestments he put them on. I assented passively, supposing him to be the next on the list; I even answered his Kyrie. But at the Collect a frantic sacristan burst through the crowd; and from remarks made to the devout old priest and myself, I learned that the next on the list was still waiting in the sacristy, and that this old man was an adroit though pious interloper who had determined not to take “No” for an answer. He finished his Mass. I forbear from comment.
For a while afterward we stood on the terrace above the piscines; and, indeed, after breakfast I returned here again alone, and remained during all the morning. It was an extraordinary sight. From the terrace, the cliff fell straight away down to the roofs of the three chapel-like buildings, fifty or sixty feet beneath. Beyond that I could see the paved space, sprinkled with a few moving figures; and, beyond the barrier, the crowd stretching across the roadway and far on either side. Behind them was the clean river and the green meadows, all delicious in the early sunlight.
During that morning I must have seen many hundreds of the sick carried into the baths; for there were almost two thousand sick in Lourdes on that day. I could even watch their faces, white and drawn with pain, or horribly scarred, as they lay directly beneath me, “waiting for some man to put them into the water.” I saw men and women of all nations and all ranks attending upon them, carrying them tenderly, fanning their faces, wiping their lips, giving them to drink of the Grotto water. A murmur of thousands of footsteps came up from beneath (this National Pilgrimage of France numbered between eighty and an hundred thousand persons); and loud above the footsteps came the cries of the priests, as they stood in a long row facing the people, with arms extended in the form of a cross. Now and again came a far-off roar of singing from the Grotto to my left, where Masses were said continuously by bishops and favoured priests; or from my right, from the great oval space beneath the steps; and then, on a sudden a great chorus of sound from beneath, as the Gloria Patri burst out when the end of some decade was reached. All about us was the wheeling earth, the Pyrénées behind, the meadows in front; and over us heaven, with Mary looking down.
Once from beneath during that long morning I heard terrible shrieks, as of a demoniac, that died into moans and ceased. And once I saw a little procession go past from the Grotto, with the Blessed Sacrament in the midst. There was no sensation, no singing. The Lord of all went simply by on some errand of mercy, and men fell on their knees and crossed themselves as He went.
After déjeûner at the Hotel Moderne, where now it was decided that we should stay until the Monday, we went down to the Bureau. At first there were difficulties made, as the doctors were not come; and I occupied a little while in watching the litters unloaded from the wagonettes that brought them gently down to within a hundred yards of the Grotto. Once indeed I was happy to be able to fit a brancardier’sstraps into the poles that supported a sick woman. It was all most terrible and most beautiful. Figure after figure was passed along the seats—living crucifixes of pain—and lowered tenderly to the ground, to lie there a moment or two, with the body horribly flat and, as it seemed, almost non-existent beneath the coverlet; and the white face with blazing eyes of anguish, or passive and half dead, to show alone that a human creature lay there. Then one by one each was lifted and swung gently down to the gate of the piscines.
At about three o’clock, after an hour’s waiting, I succeeded in getting a certain card passed through the window, and immediately a message came out from Dr. Cox that I was to be admitted. I passed through a barrier, through a couple of rooms, and found myself in the Holy Place of Science, as the Grotto is the Holy Place of Grace.
It is a little room in which perhaps twenty persons can stand with comfort. Again and again I saw more than sixty there. Down one side runs a table, at one end of which sits Dr. Cox; in the centre, facing the room, is the presiding doctor’s chair, where, as a rule, Dr. Boissarie is to be found. Dr. Cox set me between him and the president, and I began to observe.
At the farther end of the room is a long glazed case of photographs hung against the wall. Here are photographs of many of the most famous patients. The wounds of Marie Borel are shown there; Marie Borel herself had been present in the Bureau that morning to report upon her excellent health. (She was cured last year instantaneously, in the piscine, of a number of running wounds, so deep that they penetrated the intestines.) On the table lay some curious brass objects, which I learned later were models of the bones of Pierre de Rudder’s legs. (This man had for eight years suffered from a broken leg and two running wounds—one at the fracture, the other on the foot. These were gangrenous. The ends of the broken bones were seen immediately before the cure, which took place instantaneously at the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes at Oostacker. Pierre lived rather over twenty years after his sudden and complete restoration to health). For the rest, the room is simple enough. There are a few chairs. Another door leads into a little compartment where the sick can be examined privately; a third and a fourth lead into the open air on either side. There are two windows, looking out respectively on this side and that.
Now I spent a great deal of my time in the Bureau. (I was given presently a “doctor’s cross” to wear—consisting of a kind of cardboard with a white upright and red cross-bar—so that I could pass in and out as I wished). I may as well, then, sum up once and for all the impressions I received from observing the methods of the doctors. There were all kinds of doctors there continually—Catholics and free-thinkers, old, young, middle-aged. The cases were discussed with the utmost freedom. Any could ask questions of the miraculés or of the other doctors. The certificates of the sick were read aloud. I may observe, too, that if there was any doubt as to the certificates, if there was any question of a merely nervous malady, any conceivable possibility of a mistake, the case was dismissed abruptly. These certificates, then, given by the doctor attending the sick person, dated and signed, are of the utmost importance; for without them no cure is registered. Yet, in spite of these demands, I saw again and again sixty or seventy men, dead silent, staring, listening with all their ears, while some poor uneducated man or woman, smiling radiantly, gave a little history or answered the abrupt kindly questions of the presiding doctor.
Again, and again, too, it seemed to me that all this had been enacted before. There was once upon a time a man born blind who received his sight, and round him there gathered keen-eyed doctors of another kind. They tried to pose him with questions. It was unheard of, they cried, that a man born blind should receive his sight; at least it could not have been as he said. Yet there stood the man in the midst, seeing them as they saw him, and giving his witness. “This,” he said, “was the way it was done. Such and such is the name of the Man who cured me. And look for yourselves! I was blind; now I see.”
After I had looked and made notes and asked questions of Dr. Cox, Dr. Boissarie came in. I was made known to him; and presently he took me aside, with a Scottish priest (who all through my stay showed me great kindness), and began to ask me questions. It seemed that, since there was no physical miraculé present just now, a spiritual miraculé would do as well; for he asked me a hundred questions as to my conversion and its causes, and what part prayer played in it; and the doctors crowded round and listened to my halting French.
“It was the need of a divine Leader—an authority—then, that brought you in?”
“Yes, it was that; it was the position of St. Peter in the Scriptures and in history; it was the supernatural unity of the Church. It is impossible to say exactly which argument predominated.”
“It was, in fact, the grace of God,” smiled the Doctor.
Dr. Boissarie, as also Dr. Cox, was extremely good to me. He is an oldish man, with a keen, clever, wrinkled face; he is of middle-size, and walks very slowly and deliberately; he is a fervent Catholic. He is very sharp and businesslike, but there is an air of wonderful goodness and kindness about him; he takes one by the arm in a very pleasant manner; I have seen dilatory, rambling patients called to their senses in an instant, yet never frightened.
Dr. Cox, who has been at Lourdes for fourteen years, is a typical Englishman, ruddy, with a white moustache. His part is mostly secretarial, it seems; though he too asks questions now and again. It was he who gave me the “doctor’s cross,” and who later obtained for me an even more exceptional favour, of which I shall speak in the proper place. I heard a tale that he himself had been cured of some illness at Lourdes, but I cannot vouch for it as true. I did not like to ask him outright.
Presently from outside came the sound of organized singing, and the room began to empty. The afternoon procession was coming. I ran to the window that looks toward the Grotto; and there, sitting by an Assumptionist Father—one of that Order who once had, officially, charge of the Grotto, and now unofficially assists at it—I saw the procession go past.
I have no idea of its numbers. I saw only beyond the single line of heads outside the window, an interminable double stream of men go past, each bearing a burning taper and singing as he came. There were persons of every kind in that stream—groups of boys and young men, with their priest beating time in the midst; middle-aged men and old men. I saw again and again that kind of face which a foolish Briton is accustomed to regard as absurd—a military, musketeer profile, immense moustaches and imperial, and hair en brosse. Yet indeed there was nothing absurd. It was terribly moving, and a lump rose in my throat, as I watched such a sanguine bristling face as one of these, all alight with passion and adoration. Such a man might be a grocer, or a local mayor, or a duke; it was all one; he was a child of Mary; and he loved her with all his heart, and Gabriel’s salute was on his lips. Then the priests began to come; long lines of them in black; then white cottas; then gleams of purple; then a pectoral cross or two; and last the great canopy swaying with all its bells and tassels.