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Part 1: ANGELS
It’s out of season, so most of the shops and restaurants are locked up. The closed grey roller shutter doors provide Boulevard de la Grotte with a sense of dormancy. Only one or two stores remain open; a rundown café, a tatty general store and a large shop selling religious wares, such as rosaries, as well as all manner of plastic bottles and containers to collect the grotto’s holy water in. It’s getting cold too. It’s been a bright winter’s day but, as the sun goes down in Lourdes, there’s a chill in the air as would be expected for an early November evening at the foot of the Pyrenees. Beyond the small stone bridge, the sacred basilica is much smaller than I remember. There is some construction debris at the first statue and so I detour to the left along the pathway, which between Easter and October would be completely crowded with worshippers holding candles in procession and prayer.
The unsymmetrical, sweeping winged staircases provide a welcoming entrance to the church and the sanctuary of Lourdes. I will visit the various chapels in time, but first I walk under the arches to the right and along the river. Under the rock face on which the basilica has been built, there is a small open chapel; the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. I sit down and enjoy the peace of my surroundings.
A remote-controlled camera films mass as a priest plays to a distant audience rather than the one in front of him. His Spanish accent is strong, making him hard to understand, but the small congregation know when to stand, kneel or sit from years of experience. The murmured responses in Latin are all made at the right times. My eyes wander upwards to the statue of Our Lady shining under the spotlight.
This is the spot, in the grotto of Massabielle, where it is believed that in 1858 the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous a total of eighteen times. Much against her parents’ wishes, she was drawn to the grotto when out collecting fire wood and the apparitions she witnessed developed from silent personal prayer to visitations in front of large crowds. On the ninth visit, in front of three hundred onlookers, Bernadette followed the lady’s instructions and after four attempts first tasted the healing waters of the spring.
Less than a week later, in front of a priest and a larger crowd, she guided her friend, Catherine Latapie, to bathe her dislocated arm in the waters and it subsequently regained its movement. A day later the lady of the apparition instructed Bernadette to build a chapel on this spot. When she informed the local parish priest, Dominique Peyramale, he wanted to be clear who the apparition was. He also demanded a test; to see the wild rose bush flower at the grotto in the middle of winter. For the next two days the vision was silent and for a further twenty days Bernadette stayed away from the grotto.
On the 25th March 1858 Bernadette visited the site again and recounted, “She extended her arms towards the ground, then joined them as though in prayer and said, ‘Que soy era Immaculada Concepciou’ (I am the Immaculate Conception)”. Yet the rose bush that she stood on did not flower and Bernadette did not understand the words; the dogma had been declared as truth by the Pope only four years earlier, something that Bernadette was still unaware of.
Two weeks later the miracle of the candle occurred. A local doctor witnessed Bernadette holding the flame of her candle during the whole apparition without burns. Then on 16th July Bernadette witnessed the final apparition of the Virgin Mary.
In 1862 the apparitions were recognised as authentic by the Bishop of Tarbes. Yet even prior to this official announcement thousands of pilgrims were already visiting these healing springs and in 1864 the first statue of Our Lady was placed here. Over two hundred million pilgrims have visited this site since then and the Roman Catholic Church has assented that sixty-nine miraculous healings have occurred here.
So what am I doing here? I’ve been here before and it’s one of those places that always calls me back. Over the last couple of months, through various acquaintances, I have come into contact with a German man named Christian. I’m here to meet him. I’m sure one day Chris will tell his own story but suffice to say he is another who has left a ‘normal’ life behind. After a life crash, Chris found himself on a long-distance, healing bicycle ride, beginning somewhere in southern Germany and making it all the way here to Lourdes. Then in this magical place, he claims to have heard a voice from God instructing him to visit the child that he had sponsored for years in Africa. Inspired by his trip, one thing has led to another and Chris has now founded a football academy in the West African country of Ghana. Over the last few months I have sponsored one of the boys who he has taken from the streets to live in his house, where he provides food, schooling and football coaching. From our discussions, it’s clear that Chris needs help and so we have agreed to meet here in Lourdes to see if I can assist in any way, over and above my sponsorship.
It’s intriguing and frustrating at the same time that, after my sabbatical year, each time I’ve become serious about finding a ‘normal’ job again, something abnormal has come my way. I don’t know whether this has been done subconsciously or not. Am I doing this deliberately or is the universe planning something different for me now? After finishing my sabbatical year, I transitioned into founding a small consultancy business, yet just as I grew serious about it I became wary of my business partner’s over-protective behaviour. As I considered the future of this business I was offered a publishing contract for my first book, which meant I didn’t have to deal with any more corporate shenanigans; I could be creative and artistic instead. Now, with my first book finished and in the hands of the publisher, I should be looking for a job but I find myself here in the Pyrenees inquiring how to help a football academy develop in darkest Africa; a continent I hardly know.
Beyond the grotto there is an area where candles can be lit. In the quiet twilight I light a couple. Rightly or wrongly I follow my usual behaviour. I light one for the dead. With particularly dedication to my father, who I miss so much – isn’t it supposed to grow easier with time? – and also to the many others who have been lost along the way. The second candle is for the living; to all those I care about and to one or two that I don’t but who could do with my prayers. I then join mass in one of the side chapels of the basilica. I smile to myself as it’s in Spanish for a group of dedicated and serious Mexican worshippers. Afterwards I visit the chapel above, the Basilica of our Lady of the Rosary itself. In the dark the angelic form of the statue of the Virgin Mary sitting to the side of the altar illuminates the vestry. I sit here for quite a while. Alone in the heart of this mystical place, tranquillity spreads through me and I feel totally at ease.
In peak season the queues are legendary. However, on my morning walk I deliberately head this way to see if I can get in. It’s chilly this morning. The baths of the holy spring open at ten o’clock and fifteen minutes before this around a dozen men are wrapped up warm queueing on the cold bench outside. Outside the next building, the women’s baths, perhaps twenty women are doing the same, waiting patiently for opening time. I join the wait.
I keep asking myself what I’m doing here. I still don’t know whether I really should be here and whether dedicating myself to a weird and wonderful cause in Africa is sensible or not. I gaze out across the river into which the holy water runs. It’s one of those sunny but freezing winter days. The clear blue sky offers unimpeded views but no resistance to the cold. At ten o’clock the wooden door creaks open and an old grey-bearded man in a thick coat peers out. He goes back in and the door closes once more. Maybe it’s too cold or there are just not enough lunatics wanting to get into the asylum.
I imagine Jean, the one with the grey-beard, leaning against the inside wall, taking a deep breath before accepting that there are people here and another day’s ablutions will have to take place. On cue the door opens again. The first six men are beckoned forward. The rest of us slide slowly along the wooden bench closer to the holy baths. I peer inside before the door closes. I can’t see much, just more benches inside. We wait for longer, whilst more hardy souls join the queue.
Another six are called and then quickly another six, which includes me. The first six are sent behind a dark curtain and my group is ushered towards the inside benches. The door closes and Jean rubs his hands together for warmth. I want to tell him that it’s just as cold in here as it is outside.
There is movement in the first room. Jean checks inside the curtain and smiles. With a flurry of French, it seems that penance will commence. I can hear water being poured but not much else; a few murmurs but nothing intelligible. I am at the stage where I am teetering on making a run for it. I have no clue about the etiquette nor if I am really qualified to be here as a lapsed Catholic. (Surely I have enough sins and enough things to feel guilty about to qualify.) I also never, in these spiritual places, want to show any disrespect, yet if I did it would not be deliberate, only out of total ignorance. (That’s the story of my life.)
The gap between me and the front of the line is lessening. Four men have left the curtained room and, one by one, my companions in the queue have gone beyond the mysterious veil to replace them. One man comes out. It’s my turn. Do I make my excuses and leave? Too late; I am waved in.
Behind the curtain there are eight chairs in two rows of four, all facing inwards. Assorted clothes hang on the pegs behind them. Two chairs are empty. One has clothes behind it and must belong to the man currently being sanctified behind a second curtain. Two men are in various stages of undress and the other four sit shivering in their underwear. I guess the empty chair is for me and I should do the same. I slowly undress. The second curtain opens and inside two men wearing rubber aprons, dressed like butchers, help an old man, whose lower torso is wrapped in a rubber towel, up a step and then towards his seat. Behind them is an old iron bath. After a nodded acknowledgement between the men, another victim is called forward and then the curtain is closed again. The wet old man sits for a moment on his seat, deep in thought. I guess he is contemplating whatever he needs to after his holy dunking.
I finish undressing and sit on my seat. As the others are, I am naked save for my undercrackers. It is very cold. (Is that deliberate in case anyone gets excited?) My room doesn’t have any race or age constraints. The old man who has just been cleansed is older than the rest of us by many a year. The man opposite looks Mongolian, certainly Asian. His neighbour is perhaps Southern European, with his dark skin and faded tattoos. The tattoos don’t make him any tougher as he shivers as much as the rest of us do. I wait my turn patiently; in for a penny, in for a pound.
The men come and go until I’m waved forward. The first torturer asks, “Francais? Italien? Espagnol? Anglais?”
I nod, “English, please.”
He points to the side wall. I turn around to face it. He nudges me sharply in the back and I fall towards the wall before using my hands to stay upright.
“Off.” He pings the elastic on my Calvina Kleins. I do as I am told. I hang them up on the nearby hook. A wet, rubber garment is wrapped around me. It’s cold and slimy on my buttocks. The men help me down the slippery steps into the bath. “Head in?” I look at the second torturer in confusion. Maybe he is trying to distract me from the coldness of the water. “Do you want your head under the water?” I nod in affirmation. I don’t know what this means but, again, in for a penny.
I am now standing knee deep in a bath of cold water. In front of me, a spurt of water pours from the wall. Above it is a small image of the Virgin Mary. Strong arms push me down into a sitting position. Then I am forced forward on my knees and then, before I can catch my breath, the cold water is poured over my head. With a shiver, my eyes catch the icon before I close them and there is a sudden calmness. Water drips of my head, my knees press against the hard surface and the skirt I am wearing is caught under my thigh. I can feel this but it’s not relevant. I am there. I sense nothing around me, as if there is nobody else here. The spurting water makes no sound; it is totally quiet. Time is no longer relevant and I’m not cold anymore. The silence is so strong. Nothing at all happens to such an extent that I feel euphoric. I feel so alive; so present.
Suddenly I am lifted out of the water. My feet reach for the step and I shake the water off my head and face. I realise Executioner No. 2 has been speaking to me. For how long? I feel a little embarrassed. I mouth an apology. He stops speaking and smiles at me warmly. Executioner No. 1 points to the wall. He removes the apron and I put my undercrackers back on my wet body. It’s difficult not to slip on the wet floor. He is already holding the curtain open for me to return to the changing room.
As I did to those who went before me, the uninitiated look at me for kernels of wisdom. I smile knowingly, but, to be perfectly honest, I just want to dress and get warm again. Jean the doorman touches my shoulder affectionately when I leave. Outside somehow it’s much warmer. I check my iPhone for the time. Twenty past ten; it can’t be. Surprisingly hardly any time has passed at all. On my way toward the basilica and another visit to the Virgin Mary statue, I light another candle.
Chris is late for our evening meeting. I receive a call explaining that his camper van has broken down just outside of Lourdes. I offer him my help but there’s not much I can do apart from make sure there is a room available for him in the small hotel where I am staying. After two hours I have not heard back from him, so I phone him again. He is downstairs taking some time to relax after his ordeal. Is a call to let me know that he is safe and needs an hour to recover too much to ask? It’s our first face to face meeting so I give him the benefit of the doubt.
When we meet somehow he is taller and ganglier than I had imagined from his picture and he is more awkwardly jerky when in real life semi-crisis than when calm on Skype. He needs more time to recover so I order a beer and wait for him in the hotel restaurant.
He takes much longer than he said he would, so when he joins me I have already ordered my food and wine. Whilst he tells me he does not drink anymore but accepts a glass of wine when I offer one. He is not as engaging as when we had spoken before; he seems to be off somewhere else most of the time, perhaps still caught up in camper van repairs, yet there are moments when he connects fully and is fascinating.
The story of the Accra Angels, his football academy in Ghana, is inspiring. He totally believes he is doing God’s work. He explains that God is providing all the funding and the guidance he needs; everything flows whenever he needs it. From humble beginnings he now has approximately twenty boys aged between ten and twelve years old living in a house he rents just outside Ghana’s capital, Accra. He is convinced he is doing some good, taking boys out of the city’s slums and sending them to the local school. He says he had originally just intended to school the children, but the boys’ parents saw no benefit in education per se. As football is so ingrained in the culture of the country, when he offered their children a football scholarship in addition, the parents took up his offer to house and school them immediately. He is looking to expand, to have a larger academy with his own school, football pitches, qualified coaches and various age group teams. He even dreams of a retreat at the academy where burnt out Westerners can recover and reassess their lives.
He is passionate and determined, yet totally sure in God’s delivery of the resources he needs. He has a small network of helpers; one trusted coach in Ghana and a few colleagues in Germany helping at their own expense – some have been to visit the academy and others who want to go. This is in addition to the individual financial sponsors he has managed to secure, such as myself, whose contributions fund the project. As he talks, he often refers to some of the boys or his collaborators as having ‘shiny eyes’. I’ve never come across this characteristic or phrase, yet Chris’ eyes water and shine bright and big as he speaks of his dreams for the academy.
He is harder to pin down when I ask specific questions, such as how much does it costs to run the academy or whether each sponsorship amount provides enough money for each boy or even what the local school is like. I wonder whether the boys really have the talent to succeed at football, but there are no answers, only generalisations.
Chris wants help to run a second team, a team of six to eight year olds, that would complement the existing team of ten to twelve year olds. He hands me a list of requirements, which ranges from procuring another house in Ghana, to sourcing football kit and boots, to finding more sponsors to pay for it all. He has achieved all this for the older team yet he is vague when I ask for advice in replicating what he has done already. I will hopefully find out more over the next few days but the project does sound appealing.
Chris leaves, worn out with the stress of his camper van breakdown. I sit and wonder, enjoying the last of my wine. Am I interested? It’s an unusual project, so why not? I have been too cynical lately. I have stopped giving to charities. As a divorced father, I’ve given way too much hard earned money away, yet it’s about time I was open again. I’m in. It’s also about time I saw something of Africa.
At breakfast, Chris tells me there have been a number of terrorist bombings in Paris. Apparently it’s very serious, with incidents at the Stade de France and at a music venue. Many are dead and France is on a terrorist alert. What on earth is going on?
The latest news from the French government is that the borders will be closed. I have a flight out of here in a couple of hours. I am just as confused with government announcements as I am with the bombings. How does this help anyone or anything? Close the borders? Last time I checked, in fact yesterday when I drove to Spain, there is nothing that can be closed on the border, no fence or wall or gates across the road. Why respond to fear with fear? Why fight fire with fire? How can this be justified?
I fly home to Frankfurt with no issue or any difference to the norm. It just confirms that I need to see more of this wonderful world of ours before the bad guys, and for that matter the supposedly good guys, stop me.