Never Forget What Happened Here.

Our bi yearly trip to Lourdes is to my faith what an MOT is to a car, during those days I’m able to seek out the cracks and the malfunctions and put them right. To go back into the world fresh and full of Christ. I’ve blogged many times before about Lourdes, and the amazing things I’ve gained from my many pilgrimages to the shrine. All of the many words I’ve written and spoken about Lourdes previously boil down to one thing: Lourdes teaches me a lot about life.
Life is beautiful, life is an adventure, its joy, its celebrating, it’s falling in love and laughing until it hurts. Saying that, I can’t tell you how many time I’ve held a close friend while they’ve cried at the feet of our Blessed Mother and I myself have been known to shed a few tears in Her presence. Where better, after all, to let it all out in the very place where the weak are made strong through prayer, where this pain is elevated in joyful devotion, where we are surrounded by people to pick you up and to build you up. So, in order to be truthful I must say, life is beautiful, but it hurts. It will crush you occasionally.
Usually when I get to the end of a week in Lourdes I feel complete, full up and ready to go on; like everything, all the pain, I had come to Lourdes with had been fixed. This year I left with more pain and more disquiet than I had gone with, and that I had ever felt before. It wasn’t going away.
It dawned on me just how intricate and fragile humanity really is. We’re sinful, we’re broken, we’re nasty. It was humanity that nailed Jesus to the cross, commit abhorrent acts in His name, it’s us who start the wars, it’s us who corrupted what was once good and vital, it’s us who abuse our power.
Our ultimate call is to holiness, to be with God. Sometimes it feels like He hasn’t given us a fighting chance. (or just me?)
It often occurs to me in discerning a vocation that my path is already planned. So I’m not just choosing what I want to do for the rest of my life, but rather I’m trying to find out what God has chosen for me to do for the rest of my life. That’s a terrifying thought.
This is no more overwhelming than when you are at your weakest and it all seems a little too big for you. In the early hours of this morning, watching the sun rise as I tried desperately to fight back tears I was kind of ready to give up. throw my hands in the air and decide not to try any more. Life is hard.

But life is beautiful.

Lourdes is beautiful, the place itself is a truly one of God’s great works of art. The one place I know that still looks beautiful in the rain. It’s beautiful not just because of the setting, but the very essence of it. Everywhere you look it’s plain to see, this is a place of the weak, the broken, the sick. A place of comfort, of safety and more than that, a place to be strong.
But here is the very centre of that beauty: the people. Out of the heap of humanity that I had written of for being corrupt, power-hungry and just generally a bit awful, here is a town full of people devoting every hour of the day to making each other strong.
So in the cold and rain at 6 am this morning feeling the pain of God taking away the one thing I had wanted so much. Feeling frustrated for caring. Feeling angry at God. Later that day, after a nap, a mass and a marathon netflix session, I was reminded so powerfully of just what made life beautiful. It’s people.
Yeah, people can be awful, we’re sinners by design, broken jars, we’re weak. But aren’t we spectacular despite that?
Fulton J Sheen says that Sometimes the only way the good Lord can get into some hearts is to break them. Brother Angelo told us of how when he goes back to visit home, he goes with an empty bag and his family fill it with gifts for him to return with. This is how we must be before God. Empty. He makes us weak so we can be made strong again. In that process we come ever closer to Christ and as with every journey it’s much more fun to go together. Walking through the domain behind a mother and her young daughter holding hands Fr Paul said to me “When we see a mother and child we’re reminded of our basic need to be loved. We never lose that need, we just try to hide it”.

It’s an age-old question; how do I bring home what I’ve learnt in Lourdes? How to I hold on to what’s happened in my heart here?
Bishop Alan had a great response. He said “never forget what has happened here”. Never forget what has happened to you, those moments that changed you. But never forget what happened for humanity; Heaven met earth so that the sick may be healed. A place was created for us all to go in our weakness, in our pain, and to be carried to God’s mercy and His grace. Those cracks we have in us, the splintered parts that make us a little broken, God speaks in them. The tears of frustration you cry for yourself and for you brothers and sisters in Christ, God speaks in them. In the sunrises you watch after you’ve been up talking all night, God speaks in them.

Adoramus Te, Christe.

I’ve been neglecting my discernment recently. I’ve just deleted two paragraphs justifying this, but I guess that’s not important. What is important is what I mean by that. My vocation story isn’t one I share often because, well, like most other things in my life – It’s insane. 

When I was 15 I remember sitting on a bus going from Billericay back to my home in Basildon. (the details aren’t important, I just like to set the scene.) I was thinking about evangelisation. I had two particular thoughts. I was young, I had a lot of questions, but my first, overwhelming, thought was that I knew I wanted to love and serve the Lord. Secondly, I knew that I wanted other people to know this. At that moment I envisaged myself boarding the bus in a full (grey) habit, wooden rosary beads in hand.

You may think this is the start of a wonderful story of how I lived a prayerful life discerning my vocation from a young age. It is not. I wish it was. All of the time, I wish I had taken these thoughts seriously. I wish I thought it was possible or even plausible. I feel like this may be a problem for a lot of young girls. I ignored this, for a long time. I ignored my faith for a long time, I ignored the things that being a Christian meant in my life. I essentially forgot about the things I had really desired on my bus journey. They just faded out. 

Not long after I had turned 18 I met a sister, who was attached to our parish. I’d never met a religious sister before even if she had been in our parish for some time. I’d never really spoken to her. One day I did, I was really curious about her life and what she did. I’d always imagined nuns to be locked away, constantly praying and usually silent. Yet, here she was. Definitely not silent, or locked away. The back bone of our parish, a true woman of valour and a real inspiration. I asked loads of questions, about what she could and couldn’t do. She was so patient with me and I will always thank her for that. 

Through all of this my life had it’s complications. I became something of a tear away. I got swept up with the ‘worldlings’ I craved excess in every aspect of my life. My life became a blur, everything was fast, and surrounded by a cloud of smoke. Looking back I was a mess. My skirt was always shorter than the hem of my fur coat, my tights always laddered, I wore last nights eye liner to college and I constantly had a cigarette stub hanging out of the corner of my mouth as I picked at some sort of scab on my hand or arm, scribbled down notes, or did some sketching.

I struggled with depression and a social phobia so I never gave myself much time to think. I played super mario on the bus, spent my breaks smoking, my evenings drinking and my weekends in the arms of my boyfriend. I made so sure that I never had to think that my faith never crossed my mind. Church was just another thing to add to the long list of distractions. I’d never anticipated that my faith might one day save me. 

Not long after I turned 18 I became a confirmation catechist. My first trip to Walsingham House didn’t exactly make me fall off my proverbial horse, but it did change me. I was already passionate about my faith, but only in the same way I was passionate about pound a pint night. I enjoyed my weekend, I had fun, I learnt some stuff. I didn’t think it had really affected me at all, but as soon as I left something wasn’t right. I felt just ever so slightly unease about a lot of things. Stuff didn’t feel right any more, didn’t bring me the same satisfaction any more. Slowly they began to destroy my last few teenage years. But that’s a story for another time.

Exactly a year later I returned to Walsingham House with my confirmation group. Again, I didn’t fall off my horse. But, an unstoppable chain reaction began. I’d arrived with great troubles. My entire life had begun to crumble on the foundation of a succession of some monumentally bad decisions. We had a reconciliation session and I knew I had to go to confession. I’ve always disliked confession, I never know what to say or quite how to go about it. Some people make good confessions, I think. Some people are good at it. Me, I’m uncomfortable, edgy, and probably a little suspicious. I had to prepare myself. 

I’d never given myself much time to just talk to God. Prayer wasn’t a huge part of my life, unless I genuinely wanted something, or was grateful for something specific. We never just chatted. I found myself alone in the chapel, having the first of my many chats with God. By the time I had finished my prayers, people had come and gone, hours had come and gone. I felt God’s true presence, and though I could never explain it at the time something changed inside me. I was some how glued to the spot, lent against the back wall staring at the tabernacle. I felt like my heart ached for something. Like, when you’re hungry but you don’t know what it is that you fancy. I felt a need, a desire, a want, but I couldn’t think of what it could be for. I felt like I’d been plunged into cold water. I took several deep breaths and began to cry. 

They say that most people don’t know the affect they’ve had on your life. Some people know exactly what they’ve done. Michael is one of those people. It’s a story I’ve told many times and perhaps I’ll tell it again one day but not here. To cut a very long and emotional story short, I arrived in Lourdes and that week changed my life. On the steps of the rosary basillica I felt that same pull, and it overwhelmed me, like my heart had stopped. 

Another year later and I’d been accepted to join the Walsingham House team. Not long had I been on the team when something major in my faith journey happened to me. The tiniest of gestures became my biggest moment. I’d returned home for the first time to see my parents. My dad disappeared for a while and when he returned he had in his hand something magical. It was his breviary. He’d had it since he was young, younger than me I suppose. He’d bound it himself in leather and embossed the words “Daily prayer” on the front. It closed with a popper and was filled with all his prayer cards. As a child in mass I remember his matching missal, filled with similar prayer cards. I remember these books being precious, we weren’t allowed to touch them and now they were in my hands. I felt that thing that I’d felt in the chapel and in Lourdes. It was the prayers of others. How many people have sat were I sat, stood where I stood and prayed, praised, glorified, begged, pleaded, bargained. In this book were the prayers of my father, for his intercessions, and soon it would be filled with mine too, and God willing, maybe even my children’s.

In our first month (or so) a quick succession of spectacular things happened to me. One evening we went out for dinner, perhaps the wine had got the better of me, but half way through dinner I proposed this question to the table “Do you think I’d make a good nun?”. I heard the words leave my mouth and I was as shocked as the rest of those who had heard me. Firstly, I’d never actually thought about becoming a nun, it wasn’t something I had felt I wanted to do. I had a boyfriend, who I loved very much. It was almost as if someone else had said it. Thankfully, the replies were in jest and I laughed a long as if I had intended to make the joke. 

On another day we were invited to watch a sister of the community of Our Lady of Walsingham profess her vows. The service was simple, and beautiful. I was growing quite frustrated with the fact I no longer seemed in control of my emotions. I couldn’t work out what it was that I was missing, and in my desperation I turned to prayer. Whole heartedly emptying myself before the Lord, handing myself over to him. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, it was more something I needed. Imagine Esmerelda at the feet of Mary. 

Finally we come to the pinnacle of my vocational tale. We took a trip down to Walsingham for a little pilgrimage and informal catechises. In the slipper chapel it hit me. Like the kind of shock you get when you get bad news. When it hits you in the chest. I knew I was being called to something bigger, something greater and something just for me. 

I worked to be praised, and that’s what was lacking, a true vocation. My true calling.

“I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of; for to have been thought about, born in God’s thought, and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest and most precious thing in all thinking.”
― George MacDonald

There was my joy, there was my fullness. In following this path that had been chosen for me I would then be complete. Sounds perfect. But I wasn’t prepared for just how much I would sacrifice, and here’s why abandoned my discernment.

Any wise person will tell you that every good thing comes at a price. J.M. Barrie tells us that we can have whatever we want in life if we are willing to sacrifice everything for it. On the floor of the Chapel at Walsingham house I promised to change my life and standing under several wax limbs in the room of prayer at Apericeda I consecrated my life to Mary. I knew that this meant giving things up, turning wholly away from sin and towards Jesus because, well, you can’t be half a saint. There are days when these sacrifices seem worth while, and you remember why you made them and then there are dark times and you’re not quite sure just why you’ve made these promises and would it be so bad to break them. Of course the toughest sacrifices are the ones you don’t see coming, when we don’t have time to come up with a strategy, to pick a side, or to measure the potential loss. When that happens… when the battle chooses us and not the other way around, that’s when the sacrifice can turn out to be more than we can bare.

Unfortunately life is not a spectator sport. You can’t just make promises in the quiet and in the still and in the peaceful and then be happy and content that you can carry on this way. Life is a game, and there will be plays you never expected. You made a promise and you said a prayer, you spoke to God and he spoke to your heart. You’re off guard. Those are the times to make promises. The messy times, the dark times, the 3 am when you’re chocking on your own tears times, the perched on the edge times. 

Tonight a Norbertine priest told me to be myself in a way that I’d never quite considered before. He said you can’t wish to become like someone you’re not. Theres no use wishing to be a Tyburn Benedictine, yessex, it’s just not who you are. You make sacrifices whether you want to or not, some of them you understand and some of them you don’t. You must be you, you must open yourself completely to Christ so that he may fill you with his grace. 

I don’t know much about life, or myself for that matter. I know that before I begin to establish who I should be, I should probably figure out who I am. I know that I adore Christ and to be in His service is my greatest desire. I know that, in the words of Edward Sharpe, “reaching for heaven is what I’m on earth to do”. I know I must have trust. 

Sometimes it feels that you’re being pulled and you find yourself in a situation that is just too big for you. You can feel too much. Too much sadness, fear, joy or anticipation. You can feel like the pull is taking you to somewhere too great for you to handle. Dr Sues says that there’s no one youer than you. God knows that too. He wants you to be bigger, to be greater. Just trust. I can’t tell you how, just trust. 

Lourdes.

What an amazing experience. It was nothing like I expected! Nearing the end of my 20 hour coach journey the only thing I could look forward to was seeing my two big sisters. Yes, the two sister I’d grown up with, the two sisters I’d seen just 20 hours previously. I was growing a little frustrated with myself as the mountains came into view and still I couldn’t get excited about all the new experiences, all the new friends I’d make, all the new things I’d see. I got off the coach and went straight to my room, where, thankfully, I found the suitcases belonging to my two sisters and when the came through the door and gave me a big hug I realised; maybe Lourdes isn’t about the new friends, or the new things to see. It’s about strengthening what you already have. Your relationship with God, and our Lady. Your own beliefs and your own personality.

When we first arrived in Lourdes the river running through was gentle, and so clear and shallow that you could see the bottom. But, by the third day of torrential rain the river was almost bursting over the banks, the water was running fast and even the strongest swimmer wouldn’t be able to conquer the torrent. In reconcilation on Wednesday we were asked to liken this image to the love of Christ, flowing through us like a mighty torrent that no one could conquer. Romans 8:38-39 says

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I believe this is also a more than fitting analogy for our young people. By the second day they’d become like brothers and sisters (bickering included), but above all the love and passion the Christ had poured into them shone out, to other young people, to the pilgrims, to the strangers in the street and even to the Diocese of Liverpool. Everything they did was whole hearted, and without complaint. Their enthusiasm was inspiring.

But, in the end it was only on the steps of the Basillica waiting for our disocesen youth photo to be taken when we burst into a chorus of “lean on me” that it really hit me. That I did really come away with more than new friends and new expierences. I came away with a deepened relationship with God, with a family in the BCYS, and that to me is a massive part of the miracle of Lourdes. If I could every day be touched by the love and passion that I saw every hour of every day in Lourdes I would be an exceptionally privaliged person.

The Lourdes spirit