17 June 2009


These photos are from Lourdes, in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. I snapped them in August 2007 as we made our way from Biarritz to my brother's property further east. In Lourdes, there were dozens of souvenir shops selling all manner of tacky keepsakes linked with fourteen year old Bernadette Soubirous's claims she had repeatedly seen visions of the Virgin Mary on the edge of the town back in 1858 - St Bernadette fridge magnets, toothbrushes, boiled sweets, nail clippers, snowstorms from which a tiny plastic Bernadette emerges staring permanently at an equally tiny Mary mother of God.

Nowadays, Lourdes has more hotel rooms than any other French town or city apart from Paris. It receives around five million pilgrims and visitors a year. See some of them in my first photo - lined up at an open air service - in their wheelchairs, pathetically hoping to be "healed" by spring waters from the sacred grotto. You see people filling bottle after bottle with holy water, drawn from pipes that run out of the holy spring and there are massive candles you can light too - some of them so big it takes two men to carry them.

In Lourdes, I felt like an alien. All these busloads of people from all over the Catholic world. Did they really believe the legend - something not far removed from a fanciful fairy story? Inside, I was utterly bemused. For me it was like visiting Madame Tussauds - that kind of curiosity - but for the other people, the nuns, the cripples, the rosary-rocking water gatherers and grey-haired coach travellers - Lourdes was something different - something they so desperately wanted to believe in that just being there strengthened rather than diminished their religious belief. It was quite scary.

Like a growing percentage of earthlings, I repudiate all religious belief and live without a god or any expectation of an after-life. We of the non-religious creed that puts people and earthly happiness first would even go so far as to blame religion for millions of deaths in hundreds of conflicts which grew out of religious bickerings, misunderstandings and jealousies. Regarding faith - I have faith in the essential goodness of people, faith in the beauty of nature and in man's creativity, faith in tomorrow, faith in our oligation to make the most of this life, relishing experience and finding peace... or am I starting to sound like a preacher at Lourdes? A St Bernard perhaps?


  1. I once passed through Knock, it's become a mini-Lourdes, apart from the pilgrims it was wall-to-wall nuns and priests.

    I kept telling my Dad before he died I'd take him to Knock or Lourdes, he used to laugh like a drain. I remembered him in his pomp one Sunday morning getting out of bed and throwing the Salvation Army band out of his street so he could get some sleep. "nobody asked you to come hear playing that crap on a Sunday morning...how about I turn up uninvited next week at your Citadel and preach Communism? How would you like it you sanctimonious parasites?"

    Quality rant I thought :-)

  2. I have no problem at all with people doing what brings them comfort and maybe misguided hope. A lot of souls need this type of reassurance.
    Where I do have a concern..is where 'faith' takes on a rather more obsessive and violent role.
    The first group, in no way interferes with the lives of others....the latter groups have unfortunately affected the lives of many.
    Cheers.....Bernard (No Saint!) Bernard

  3. I don't know about your "growing percentage of earthlings" statement, but I would certainly feel like an alien at Lourdes.

    I might have a bone to pick with your belief in "essential goodness of people" as well. Anne Frank believed that, and look what happened to her.

    There is such a thing as raw evil unleashed in the world. And I think the reason we can recognize it is because we can also recognize its opposite.

  4. Lourdes is big and splashy. I can't say for certain, but I think I might feel out of place there, too. There have indeed been many terrible things done in the name of faith (i.e. "kill them all-- God will sort out his own"), things where alleged faith was just a coverup for evil. However, there have also been many good things done in the name of faith.

    Much of the time the people who are doing good things in the name of faith don't make the headlines. Bad news makes a good story, after all. Whether or not one thinks they are misguided, the people working to eradicate hunger, poverty, domestic violence, and other scourges of this world who are doing it in the name of faith are not the in-your- face types trying to convert the masses. They're just doing the work that needs to be done. I wish that we would all start noticing these types of people to the exclusion of "sanctimonous parasites".

  5. STEVE You're right..Knock is like a low rate Lourdes...Ever hear Christy Moore's song about the airport there?...Also - like father like son I humbly suggest.
    KIPPER DICKIE. Perhaps you are right to diffentiate between the sheepish/passive followers of religions and those who use it as an excusefor violence and aggression but I am not so sure. The sheep may give the wolves their strength.
    RHYMES WITH...I take on board your thoughtful objections.
    SAINT FARIDA Another good point. I agree that there are some wonderful things done in the name of religion though when you strip it all away and you're rescuing an East African child from starvation...are you really doing it because of The Bible or the Koran...or because you see the hopeful eyes of an innocent child staring up at you?

  6. Wow. This post reminded me of a story that will appear on my blog soon.

    Then you follow it up with the negative of Jesus. I detect a trend.

    I attended a Catholic school for 8 years, and during the latter four of those years, I was hit and smacked and humiliated often. Those nuns were the worst...but they didn't represent the tenets of the religion, any more than the people who hijacked the planes on September 11 represented the tenets of their religion. And if it seems odd that I'm comparing those nuns to those terrorists, well, you just had to know those nuns.

    I firmly believe that human nature is basically good, and that goodness had to come from somewhere. I'll explain more fully...

  7. Interesting post, YP. I'm still amazed that people believe in Lourdes and all that (and Steve, yes, quality rant from your Dad, great). I like the idea of people doing good not because they think God will like it if they do or punish them if they don't - - but because the good flaming well needs to be done!


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