Let Us Be Saints!
God's providential hand has been at work in every single one of our travels and this last trip was no exception.  I had wanted to go to Lourdes ever since last July when I spent a week teaching kids at Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Dobie, WI, and we stayed with a host family at the same parish (the fabulous Pottingers!) that had been to Lourdes several times before and spoke fondly of it as a life-changing experience.  Naomi's confirmation saint is Bernadette so she wanted very badly to go to Lourdes as well.  But I wasn't sure that it was going to happen, since it was getting late in the semester and it seemed that prices were high.  Somehow though it was the Lord's will that we would visit this place, so doors started opening.  The Vaskos latched on to the trip later and the fabulous four set out for the French adventure of a lifetime!

We flew to Toulouse in southern France and spent an afternoon in the city, getting our first tastes of French baked goods (bon appetit!) and visiting the tomb of St. Thomas Aquinas!  It was a pleasant surprise for us to hear that he was in this city, but the church itself that houses his remains is not even used as a worship space anymore - it is a gothic structure but is bare on the inside and is essentially a museum.  Kind of sad that such a brilliant and holy Doctor of the Church doesn't get something better!  But who am I to say this...he is surely enjoying his eternal reward! 

That evening we caught the train to Lourdes and discovered that French trains are incredibly comfortable (even 2nd class!) and efficient.  We made it to Lourdes no problem and our hotel was just a stone's throw away from the train station.  Our breath was taken away as soon as we stepped onto the platform for this little town is surrounded by the Pyrenes Mountains and is absolutely stunning!  We decided to get a bite to eat and call it a night.  Little did we know that we would be getting a bite to eat every night for the next three nights at the same restaurant!  Yes, Hotel Ocean with its three-course menu of the day for just 10 Euro had quite the deal and we fell in love!  What a great way to try authentic French cuisine too!  And we were on a first-name basis with the waiter, mind you! 

The next day was our first trip to the Shrine.  My first impression...Catholic Disneyland!  The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception even bears a striking resemblance to the Disney Castle!  And there is everything Catholic to do here from countless Masses each day in all different languages (including an 11 pm Mass at the Grotto which we went to!) to confessions to Stations of the Cross to rosaries to processions to lighting candles to the baths to filling holy water jugs.  There are lines for everything too!  And tons of souvenir stands - in fact the whole town of Lourdes is now basically hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops full of rosaries and every size and shape of water jugs you could imagine.

One of the high points of the weekend though was the fact that there was an International Military Pilgrimage taking place at Lourdes while we were there.  This was quite a pleasant surprise to us!  We were surrounded by thousands of men and women in uniform from all different branches of military and all different countries in the world who have gathered in Lourdes since 1958 when the French armed forces invited the Germans to join them in Lourdes as a gesture of post-war reconciliation.  This year 37 countries were represented and there were over 20,000 soldiers there, and plenty of military bands parading through town as well!  I felt like we had gone back in time to the 1940s!  But it was a truly humbling site to see the soldiers kneeling down in prayer before the Grotto or pushing the sick around the Shrine.  So touching!

We felt totally safe in the town of Lourdes, especially with the superabundance of military all around, so we spent a lot of time on our own in prayer the whole weekend, meeting up for lunch and dinner each day.  It was truly refreshing to experience the Lord and the Blessed Mother in such a tangible way here in this site where over 100 years ago the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a poor, illiterate peasant girl with a message of repentence.  Just seeing the pilgrims flock to this site, especially the sick and persons with disabilities, because of their faith in God and his healing powers.  While some 150 medical miracles have been documented at Lourdes there are countless other physical and spiritual healings that happen at this site each day.  For me it changed my outlook on suffering and on the medical profession as one of compassion.  Additionally, it deepened my love of the Blessed Mother, the Immaculate Conception.  Praise God!   And let me just say that Lourdes water is the best water I have ever tasted as well!  So good!

During our time in Lourdes we were blessed to meet up with Fr. Hilary Gregory, a chaplain at Lourdes from Sri Lanka, who graced us with coffee and conversation, plus a few hats and a "behind-the-scenes" tour of the Basilica.  We also ran into Fr. Greg Ihm, a Wisconsin farm boy who just studied at the NAC for five years and wanted to visit a Marian Shrine before he headed home to the States to become an associate pastor.  This was also a blessing and we shared two dinners with him (one planned) and the flight home with him.  He is a vibrant and holy young priest!  

 The final part of our France adventure involved spending almost 24 hours with the Little Sisters of the Lamb, a beautiful French Dominican community of mendicants (beggars), at Saint Pierre, their motherhouse, in the rolling hills of southern France.  The sisters were so generous in their hospitality from picking us up at the train station to providing us with meals (that had been provided to them by Divine Providence) to giving us our own cabin cells to sleep in.  These sisters take the vow of poverty very seriously - no showers, no flush toilets, etc.  - and it is absolutely beautiful, for their treasure is found in Christ.  We got to join the community (brothers and sisters) for prayer and also helped with some chores in order to experience fully their way of life.  What a true blessing to contemplate God in those rolling hills and frolicking meadows as well!  Yes, God is good!  

From the incredible sisterhood we shared on this trip (many great conversations, back rubs, and laughs!) to the intense spiritual experiences of the trip to the beautiful landscape and fabulous tastes of French culture, it was really a weekend to remember.  Travel was largely flawless as well!  I say it again...God is good!  Sr. Hallel  is a Minnesotan who went to St. Thomas and did the Bernardi program in Rome herself and she was our host for our time with the Little Sisters.  What a joy she is - no wonder her name comes from the word Hallelujah!  Her own brother was miraculously cured of his brain cancer by taking a bath at Lourdes.  Praise God!

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