If COVID-19 wasn’t a ‘thing’, Catholics all over the world would gather at some point in May to honor the Blessed Mother with May Crownings.
Growing up, these celebrations made a huge impression on me. The pageantry, the process of selecting who would ‘crown’ Mary, the ‘little ones’ wearing their first Communion outfits, everyone bringing flowers for the Blessed Mother. It was as if Easter just exploded into spring and culminated with honoring Our Lady.
My favorite part was singing “Bring Flowers of the Rarest” (or is it the ‘Fairest’?). So, I searched Youtube to find a version that wasn’t cheesy or a crackly black & white film footage to post to my Facebook wall.
No real luck.
Regardless, the activity caused me to reflect… not on the song or May Crownings, but on a trip that I took with my grandmother in 1985.
Her high school graduation gift to me was a pilgrimage with the Blue Army to Lourdes and Fatima — major apparition sites of Our Lady.
For me, it was just a vacation to get away from my family. I believe they considered it a last ditch attempt to straighten me out.
As a cradle Catholic and rebellious teen, religion meant nothing more to me than a burdensome Sunday obligation Mass which kept me from sleeping in after a night of partying. That, and attending CCD… which sucked. Needless to say, it didn’t take much for me to opt out. It’s a wonder that Mom and Dad let me go on the trip at all; but as I said, they probably thought this would ‘cure’ my wickedness.
Or, did it?
As I reflect on that trip some 35 years later, I realize it had more of an effect on me than previously thought. Actually, I never thought about it before.
Although we just celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima where Mary, the Mother of God, appeared to three children in Portugal, my reflection takes me to the other location that I visited with Grandma — Lourdes, Frances.
A very brief overview:
In 1858, the Blessed Mother appeared 18 times to a poor, uneducated girl named Bernadette. During the ninth apparition, the teen was told to drink and bathe from the fountain in the Grotto where these holy meetings occurred. This was a strange request as there wasn’t a fountain or real water source in that location. So Bernadette began to dig in the mud where Mary directed. Water began bubbling up from a natural spring which opened the floodgates – naturally and spiritually. Today a little river continues to flow through the grotto where miraculous healings occur for those who bathe in the waters. (to read more, check out “Going to the Baths“)
Back to my cringe-worthy graduation trip…
I was a selfish brat and behaved that way. The ‘old people’ who prayed the Rosary on the plane annoyed me. Thank goodness I brought my headphones and AC/DC and Motley Crue tapes; I’m pretty sure I listened to them during the entire 17 hour flight. Once landed, it was the European accommodations, tiny compared to the hotels in the US, that disgusted me along with the food — especially breakfast (it was obvious they never heard of a McMuffin). Topping it off, the lack of free time and privacy just exacerbated the situation.
[Keep in mind, that was my 18 year old punk impression. On a side note — and something I’ll always regret: I refused to take a camera because all I wanted to do was get out of Erie; the location and memories didn’t matter to me.]
One evening, I ditched my grandma and met up with a group of French boys. We bought beer and sat in a park all night drinking. The next day we hung out in a bakery where they sold hard liquor. Heaven! I had found my tribe away from the ‘old Jesus freaks’!
But, time with my new French friends lasted only 2 days. They didn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak French; we communicated with alcohol and that got old.
As horrible as I behaved, something was pulling at my heart. There was a piece of me that really wanted to be ‘good’ (although I wouldn’t admit that to anyone back then). The Holy Spirit was working and He really hit me at the Shrine.
I walked with Grandma through the Basilica to join the procession to the Grotto. Our plan was to light a few candles and pray. I really just wanted to check out all the thousands of crutches that were hung around the walls of the Grotto – apparently they were from all the people who were miraculously healed. Pretty cool.
At some point in the procession (more like a sea of people pushing in the same direction) a pilgrim could get in line to do the Baths. Neither of us planned on participating. Grandma didn’t have the patience to wait in line; I had no intention of stripping naked and getting dunked in a tub of cold water while being surrounded by a bunch of nuns. Freaky, I thought.
Here’s where the Holy Spirit got me.
At some point in the walk from the Basilica to the Grotto I ditched grandma and headed for the Baths.
While waiting in line and searching my brain for sanity, I was also searching my heart for an intention. My understanding was that the Baths were intended for those who needed a miraculous healing (hence the crutches left behind). Here I was, in line with people who were unable to walk, the blind & deaf, the mentally handicapped, and those in pain. I didn’t fit the ‘type’ and I remember feeling a little out of place and seriously unworthy of even being there. So, I rationalized that I would ‘do’ the Baths for my Grandma Bea who was back home; she recently had both legs removed due to diabetes. She was wheelchair bound and full of bitterness. I would offer my discomfort for her miraculous healing. The idea that she could be healed because I got naked in a cement pool got me pretty pumped. Heck, I’d even pay to ship her chair to Lourdes when I got home!
No more time for pondering; it was finally my turn.
A nun quickly ushered me to a changing room. There I was directed to strip down while nuns wrapped me in a large towel. They led me to what I can only describe as a trough filled with water; steps at one end and a crucifix at the other. Two nuns, one on either side of me, led me into the water. I was instructed to touch the crucifix and speak my intention. Then, they dunked me and walked me out of the cold water where I was wrapped back up with a blanket. After sitting to dry for a moment, I put my clothes back on and left to meet my grandmother who was in the gift shop.
While I sat on a bench waiting for her, an older member of our group recognized me and asked how my experience was. We talked for a few moments and I mentioned that I offered my intention for Grandma Bea. With great wisdom he said that my gesture of faith was indeed selfless but suggested that although my hope was for my grandma to be healed such a miracle would be ultimately in God’s hands.
Back home, that elder pilgrim’s words were prophetic. Grandma Bea was not healed and her bitterness continued. Sadly, saving me a ton of money in FedEx shipping fees.
Looking back I dare say that those graces from my feeble attempt at holiness while living a life filled with sin were slowly meted out for my own spiritual benefit. While it was not an overnight (or 10-day trip) conversion, my hard heart started to soften that day. It was also the beginning of a relationship with our Blessed Mother. Like any loving mother, she has been helping me, protecting me, and guiding me quietly in the background. She wants me to love her Son, Jesus, and patiently puts up with my sloppy living and un-kept home; aka: sin.
Her Spouse, the Holy Spirit has taught me that I cannot not live a life of duality. It’s a lifelong process. I slip more often than not; continuing to work on letting go of sinful habits and trying to detach from 50-some years of ‘stuff’. Praise God for His patience. I certainly wouldn’t put up with my crap, and I wouldn’t blame Him if He chose to use heavenly headphones when I say stupid things. Although I’m pretty sure AC/DC wouldn’t be on His playlist.
Please pray for me as I pray for you!