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A religious experience

By Muyiwa Adetiba

Beyond the excitement of hearing the buzz of fast cars as they zoom around snake-like curves at incredible speeds, I have not been able to understand the technicalities behind the Formula1 as a sport. But because of a certain Lewis Hamilton whose career I have followed since one magazine introduced him as a prodigious kid many years ago, I know about the circuits. I know for example, that last week was the Monaco Grand Prix which he won through sheer grit, brain and brawn. However, as he and the other contestants lined up for the race, I remembered that I had the luck last month, of seeing the tracks being laid. We were encouraged to feel the excitement by walking the tracks and visiting the stands. The knowledge that I was privy to the preparation of such an important event, was exciting in itself. The race track was one of the tourist attractions. Others were the casinos, the opera house, the museum, the palace and of course the beautiful ‘view’ which you would get if you climbed any of the hilly tops.

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Monaco has the highest GDP in the world. It is also one of the world’s smallest sovereign states. It is a home for the rich. A whopping three out of ten residents are said to be millionaires. Technically, Residency and Citizenship are easy to acquire. All you need is to own a property or lease one for at least a year. Apart from the cost —a studio flat costs about 3000 euros a month to lease— properties are not that easy to get. As our coach inched along the narrow roads from Nice to Monaco and Monte-Carlo, we were shown the many apartments of international stars who have taken advantage of the easy residency and tax laws. Monaco is a tax haven. This means the stupendous income of the likes of Djokovic who has a house there will not be subject to tax. It is also a haven in many other ways. The air is crisp and fresh, especially on the mountain side. The coastal temperature is relatively warm all year round. The whole place reeks of luxury –from the yachts that dot the seas, the cars on the streets, the gleaming casinos, to the architecture of the buildings. No wonder the South of France had been the resort of European aristocracy and playground of the rich from time immemorial.

It is tempting to continue exploring temporal pleasures and resorts of the rich. But my task today is actually on one of the spiritual resorts of the faithful. One of the more famous ones is Lourdes. Each time I talk about pilgrimages or religious experiences, I get asked if I have been to Lourdes. There is a friend of mine who celebrates her birthday there every year. She calls it her renewal. Last month, I visited Lourdes for the first time. It was fortuitously, during the Holy Week, the last week of lent. Lourdes is a small town where there are more hotels than residential apartments because there are more pilgrims or religious tourists than residents. The whole town is built around the religious experience of a peasant girl who in 1858, saw the apparition of the Virgin Mary 18 times! She had gone to collect firewood with her sister and a friend when a ‘little lady dressed in white with a white veil and blue girdle and a golden rose on each foot’ first appeared to her. Her sister didn’t see the apparition and her mother who was told by the sister didn’t believe her. She was beaten for her efforts and forbidden to go to the cave. Her father eventually allowed her to go again and the same figure appeared to her. It took the persistence of the apparitions and the genuineness of the peasant girl’s convictions to convince a sceptical community which even doubted her sanity at some point. From three onlookers to a thousand witnesses over several visits, the community eventually became aware that something unique was happening. It wasn’t until the 16th apparition and upon the insistence of the priest that the lady referred to herself as ‘the Immaculate Conception.’ She made several requests to Bernadette Soubirous which were personal to the 14 year-old-girl and people respond to that by making the grotto of Massabielle—the cave where the visitations took place—a place of silent contemplations and prayer. But the public requests to Bernadette have formed the precepts of Lourdes which adherents have followed faithfully after the initial scepticism. When the ‘Immaculate Conception’ or ‘Lady of Lourdes’ instructed the peasant girl as ‘a call to penitence and conversion of sinners’ to ‘go and drink from the spring and wash in it and eat of the grass that is there’ there was no spring. Obedient Bernadette had to claw a hole which was filled with muddy water to wash with. It took a couple more attempts before she could drink from it. Three days later, a clear spring had sprung forth. Today, covered by a glass screen, it is one of the attractions to the sanctuary because of its perceived healing powers. Every pilgrim is encouraged to drink and have a bath—there are 17 stone baths and several drinking fountains. Speaking of the sick, there is a huge, two winged, six floor building where infirm people from all over the world are attended to, cared for and some, hopefully, healed. Many of the carers are volunteers from all over the world. The Catholic Church is usually reticent about miracles but over seven thousand unexplained healings have been recorded.

Another request was made on the 13th visit when the lady asked that ‘the priests should allow people to come in procession and let a church be built.’ Today, there are 22 places of worship at the sanctuary or the ‘Domain.’ The ‘Marian procession’ is one of the most beautiful sights you can ever see. The lights of candles of thousands of people shining in the darkness of night as a procession goes through town can create a powerful image. And for me, a lesson was learnt. Because of a strong night breeze, every candle went out at least three times during the procession. You simply turned to your side to relight your candle irrespective of the gender or colour of the person. It could be your turn to help that person relight their candle minutes later. More than once, that phrase ‘what does a candle lose when used to light another candle’ came to mind. We are indeed, in the world to help and light one another’s world irrespective of race.

Lourdes is built round the tenets of prayer, penitence and poverty. It is a serene place that is devoid of any form of mercantilism. Like my friend who goes there every year says: ‘it is a place of renewal.’


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