Along with the Hail Mary, the Our Father, and the Glory Be, I added the prayer of Saint Teresa of Avila: “Let nothing disturb you, let nothing frighten you, all things are passing away; God never changes. Patience achieves all things. Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.”
I made my First Holy Communion in Baltimore in 1965. Half-asleep one night leading up to the big day, which seemed like two birthdays and three Christmases rolled into one, I thought I saw the Virgin Mary on the wall of my bedroom. It rattled me in a way the picture of the Devil in my prayer book—who looked like a Saturday morning cartoon—did not. My father, a kind and distinctly non-religious man, explained that it was just the headlights of cars coming down the road. He pointed to the window as one approached, pointed to the wall, patted my head, and told me to go to sleep. The explanation made sense, but I was not convinced.
My prayer book also came with a Rosary, white for the girls and black for the boys, presented to fifty of us in the second grade at a parish named for the patron saint of blacksmiths. I’m not sure we were taught how to pray with it. The beads went in a drawer of the desk I received as a Communion gift, along with a matching bookcase and a set of the World Book encyclopedia (with the transparent, overlapping pages that showed the innards of a frog), and were soon forgotten. But I never forgot the Lady in white on the wall of my bedroom.
When I visited Lourdes several decades later in the summer of 1990, just thirty-two-years old, it felt like the pilot light in my soul was about to go out. I arrived in southwestern France as a tourist in the company of my then nine-year-old daughter in the wake of a divorce at the request—a reasonable one—of her mother. We were traveling from Paris to my namesake grandfather’s village in Galicia, Spain. Lourdes was a fabled dot on the map, and we stopped to have a look.
Pilgrims have traveled to the foothills of the Pyrenees since the Blessed Mother—identifying as “the Immaculate Conception”—appeared eighteen times in early 1858 to an impoverished, fourteen-year-old girl named Bernadette Soubirous.
I did not learn of the apparitions during my sixteen years of Catholic school in Baltimore—first grade through Mount Saint Joseph High School and an English degree from Loyola University of Maryland. But one summer night during high school, I watched the Song of Bernadette on the late show. Hollywood, with all its historical liberties, filled a gap in my religious education.
At Lourdes, I bottled some water from the grotto spring in plastic vials sold above the hollow. The water bubbled from the spot where the Virgin told Bernadette to scratch the ground. I may have taken a sip before packing the water away for my Polish grandmother back home. I’m sure I cupped some in my hands to cool my face. Of the miraculous healings attributed to the water by-way-of the Blessed Mother (the Church has recognized sixty-seven), Bernadette said, “One must have faith and pray; the water will have no virtue without faith.” She died of tuberculosis at age thirty-five while praying the Rosary. Like many Catholics, whether devoted to the beads or not, she was buried with a Rosary entwined in her hands.