Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes

The grotto at Lourdes
Today, the 70th day since Ali died, is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. 

Lourdes has a unique place in my relationship with Ali.  In the summer of 1989 I took "two weeks out" of my life to travel to Ali's home in Dorset and then to drive through France with her to Lourdes.  It was a life changing trip for me as those "two weeks" extended to more than 24 years with Ali.  Our final journey of significance was also to Lourdes in June 2013, just months before Ali died.

Pope John Paul II established today's feast as the World Day of the Sick.  For today's 22nd World Day of the Sick Pope Francis has written:
Mary, the Mother of Jesus and our Mother....bore in her heart, throughout the pilgrimage of her life, the words of the elderly Simeon who foretold that a sword would pierce her soul, and with persevering strength she stood at the foot of the cross of Jesus.  She knows the way, and for this reason she is the Mother of all of the sick and suffering. To her we can turn with confidence and filial devotion, certain that she will help us, support us and not abandon us.  She is the Mother of the crucified and risen Christ: she stands beside our crosses and she accompanies us on the journey towards the resurrection and the fullness of life.
More than at any other place, Ali learned the purpose and inestimable value of suffering at Lourdes, where she drew close to the Mother of God in an exceptional way. Ali discovered that suffering was not the worst thing, or even a bad thing, to experience.  She knew that it was not even to be borne in a stoical way as something to be merely endured.  On the contrary she discovered that suffering was a gift that could be transformed by one's loving acceptance of it, uniting oneself to the suffering of Jesus and Mary.  Ali became able to say not only that suffering was a "privilege" but that it was - in her words - "the greatest privilege possible in the world."

Ali was extraordinary in various ways, and most of all in her understanding of suffering.  She knew it was right - and indeed an obligation - to be compassionate towards suffering people and to do all that one properly can to relieve their suffering.  She did not believe either that suffering should be deliberately inflicted or that one should refrain from compassionately assisting those who were suffering. And yet she could describe suffering as "the greatest privilege possible" - and she said it and meant it not as an abstract or theoretical idea,  but from the perspective of someone who suffered more intensely than most people.

In being an eloquent witness in defence of human life, Ali knew that those who held the opposing view were seeking to avoid suffering or (similarly) seeking happiness in an inappropriate way.  At the heart of the major bioethical questions in which she was engaged - and ultimately at the heart of all ethical questions - lies the important question of one's view about suffering.

The message of Lourdes is not something to be accepted merely as a doctrine or a theory.  It is something to be lived. Ali trusted Jesus and Mary. She recognised their suffering and she united her own suffering to theirs. In so doing she displayed a wisdom and a holiness that most of us fall well short of.

With Ali on her last pilgrimage to Lourdes in June 2013

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