In the Jubilee year of 2000, my husband, Joe, and I were able to go on a short pilgrimage to the Marian Shrine in Lourdes. We went with our son, Charlie, who has autism. We were hoping for a miracle, but willing to take any grace God would grant us on the trip.
Charlie’s autism was exacerbated by some food intolerances; he could not tolerate gluten, casein, soy, chocolate, or corn. When these foods were in his diet, it was almost impossible for him to get any sleep. He also experienced laughing fits that could last for 15 minutes. Once, after eliminating corn for about nine months, he ate some baked corn chips and screamed on and off for three days. Needless to say, we severely restricted his diet and it was challenging to pack the proper food for him for the trip. This was one reason our trip had to be short.
We had about 10 hours to spend in Paris until the high-speed train left for Lourdes. Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame had recently been released and it was Charlie’s favorite movie. So when we emerged from the Metro station and the cathedral loomed in front of us, it was touching to see the look of joy on his face. We spent hours there looking at the stained glass windows. Charlie was in awe. He enjoyed being there, bathed in the colorful light of the windows, gazing up at their beauty. We were blessed to go to confession and Mass at Notre Dame, too.
After a brief dinner break and trek to the Eiffel Tower (how could we be in Paris and not see the tower??), we went to the train station and headed down to Lourdes. It was an overnight trip and early in the morning, we arrived in the mountains and stepped off the train at Lourdes. Although it was the end of June, there was a bit of a chill in the air. I was thankful we had bought Charlie a sweatshirt in Paris, because he needed it.
The baths at the shrine were just opening so we headed straight there. They are separated by gender, so Charlie had to go with Joe. Joe and Charlie were able to go right in, but there were several women ahead of me on line. When it was my turn, I was amazed at the efficiency of the bathing process in the miraculous spring water the Blessed Virgin Mary had directed St. Bernadette to uncover a century and a half earlier. The people assisting pilgrims were all volunteers from different countries. They worked together in pairs, but didn’t necessarily speak each other’s language. You would think that this would make the process confusing, but it didn’t. There was a lovely spirit of cooperation among them that reflected the holiness of the shrine.
The first thing pilgrims must do is remove their clothing. By holding up several sheets, the workers enabled us to do this modestly. Once I had disrobed, the women assigned to help me brought me over, sheets and all, to a bathtub carved out of the rock at the base of the hill. At the far end of the tub, there was a statue of our Blessed Mother. The water was absolutely frigid, so I decided not to dunk myself. But I prayed for Charlie’s healing and asked the Lord to heal anything in my family that needed to be healed. Then I sloshed through the water to the statue, where I made a gesture symbolic of my trust in the prayers of the woman who bore Our Savior, just like the couple did at their wedding in Cana more than two thousand years ago. I put my hand on the statue and consecrated my family to the Sacred Heart of Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
When I was done, I went back outside and to wait for Joe and Charlie. I was surprised they weren’t out yet, considering that they went in before me. They finally emerged from the men’s area. Joe looked stressed. I asked him what happened. He told me that there was a little”‘accident'” and it took longer than usual.
They had had two men assisting them. Joe explained as best he could to the men about Charlie’s autism, since neither spoke English or each other’s language. Charlie got undressed and Joe was hoping to help Charlie just step into the pool or put a little water on himself, since it was too cold to spend any amount of time in there. But Charlie was a little boy and it was cold and he was naked. So Charlie did what any cold, naked, slightly wet boy would be inclined to do.
Not on the side of the bathtub…into the bathtub. My son peed into the holy water at Lourdes. Anyone who knows me would say that they were not surprised. Honestly, our last name should be Murphy, given all the crazy, outlandish things that happen to us. It took a while for Joe to convey what had happened to the two men, who then drained the tub, scrubbed it, and refilled it with holy water. After that they just washed Charlie with a little water and Joe took him out.
There was a Eucharistic procession that evening. When Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament passed by, I prayed, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on my son.” Those desperate words, originally spoken by blind Bartimaeus, comforted me.
We stayed in a lovely hotel that night and the next day headed back to the shrine, this time avoiding the baths. There was an English Mass in a conference center we decided to go to. At the time I was still learning about my faith and didn’t know about many of the Church’s feast days. That particular day happened to be the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Our Lord. Later I would learn that this feast day is a powerful one and we would decide to have our other children receive their first Holy Communion on this day. But as far as I was concerned that day, was simply Sunday Mass.
There were very few pilgrims there, but about four priests presiding. One of them kept looking at us during Mass. Not in a weird or rude way, but in a loving, fatherly way. When it came time to receive Communion, Joe and I made a snap decision to have Charlie receive. Charlie’s first Communion was scheduled to be at our parish later that summer, but we thought it would be special to have him receive Our Lord at the shrine with us. The priest looking at us came over and gave Charlie communion. After I received, he touched me on the arm and sweetly said, “If you need anything, please let me know.” As I thanked him for his kindness on our way out, he told me that he was in charge of all families with autism in his diocese back in Ireland. “Your son is a profound gift from God,” he said, “Never forget that.” I regret never getting that compassionate priest’s name, but he remains in my prayers.
After Mass, we went for a walk around town, then settled on a friendly-looking cafe for lunch. Charlie, who spoke very few words at the time, actually said to us, “I want pizza.” Now, Charlie knew he couldn’t have pizza, but he made the tremendous effort to ask for it anyway. Joe thought we should give him the pizza as an act of faith. So Charlie ate a personal-sized pizza for lunch. When he was done, he asked for another. We obliged. After the second pizza, he asked for chocolate cookies. Lots of language for this little guy! We left the cafe and found a bakery where we got him some chocolate cookies.
That night, Charlie slept peacefully. The next day, he was fine. He still had autism, but had no reaction to the foods he ate the day before. We went to the grotto one more time before our train left. While we were there, Charlie took the empty bottle from the water we had bought him at a store, went over to the spigot for the Lourdes water, filled it up, and drank it all. I’d say he got his fill of Lourdes water that day!
At home, we cautiously began to add forbidden foods to Charlie’s diet. The result? No sleepless nights, no giggle fits. Within a few months, he was off the restrictive diet but retained its benefits. Maybe it’s a coincidence. I like to think it was a gift from God.
One day, several months after our pilgrimage, I checked on Charlie in his room and he was crying softly. I wrapped my arms around him and asked him what was wrong. He said, “I want Lourdes.” I told him that maybe someday we would be able to go back and then I asked what it was about Lourdes that he missed. He put his hand on his heart and said, “Lourdes, spirit.”
That was all I could get out of him that day, but it made me believe my son had a profound encounter with the Holy Spirit on the Feast of Corpus Christi at the Shrine at Lourdes. It was at this same place, after all, that the Holy Spirit sent His spouse to work through a simple, humble peasant girl to call for conversions.
May all who read this story of my sweet, simple child and his experience at Lourdes have their faith strengthened by it.
AnnMarie is a wife and mom of five children; one of whom has autism. Her family home schools, and so much of their days are spent discussing crazy things like whether or not Aragorn has Elvish blood in his ancestry, and other such nonsense. Just for the record, they also do math and grammar. The majority of her time is spent cooking, teaching, doing laundry and avoiding stepping on Legos with bare feet. Her favorite part of the day is any time she can make her children laugh. In all of her luxurious spare time, she writes. Her first novel is Angela’s Song, a Catholic romance. She is currently working on a second. Other interests include her Catholic faith, reading and, of course, spending time with her husband, children and all of the good friends and family God has blessed her with.