On my 51st birthday, my life as a “malade” began. “Malade” is the French word for “sick one,” and it became part of my identity when I was diagnosed with low-grade follicular lymphoma following a routine checkup. Cancer was not the birthday gift I was expecting, but the spiritual journey I would embark upon as a result would truly change my life and bless me with a gift of understanding that I feel the responsibility to share.
For as long as I can remember, Lourdes has held a special place in my heart. My mother told me I was a descendant of Jeanne Abadie, the girl who accompanied St. Bernadette Soubirous to gather firewood at the Grotto of Massabielle, where our Blessed Mother appeared.
To visit the cemetery in Lourdes where my great-great aunt rests would be a blessing beyond words. And by no small miracle, it was where I found myself in May, in the local cemetery, with the Abadie family monument on one side and the Soubirous family on the other. It was a sacred moment. My 16-year-old daughter Michelle and I prayed for both families.
I believe that every person who makes a pilgrimage to Lourdes does so only through the invitation of the Blessed Mother. My story is just one example. I was hoping to make my pilgrimage in 2020, but the pandemic canceled my plans. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
I was invited this past year by the Order of Malta Western Association to its annual pilgrimage to Lourdes. What’s more, now Michelle would be able to accompany me, which was not possible in 2020 when she was 13.
The members of the Order of Malta assisted me with my many needs throughout the pilgrimage, and because of their help, I was able to be fully receptive to the blessings of the pilgrimage. The love, care and friendship I felt from each knight, dame, doctor, nurse, priest and even the teen volunteers will be something I will never forget. When a dame washed my feet at the church, it was the gesture of a true servant of Christ. Indeed, I felt the love of Jesus and His mother working through each and every one of them. It was a little piece of heaven on earth.
It’s hard to count all the blessings I received in the week I was in Lourdes. My main goal was to visit the grotto, which was even more beautiful than I had imagined. The water flowed gently from the spring in the cave — the spring that the Blessed Mother asked St. Bernadette to drink from.
My daughter and I would also drink the holy water from the spring. With Michelle’s hands cupped over mine, the water poured onto our hands as we prayed through the intercession of our Blessed Mother. We washed our hands and faces and cupped our hands to drink the water. I felt a sense of cleansing and a renewal of faith, plus a deep love and connection with my only daughter.
The last full day it rained, but it was a chance for me to reflect. I considered the pain and confusion I felt when first diagnosed, and how clearly it contrasted with the peace and love I had experienced in the years since that day. In Lourdes, I made a confession with the priest in my group, in which I reflected on my life. I confessed everything that I felt needed healing and forgiveness.
The Blessed Mother told St. Bernadette: “I do not promise to make you happy in this world but in the other. Would you be kind enough to come here for a fortnight?” Millions of pilgrims would soon follow St. Bernadette and accept the Blessed Mother’s invitation. And while they know they will not find eternal happiness in this life, the moments of joy they feel in being close to our Blessed Mother are an experience they will never forget. I, for one, will hold on to the moment forever. It will be a source of renewal and peace, and for that I will be eternally thankful to her.
Janet Northrop Russell is a mother of three living in North County San Diego.