Last summer, I made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, one of the most prominent Catholic sites in the world. I shared the lessons I learned from that experience here. This was such a life-changing trip that I was drawn to return this summer. For a second year, I served as a hospitaller, welcoming and accompanying the sick and other pilgrims as they made their act of faith at the famous healing baths.
Saint Bernadette of Lourdes said, “The first movement does not belong to us, it is the second which belongs to us,” referring to our life here and now as well as our journey to heaven. This quote is deeply meaningful to me. The first year I came to Lourdes, I was in new territory: intimidated, overwhelmed and unsure if the path I was walking was leading to the place God had prepared for me. Year two, I returned with more experience, confidence and a desire to fully abandon myself to His will. It is believed that year one Our Lady invites us; year two is our decision or “fiat” (our “yes!”) to the commitment to serve. Fiat in Latin means “let it be done,” referring to Mary’s “yes” to becoming the Mother of God.
Saying “yes,” giving my fiat, was a continual theme throughout the trip. Mary taught me that my response is the way to Jesus and the path He has prepared. I said yes to encountering people where they were on their walks of faith, “yes” to performing my daily duties as a hospitaller with joy, and, in the most literal way possible, saying “oui” (yes!) to the man who got down on one knee in the Grotto and asked me to marry him.
It was a powerful experience to say the least! To add to the overwhelming gifts and wisdom, we had a full line-up of Feast Days all pouring into each day’s grace — St. Mary Magdalene, St. Bridget, St. Charbel, St. James, Sts. Anne & Joachim, St. Martha — each left a mark in a special way. It was (beyond) blessed!
Learning to Say ‘YES!’: 10 Lessons I Learned
Docile Surrender- Be willing to learn new things and let go of the power to control. When I stepped onto the domain of Lourdes with a year of experience under my belt, I naively thought I knew how everything would unfold: exactly according to my plan. I would be serving with the pilgrims at the healing baths as I had before. As I arrived in a haze of jet-lag the second day of service, I found my orders were to go to sew linens and aprons for the pilgrims with an elderly Italian woman (who didn’t speak any English). At first, I was frustrated, angry even, that the day hadn’t gone according to my plan. What was God up to? I came here to serve, not to sew! But as I received a patient lesson and got to work, I started to surrender. Suddenly my hazy lens cleared and this menial task felt like a gift. The Blessed Mother knew I needed a slow, peaceful start to my service. She saw how hard I worked leading up to the trip to allow for down time, something I am not good at giving to myself. She knew this was a trade I’d love. Like any good mother, She knew what I needed better than I did myself. And I feel even more grateful for learning this craft of my own Mother for making my clothes as a child! God knows what we need and because of that we are free to take a deep breath, open our hands, and with a humble heart, surrender.
Generosity- The first piece of relationship advice Elias and I received after getting engaged was, “It is not give and take, but rather give, give.” No one was a better example of this kind of generosity than Emilie, my beautiful, devout, down-to-earth, all-around amazing French friend. She served alongside me in the baths all week shedding the same tears of joy, empathy and sorrow-- and sharing the same moments of awe. She drove us through the French countryside and made the most delicious riverside picnic meals for us on our days off. (If you’re wondering where Mary Poppins backpack is, it’s in France and it’s hers). She helped me see just how special our relationship an engagement is--being a close observer of our growth since Lourdes last year. No moment was taken for granted with Emilie. She was the family I craved and the friend I needed. She even hid in the back of the Grotto until the wee hours of the night to take our engagement photos, careful to capture every special moment! Emilie was Christ’s presence each and every day. True generosity commands our heart, strength, and intelligence. Emilie exemplified generosity in every way — and so did the Lord in gifting her as a friend.
Availability- It is important to avail ourselves to receive love and to give love to others. One afternoon in Spiritual Direction, I was prompted to consider fully opening the door to my heart. I was surprised at how obvious it was that while I had kept my heart slightly open, I had also kept it heavily guarded. The priest said, “Jesus is waiting outside the door. You must be available to Him in order to receive His love. From there, you will be more available to others, especially the man that’s right in front of you. They’re both outside knocking and ringing the doorbell; all you must do is open the door.” Moments later, sitting silently in Adoration, I heard a loud doorbell ring. I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. However, it rang three times (mirroring the Holy Trinity) — and just like that, I opened the door. I heard His call. I opened my heart. I let Jesus in. I made myself available to receive God’s love and therefore the love of others.
Service- Living in relationship with God and one another means putting the interest of others before ourselves. Through service, we share our hearts, our time, and our gifts with others. It is an opportunity to live out our faith and brings us outside of ourselves. Service turns each action into a prayer. I continuously saw myself, my loved ones and even my “enemies” in the faces of the people I served. And it reminded me that: 1. We are walking the same walk toward Christ. 2. We are all united in suffering. 3. We must bring this act of service to those at home. Their grateful, joyful and yearning faces showed me the importance of my presence to them. I was reminded of how full, healthy and blessed my own life is. As a lowly servant, I was greatly humbled and reminded of all the great things God has done for me. Acts of service are reciprocal and remind us of all we have to offer and all we have received.
Respect- Treating all people with dignity. As women of all ages and races entered the healing baths, l learned to delicately and joyfully welcome and comfort them. I was discreet and gentle in my observations and immediate care. Many sick people require extra assistance for even their most basic functions. With God’s grace, I managed to connect with these women and make them feel safe, cared for and welcome even when we couldn't communicate due to a language barrier or the nature of their illness. "Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me." (Matthew 25:40) This verse kept ringing over and over in my head and I reflected on St. Teresa of Avila’s infamous saying “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours...Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” What an honor to be the eyes and hands of Christ to these pilgrims for the week.
Unceasing Patience- Remaining grounded in God supports us to endure challenging tasks. I had chosen to serve but also found myself exhausted by the service; it was physically, emotionally and spiritually taxing in the best ways. I was tired. I wanted to rest. I persevered each day but deeply wanted time in silence to unite with Jesus and just be still. I discovered that my prayer was still the same at home as it was in Lourdes: “Jesus, help me to slow down. Help me to filter the essential.” Like St. Martha, I was still anxious and worried about many things. Every day, in all its fullness in service, I craved silence and stillness. I was there to work, I was there to serve, but most importantly, I was there to pray, and my contemplative mind needs a lot of that. I learned not only to have patience with myself, my expectations and others, but also with God. I learned to channel prayer in other ways, such as praying over the people at the baths, uniting my suffering to theirs. “Ora et labora.” By your patience you will save your soul.
Ardent love- Loving one another as God has loved us. We cannot abandon ourselves freely to God’s providence when our hearts are hardened. We cannot love someone fully until we live in the fullness of Christ’s sacrificial love. To be loved, we must risk loving without ever giving up. Last year, Elias and I arrived at the Grotto unsure of our vocations. And by Mary’s grace, we both left with full hearts, having each received our vocation to marriage in two very special and unique ways. We needed time. We needed a year to grow and fully accept that command and ensure God’s will. Indeed, the first movement did not belong to us, it was the second which [finally] belonged to us. We are only now able to love each other because we have both accepted Christ’s love for us as individuals first. And now, we come together to see in ourselves what we couldn’t see on our own. “There is no fear in love but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.” (1 Jn 4:18)
Hope- Placing our trust in Christ’s promises instead of our own strength or circumstances. We must trust where God is leading us — to eternal life. St. Bernadette of Lourdes, along with Our Lady, gives hope a new name. When she began encountering the apparitions, she kept obeying “the Lady” Mary without truly understanding who she was and why she, a poor village girl, was called. She continued to return to the Grotto even though she didn’t know what Our Lady’s plans were for her. She was mocked and rejected. But her hope persevered and was stronger than her fear. I witnessed this in the pilgrims I saw every day as they prayed fervently and in myself as I hoped for a bright future. I saw hope in the eyes of the mothers with disabled children, who traveled across the world to bring them to the healing water of Lourdes. I saw hope in the faces of the pilgrims praying at the Grotto, hopeful that prayers will be heard and answered. It was a good reminder of how hope supports us to flourish in this life. Let us place our hopeful trust in Christ’s promises.
Blind Obedience- Obeying in faith and submitting freely to the will of God, who is love and truth itself. God’s plan is good and loving. But oh, how we want to know what it is before it’s time! How easily we forget the promise that there is nowhere we can go that God’s love hasn’t rushed ahead of us, preparing a way where there seemed to be no way. Before I left for France, my sister texted me, “I am giving you full permission to completely and lovingly detach from your family. Take Jesus’ hand and immerse yourself into His will for what’s next for you.” GULP! And so I took her advice and committed to the message we hear at the Wedding Feast at Cana: Do whatever He tells you. I decided to let go and let my mind, body, and spirit prepare me for what was about to transpire and transform my life. I was stepping into yet another unknown, and as such, I knew it would not serve me to obsess or attempt to control what is out of my control. It was my decision whether I’d allow myself to free-fall in the knowledge that my Savior and my heavenly Mother would always be there to catch me. Not my will, but yours be done. Let’s jump into the deep.
Homecoming: Returning home. I experienced the beauty of two different homecomings book ending my trip; at the beginning by returning to Lourdes and at the end when I returned to the States. I recognized familiar faces returning to serve from all over the world on my daily commute and walking around the city. This second year, I returned with more confidence, more experience, and most of all, I felt like I was truly “home.” Coming back to New York was new and the same all at once, since I was the same Jackie who left only two weeks prior. And yet, I was different, and not just because of my new commitment, different experiences and stronger faith. I felt an outpouring of love and welcome from our families and even more, from God. I realized that there is nothing the Father keeps for himself. He pours himself out for us. The love I felt from everyone and the reality of the new world I am entering became the most real when I returned home to my family. I came home to celebrate the blessings that emerge from the immensity of God’s love. Like St. Mary Magdalene, I made the decision to go home changed forever.
St. Bernadette was right; the first movement does not belong to us, it is the second which belongs to us. My now-fiancé and I have returned changed, even though our daily lives are not that different. The months ahead will be filled with prayer, planning and preparing our hearts for the sacrament of marriage--and ultimately for eternal life. We made our fiat; saying yes to God and one another. Now together, our souls proclaim the greatness of the Lord; our spirits rejoice in God for He has looked with favor on His lowly servants. I left Lourdes with the humble reminder that God has called me to love and serve everyone He puts in my path, starting now at home with ones closest to me. With the people I love by my side and all the angels and Saints watching over me, I step joyfully into this new season, shifted and unafraid. There is no fear in love, so now when God calls, I will be saying ‘YES!’