First Communion and Confirmation day at the crowned statue in Lourdes in France picture: Orla Crilly
Recently, myself and one of my kids were invited by the Irish Association of Lourdes Volunteers (IALV) to join their second annual trip to Lourdes.
Now, there may have been a few raised eyebrows when I said I was going on the trip but after clarification that it was not THE Loudres and in fact the actual place in France , my well-travelled sisters intervened with their own memories of visiting the shrine. Well of course, as previously established, they've been everywhere before me!
On departure day we assembled at the Crowne Plaza in Dundalk. It was clear many knew each other and there was much smiling and hugging. This pilgrimage was made up of the pilgrims/assisted pilgrims (medically challenged), handmaidens (female) and brancardiers (male) who assist the group , nurses, doctors and the priest. The brancardier took our bags and we all boarded a myriad of buses and transport vehicles to go to the airport.
I didn't even get through check-in without shedding a few tears. Chatting to people in the queue, the bond was instant. I immediately knew I was surrounded by goodness.
PICTURED: Teagan Flanagan at the Upper Basilica
Only a two hour flight and we were arriving at the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. We were taken to the L'Accueil, which is the French word for welcome.
This is a purpose built hospital overlooking the grotto. All the assisted pilgrims were given designated accommodation.
Over the 5 days that followed we had activities such as visits to nearby churches and a vast underground basilica, the grotto and it's baths , candlelight processions and lunch at a nearby lake.
Lourdes itself is a scenic little village. I 'll let you in on a little secret. It has its own nightclub. I may have coined the phrase that Lourdes is like Ibiza for priests but I 'll explain.
There is a tremendous amount of fun in there. The Irish contingent travelled with our own Karaoke machine and professional singer. In between the peace, prayers and meditation of Lourdes , the faithful make time for a singsong and a bit of a hooley.
The French haven't seen this craic since the Euros. I think some of the helpers may have needed a holiday when they got back.
And what do you take home from Lourdes apart from the holy water?
For me, it was a sense of dropping out of the hustle and bustle of life.
There's a stillness where you can pause to connect with your higher power, your spiritual guides or reflect on your own life.
Many have found great solace through challenging times. You may find a sense of renewal and positivity to give you strength in your normal life.
But the best parts are the friendships you take home. This is a very special group of people. Their thoughtfulness, joy and support are the greatest gifts I returned with. Few things in this world give you greater strength to keep going than knowing people will be there to pick you up if you need it.
To quote Blanche Dubois, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" but also to say that "Strangers are just friends we haven't met yet".
And what did my child take from the whole experience? Well let's just say that every morning I wake her by singing Ave Maria and every morning she smiles back at me when she hears it. In that instant, we both know we'll be back next year.