THE HOLY BATH: A Rite of Passage


It’s a very hot day but my time standing under the burning sun lasts only half an hour and then I’m into the shaded, seated area. Normally I really dislike waiting in a queue of any sort but there’s a blessedness here waiting in common with others. Waiting and silent. Present. Waiting to get into the holy bath of Lourdes. The feast day of Lourdes was last Monday, February 11th.

There’s one section for women and another for men. Sometimes my eyes are closed, sometimes I simply observe. This reminds me of the pool of Bethesda in John 5 – the paralysed waiting for the moment of healing. We’re all paralysed in one way or another, all in need of healing.

Dads with their little sons get priority over the rest of us, which is only right. They are a beautiful sight. A young father holds his paralysed son in his arms. The boy spends his time looking up into the face of his father. Their eyes meet, their faces touch and the child utters incomprehensible sounds as his Dad whispers words that seem soft and gentle. Maybe funny words because they both laugh.

After two hours waiting my time arrives to go into the building and I’m taken in behind a curtain where three men are sitting on brown plastic chairs wearing only boxers. I strip down to the same vulnerable state. That’s what I feel – that we are in a vulnerable state as we wait. Richard Rohr talks a lot about the need for rites of passage or initiation for Western men; the need to be confronted by our own vulnerability in order to mature. This bath experience offers something like that – for me at least. Though I know I have confronted my vulnerability many times, nakedness is somehow more threatening than any crisis I’ve endured.

One of the attendants takes me respectfully – as though I am a child or an old man – through the final curtain into the bath area.  I stand in cold water up to my ankles – like Ezekiel in the Temple stream. With eyes closed the only prayer in me is “Your will be done!” Making the sign of the Cross I say “I’m ready” while the two bath attendants bring me backwards down into the cold water until all but the tip of my face is submerged for the briefest moment.

They surge me back onto my feet. I feel like a dolphin or a whale breaking the surface.  The body dries of its own accord, one of the miracles of the bath in Lourdes. I shake hands with each of them and say “God bless!” Once more back through the curtain, I get fully dressed and walk out into the beautiful warm sunshine.