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After a cancer diagnosis on my birthday, Lourdes offered one gift after another

Janet Russell and her daughter, Michelle, pose in front of the Grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes, where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous. (OSV News photo/courtesy Janet Russell)

By Janet Russell

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 this past 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 — not much older than Bernadette and Jeanne at the time of the Blessed Mother’s appearance — 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.

My lung had to be drained due to complications from my lymphoma, something I cannot imagine confronting while on pilgrimage in France. Instead, 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 thought of making a pilgrimage with just one friend now seems preposterous after being attended to by the Order of Malta. I sometimes forget I am a sick woman and even the simplest tasks require extra effort, even more so when traveling. The members of the order 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 holy water flowed gently from the spring in the cave — the very spring that the Blessed Mother asked St. Bernadette to drink from.

Touching the damp rocks, I was awed by the wondrous event that happened here. We placed our petitions in a box by the grotto, along with the hundreds collected by the Order of Malta in Los Angeles on the World Day of the Sick Mass. I was so moved by the experience that I returned to the grotto again and again during the pilgrimage.

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.

Following my confession, I visited the adoration chapel. I lit a candle for my prayer intentions and prayed through the Stations of the Cross that were made of beautifully sculpted marble. Later, I located the outdoor life-size bronze Stations of the Cross by climbing the steep hill in the rain, careful not to slip on the way down. It was a journey of passion and reflection.

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 grew up in La Cañada Flintridge, attending St Bede’s Church. She now lives in North County San Diego and is a mother of three.

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