For years I’d wanted to work as a volunteer in Lourdes. I’d wanted to go there with an open heart and mind and to immerse myself in being a servant of Our Lady. I had even travelled to Lourdes with a pilgrimage group in order to explore the possibility and to see if I would still feel the urge to go afterward. I thought about it for years, but once I’d made the firm decision to go and the date had been set, almost a year would pass before my actual departure. During that time, even as I was planning, preparing, and anxiously waiting, I reminded myself that once my journey finally began, it would also be coming very close to its end. And so, I savored the anticipation and enjoyed the preparations as part of the experience. That journey has ended now, but I’m still trying to sort through all that it meant to me: what I experienced, what I learned, and how I grew. It was an intense time and it seemed like every beat of it was filled with some kind of energy: joy, inspiration, realization, and awe, but also frustration, fear, uncertainty, and pain. There’s a lot to unpack.
I’ll begin my account by saying that any trials I encountered while traveling to, being in, or traveling from Lourdes, were not exactly without invitation. I did not specifically ask for trials, and I was a bit apprehensive about them, but I had offered this time to Our Blessed Mother as a gift, and I did know that it could, and probably would, entail trials.
Just before leaving Phoenix for Lourdes, I was volunteering at the Gift of Mary Shelter, which is operated by the Missionaries of Charity. I was cleaning restrooms with a nun there named Sister Gemma. She asked me if I had any expectations of my visit to Lourdes. I told her that I didn’t and I mentioned that I’d given the time to Our Lady as a gift to use as she saw fit. Sister Gemma looked up from her mopping. “Oh, now, you’ve got to be careful about doing that,” she warned; “she’ll hold you to it.” Sister Gemma’s words would replay in my mind frequently during the days that followed.
PLANES, TRAINS, BUSES, and AUTOMOBILES
When I recall the trials and tribulations of this experience, I must say that I hit the ground running. The first one materialized within minutes of my arrival at the airport to leave for Lourdes. Fortunately, Father Bob, my pastor and employer, had strongly suggested that I arrive three hours early. “You never know what will happen,” he said. Father Bob frequently flies internationally so I took his advice and I’m glad I did.
My son Ben dropped me off at the curb in front of the United Airlines check in. I waived good-bye to him and then I went into the airport to find a kiosk. I had checked in the day before, but I needed to print my boarding pass and to check my bag. That didn’t happen. Instead, when I tried to retrieve the pass, I got a notice advising me that it could not be printed because I needed the assistance of an agent. I was confused. I was doing what the computer screen had instructed me to do the day before. I went to the service counter and an agent explained to me that my reservation had been changed. She told me that because of the weather in Chicago, I would never make my scheduled connection with a Lufthansa flight to Munich, Germany. As a matter of fact, she said that I was no longer even flying on United Airlines. She said I’d been rescheduled onto a Delta Airlines flight, which would take me through Detroit to Amsterdam before depositing me in Toulouse, France, my final flight destination. As I was now scheduled, I would arrive in Toulouse a day later than I had planned, the day after I was expected in Lourdes. That seemed like a pretty significant change to make without consulting me, but I don’t know the airlines’ rules. The agent also said that I would need to take a shuttle bus to another terminal and check in with Delta for my flight.
Relieved that I’d arrived at the airport so early, I hauled my heavy suitcase, my carry-on bag, and my purse back out to the curb and waited for the terminal shuttle. I was exercising supreme patience, for me, anyway. I saw this as Our Lady’s first action, and I hoped she was pleased with how graciously I was accepting her wishes.
At Terminal 3, I waited in line for a Delta agent. When I approached the counter, I showed her my new reservation and explained the situation to her. She frowned, shook her head, and promptly informed me that Delta could not honor the reservation. She said they were having their own problems and that someone should have checked with them before making the changes. She seemed flustered as she apologized and told me that I would need to return to United Airlines, because I was their problem.
Feeling a bit like a tennis ball in play, I lugged my baggage back to the curb and waited for the shuttle to Terminal 4. When I got to the terminal, I waited in line for over a half hour, since other passengers needing to be rescheduled had arrived in my absence. Once I got to the counter, I stood there for about an hour before finally being booked to fly from Phoenix to Los Angeles and to connect there with a Lufthansa flight. The agent apologized for the long wait. She told me my entire reservation had to be rebooked, which required the intervention of the people upstairs. This multiple rescheduling would haunt me repeatedly during my trip.
Flying through Los Angeles was actually a much better option than the Detroit one had been. Instead of putting me in Toulouse a day late, it allowed me to arrive only a half hour later than originally scheduled. But LAX? That airport is crazy big! “Do I have to change terminals?” I asked the agent. She handed me all of my boarding passes and my baggage claim ticket and assured me that I did not. As it turned out, that wasn’t true. When I landed in Los Angeles, I asked the first agent I saw for directions to my gate. He gave me directions to the shuttle bus stand, where I could catch a bus to the international terminal, which was at the opposite end of the airport.
There were actually two buildings serving the international airlines and I didn’t know which one served Lufthansa. I asked a taxi driver parked at the curb if he could tell me and he pointed to the left. I was a little wary of his instructions, but just inside the entrance of the building to which he pointed, I saw a guard. I asked him if I was in the right place. “Let me see your boarding pass,” he said. I handed it to him, and after he looked at it he said, “You’re in the right place for Lufthansa, but you won’t get anywhere with this boarding pass; it says United Airlines on it.”
“I know,” I told him. “United booked the flight, but it’s on Lufthansa Airlines.” He walked over to a kiosk and printed another pass that said Lufthansa on it. “This will get you through security,” he said. I thanked him kindly and made my way there.
When I got to security, I handed the inspector my new boarding pass. She looked at it, and then at me, and said, “This isn’t any good for boarding. Is this all you’ve got?”
Now I was really confused. “I have this,” I said, and I handed her the original United Airlines boarding pass.
“This will work,” she told me, and she waived me on. Sensing Our Lady’s hand again, I mentally patted myself on the back for graciously accepting a second trial. I thought perhaps I’d passed the test now and I could get on with my adventure.