For many, the Grotto in Lourdes was focal to their transcendent experience, and was particularly associated with the Virgin Mary.

Visiting Lourdes results in a transcendent experience for two in five pilgrims, study finds

Two in five Pilgrims who visit Lourdes report having a transcendent experience, researchers have found.

The intense spiritual moment had a powerful impact on people, leading to strong emotions such as intense joy or tears. They struggled to define the experience, other than it being something significant and out of the ordinary.

Millions of people visit Lourdes each year. Researchers spoke with 67 pilgrims including assisted pilgrims, young volunteers and medical staff at the town in 2017. Of those who reported a transcendent experience: some felt they had communicated or had close contact with a divine presence, while others reported a “powerful experience of something intangible and otherworldly”.

People said they had communicated with the Virgin Mary and God, and had felt peaceful, physically close to the divine, and had had a sense of direct and responsive communication.

Most participants did not describe long term alterations to their lives or their illnesses as a result of transcendent experiences, but it gave them a strong sense of affirmation in their faith. The participants described a range of transcendent experiences, from the prosaic and mildly pleasant, to intense experiences that affected pilgrims’ lives.

The research, by Emmylou Rahtz, Sara L. Warber, Sarah Goldingay and Paul Dieppe from the University of Exeter, is published in the Journal of Religion and Health. The academics classed a transcendent experience as an intense spiritual moment, outside the normal range of daily experiences, and involving a sense of closeness or a communicative relationship with the divine.

Most participants were part of three large English-speaking pilgrimage groups. They were aged from 15 to 87: half were aged under 25 and a fifth were 75 or older. More than two-thirds of participants were female.

For many, the Grotto in Lourdes was focal to their transcendent experience, and was particularly associated with the Virgin Mary.

One 24-year-old man, said: “What I found at the Grotto was pure silence… I can’t say for sure that I can feel Mary, but I feel that someone, and that probably is Mary, is there with us… it’s so still and it’s so peaceful… someone is watching and someone is saying it’s going to be all right… the Grotto is the most special part – especially at night-time… with the stillness then that’s when... you know they are watching over us.”

One participant felt that he had heard the Virgin Mary speak to him in a very literal sense. Sean, 84, who had converted to Catholicism late in life, said: “I looked up at Our Lady and I said, can you tell me please what you want me to do? And, now, people scoffed at this. There was a voice in my ear, ‘why don’t you come and see me in Lourdes?’ And, I think that was the one real experience I’ve had.”

Two people had transcendent experiences in which the sun provided key evidence that something significant had taken place. A young doctor interpreted the sudden appearance of the sun as a powerful communication, a confirmation of his beliefs:

One 35-year-old female said: “So usually it is raining when I go to the baths, but even though it was raining, on that particular day, I felt as if the sun was coming out for me, with a bright big smile, so I have been wanting to share this, it was one of the happiest days of my life. The heavens were ecstatic because I was doing the right thing. Never mind the cold and the rain outside, I think the sun was shining down. A huge experience [laughs].”

Date: 20 October 2021

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