Growing up, I was never more than a short walk away from a bottle of holy water. There were stray glass bottles on bedside tables and in drawers, but my favourite was the Mary-shaped bottle by the kitchen sink. I can easily recall the way dust sat in the crevices of her white plastic robes, and the scalloped blue crown atop her head that formed the stopper. My family never seemed to buy holy water – it was just there, a side-effect of Catholicism. I don’t even have any strong memories of using the stuff: just hazy snippets of sneakily tasting a drop on my finger, and later, brandishing it around like I was Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
At the start of March, the sanctuary at Lourdes announced that its healing pools would be closed to the public “until further notice” to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Any teenage atheist worth their South Park box set would rejoice at the news: how can a miracle pool that has allegedly healed 70 people in 158 years be put out of action by something so small as a pandemic? I’ll admit, the news made me think “Ha!”, if not laugh out loud. But more than that, it made me reflect on the miracles I believed in as a child, and the different miracles I believe in now.
My middle name is Bernadette, so as a kid I was obsessed with watching a cartoon entitled Bernadette: Princess of Lourdes. When I googled it recently I gasped with fond nostalgia at the video’s cover, delighted by its description of the film as “the exciting true story of a visit by the Queen of Heaven”.
Just in case you weren’t subject to the squash and biscuits of Sunday school as a child, a quick recap: Saint Bernadette of Lourdes was a young French girl who saw apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto; after these visions, the mud at the site turned to clear water. Bernadette encouraged her local priest to build a chapel on the site, and ever since, pilgrims have travelled to Lourdes to bathe in the miraculous water, which some believe has healing properties.
Many of my extended family have travelled to Lourdes to volunteer in helping the sick. It’s undoubtedly a noble thing to do, but I’ve had arguments about it. I can’t shake the sense that it is cruel to take an unwell child to a place they believe might cure them, even if it has been explained to them that miracles are rare. I’m told this isn’t the case, and most don’t go expecting a cure – it’s simply an act of faith and a fun trip. Yet I continue to have doubts, because when I was a child I really, truly believed in miracles – a heady combination of My First Prayers and Harry Potter meant I was always waiting for magic to appear in my life.
I have no idea why my brain has decided to hold on to this memory indefinitely, but I recall being a young child and waking up one morning to see a small, unrecognisable red shape in the corner of my room. I’ve always had pretty bad myopia, so I couldn’t make out what the object was. My imagination ran wild. Was it a fairy? A sign sent by an ageing wizard? Some kind of magic, at last? No, it was a Kinder Egg toy that I’d opened and forgotten about.
Perhaps this tiny, insignificant incident remains in my long-term memory because I was ultimately disappointed when I put on my glasses and realised that magic had forsaken me once again. But I was raised on miracles, and maintained a belief in them throughout adolescence. How could I not, when my own grandmother had told me so many stories of being rescued in Poland, Siberia and India during the Second World War – narrowly escaping kidnappers, soldiers and malaria?
In fact, I believed so fervently in miracles that I did something that is exceedingly difficult to admit. I want to say my teacher made me do it, or that it was part of an RE project, but I don’t think it was. OK: I once emailed Richard Dawkins to tell him about my grandmother’s miracles. I did it as, I think, a kind of “gotcha”. Unfortunately – or perhaps I mean very, very fortunately – I can no longer find a copy of the email.
Nowadays, I don’t believe in the kind of miracles that are associated with small Mary-shaped bits of plastic or religious figures or healing sites. I don’t believe in many miracles beyond the kind that claim “this moisturiser that changed my life”.
Except, deep down, I do. By definition, a miracle is something that is unexplainable – it doesn’t necessarily have to be divine. Every day there are medical miracles, of course, and most of us have experienced the personal miracle of a well-timed job offer or finding a fiver in an old coat pocket. Existing, breathing, talking, emailing Richard Dawkins – all are miracles in themselves.
The last time a miracle at Lourdes was officially recognised was in 2018. Sister Bernadette Moriau, a nun from Beauvais in northern France who had suffered from neurological problems, felt an unusual sensation of calm and warmth after visiting Lourdes in 2008. She heard an inner voice telling her to get rid of her medical corset and foot splint – she did so and was well again. After a decade of medical examinations, Sister Bernadette’s healing was declared a miracle by the Lourdes medical committee – it could not be explained by doctors.
Coronavirus, on the other hand, very much can. While the closure of the pools might be an English teacher’s dream example of irony, one can hardly begrudge the Church for putting hygiene above holy water. It’s not a good look for the concept of miracles, but I still believe in the power of the impossible and the inexplicable – without it, life would be far less interesting. In another decade, medical advancements may explain Sister Bernadette’s recovery or a thrilling long read in the New Yorker will reveal a complex clerical fraud. But for now, I will enjoy the mystery – and I might wait a while before putting my glasses on in the morning, searching for magic in the corner of my eye.
This article appears in the 11 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down