Recently I got rather a brusque message. It was from a guy I only really know via social media and was something like, “since when has the Catholic Church ever been a force for good?!” He gave no context but I assume it related to my recent trip to the Catholic mecca of Lourdes and how I found it remarkable and magic, and how I publicly shared these feelings and the experiences that caused them.
The message was a dick move but it did touch on something that might seem confusing, and that I have actually had conversations about with polite inquiring others. I do essentially agree that as an organisation the Catholic Church has not been a force for good. So then how could I go to Lourdes and love it? The explanation is quite simple and here I am going to share it. There are some unknowns and inconsistencies and it may seem bonkers but I do not care. My position doesn’t harm or encroach on the rights of others, and I will not defend it to fight-picking Messenger dudes nor anyone else. Besides ‘bonkers’ does not mean ‘wrong’.
Here’s the basic story. Lourdes is a small town located in the Pyrenees mountains in the Southwest of France. It’s where in 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared eighteen times to a devout Catholic fourteen-year-old called Bernadette Soubirous. The apparitions all happened in a cave on the outskirts of town.1
The cave is now called the Grotto of Massabielle. and it’s surrounded by the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. This is Catholic shrine and pilgrimage site with three splendid basilicas and a bunch of other intense, amazing stuff.2 It’s visited by around four million people a year and in 2023 one of those visitors was me.
The Grotto of Massabielle live stream
I did not go to Lourdes because I am a Catholic. I have never won’t ever be a Christian of any kind. But I do believe the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette. And I wanted to walk through the Grotto where it happened, touch the rock and feel the power and magic (which I did and it was everything).
So how? How did I vibe with Our Lady of Lourdes but not the Catholic monolith within which she sits? And what belief system supports this behaviour?
It has two parts. The first is my belief in meaning as context-specific. The second is my belief in the multiverse. I’ll deal with each in turn.
This is not generally contentious. Lots of people subscribe to it as a way of thinking about and being in the world. Variously labelled as post-structural, constructivist, situated, interpretivist, yada yada, the essential idea is the same. Context (physical, philosophical, social) influences meaning. The space within which something exists or happens helps to explain it.
The idea can be simply illustrated using possums. In Aotearoa these animals destroy the environment and are generally a pain in the arse. We mostly feel fine about culling them. In Australia though, where possums are native, they’re a beloved and important part of the ecosystem. Killing them is definitely not OK. Possums here signify something different to possums there, even though they’re the same animal doing the same things.
For me the situation with the Virgin Mary is identical. I don’t even actually consider ‘the Virgin Mary’ to be the true name of the entity that appeared in the Grotto (although I’m happy to use it). For me the handle is contextual, part of how the manifestations were/are understood because of the particular time, place and way they happened.3
Bernadette Soubirous was a devout Catholic from a Catholic family. She was baptized and believed in sin, grace, heaven, hell, purgatory, the resurrection of Christ, the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Conception and all the other dogmas and doctrines. Bernadette lived in a Catholic world and she experienced the encounters as part of this. Of course. Duh.
Catholicism was and is the context that gave and gives the Lourdes apparitions their Virgin Mary-meaning. This meaning is famous, entrenched and the main one, but it is not the only one. It can change when the context does.
One very different context to that of the Catholic Church is me. And in me is a very different definition of what happened in Lourdes and why and how. I’m going to share some of this in the post’s multiverse section. Just know that although I was in a Catholic hotbed, I was hanging with the Virgin Mary on my own terms. And if I’d gone to any one of the other 386 places where she’s appeared, it would be the same.
The Catholic Church thinks it has her all figured out. Whatever.
After I visited Lourdes I visited Loch Ness. I need to talk a bit about this because a) it reinforces the contextual-meaning thing; and b) it’s necessary for the upcoming multiverse bit. And yep, just as I went to Lourdes specifically to experience the Virgin, I went to Loch Ness specifically to experience the Monster.
In the same way Catholicism provides a way to understand the Marian apparitions, cryptozoology provides a way to understand the Loch Ness Monster. Cryptozoology is the search for and study of animals whose existence is disputed or unsubstantiated. On the banks of the loch is the Loch Ness Research Centre which does just this, exploring all aspects of the Monster. It’s not a novelty attraction but a legitimate facility and it’s serious and fascinating.4
I find cryptozoology a way less problematic context than Catholicism but again it’s not something I’m down with, at least in regard to the Loch Ness Monster. As with the Virgin Mary, my understanding of and relationship with the Monster comes from a whole other inner place. I also believe it’s real, and that some of the sightings are legitimate (definitely not all).
Like I said my belief system is made up of two parts – meaning as contextual, which we’ve covered, and recognition of the multiverse, which we’re going to get into now.
First I want to establish that the multiverse is a legitimate scientific proposition. It’s essentially the idea that the universe we live in is not the only one, that others exist in parallel to ours. It comes from quantum physics and there are a variety of theories about how and why these universes might exist. These are all fascinating although none can be proven (at least not right now). This doesn’t matter though. I believe in other universes and that is enough.
The next important bit is the notion of sightings, how the Virgin Mary and the Loch Ness Monster appear and then disappear and cannot objectively be found and are never there when you want them.
I think the reason the Virgin Mary and the Loch Ness Monster only occasionally crop up is because they live across the multiverse. They can travel between universes and sometimes drop into ours. And when they do, those that see them need a way to comprehend the visit, a context within which to understand the amazing, mind-blowing thing that’s going on. These are Catholicism and cryptozoology respectively.
And essentially that’s it. My belief system.5 How I believe in the Virgin Mary and not the Catholic story which surrounds her. That’s how I could visit Lourdes and feel fine about it. It’s pretty simple really.
The Virgin Mary and the Loch Ness Monster travelling through the multiverse.
1 Bernadette’s descriptions of the visits are vey lovely. Of the first she said saw a beautiful girl of about sixteen “…dressed in a white robe, girded at the waist with a blue ribbon. She wore upon her head a white veil which gave just a glimpse of hair. Her feet were bare but covered by the last folds of her robe and a yellow rose was upon each of them. She held on her right arm a rosary of white beads with a chain of gold shining like the two roses on her feet."
2 Not least the fountains of holy water which comes from a spring that miraculously appeared during Mary's nineth visit on 25 February 1858. I walked around Lourdes swigging it from my plastic drink bottle.
3 Similarly I do not believe the creature we call the Virgin Mary is the mother of the Christian god and so I do not worship her. Because of this I didn’t partake in any hard-core Catholic Lourdes activities; no mass, no Marian candle procession, no taking of the waters. It would not have been right (although they were incredible and moving to see and be near).
4 Things studied at the Loch Ness Research Centre include mythical Scottish water creatures (kelpies and selkies), sightings of the Monster (those that are fake and those that are mysterious), identity theories (plesiosaur, giant eel, branches, swimming elephant escaped from a circus), geographical features of the Loch (size, depth, water composition) and the technology of exploration (submersibles, radar).
5 There is more to my theory, intellectual nuances and emotional connections and who/what I think the Virgin and the Monster actually are. Right now I just can't be arsed going into it.