Lighting a candle for people who have asked us to pray for them is often done on the last day of our pilgrimage.
Decorating the candle with symbols of the groups and memories of the week is part and parcel of the week's work. Careful attention is made to ensure that everyone gets a little space on this symbol of the group that is left at the grotto.
Bringing home Lourdes water and lighting a candle on behalf of someone at home is a regular part of the The Trust Pilgrimage.
Friday and perhaps we begin to think of home for the first time in days. Friday is a relaxed day with a chance to do a little shopping (the Euro has made things so much easier) and a visit to the town of Lourdes itself. It is sometimes easy to forget that there is an another life around the
grotto: a regular town centre. McDonalds is a favourite place for lunch and often groups decide to leave their hotels mid-morning and spend the day in the town.
Fine weather also encourages groups to spend some time relaxing on the prairie opposite the grotto. Here many the 'All Ireland' has been revisited and the odd 'Munster Final' has ended in a draw. It is a hive of activity: groups spread all over the grass enjoying the view and still participating in the life of the Grotto through the sound of prayers and song that drift on the wind.
Lourdes is full of souvenir shops: that probably is an understatement. It is packed with shops laden down with memorabilia, some which are in keeping with the sense of Lourdes, some of which challenge the whole nature of the place. Water bottles, statues, candles, medals and videos, crafts from the mountains and trinkets that originated in China all battle for prominence on the shelves of these shops. One wonders who buys the stuff but shopkeepers hardly stock their premises with non-saleable goods.
Water bottles are bought to carry Lourdes water to Ireland. Petitions in envelopes make their way to the sanctuary. Medals are chosen, then bought and later blessed at the final group liturgy. Cards are posted, diaries are finished and packing begins.
What began as a relaxing day suddenly changes tempo. Bags have to be prepared, rooms put back in order, goodbyes exchanged with the hotel staff who have nearly become part of the group during the short few days.
After dinner a final visit to the grotto. The group candle has been prepared: decorated with symbols of the group, marked with prayers and intentions that the group wish to leave behind at the sanctuary. The march to the sanctuary with willing hands carrying the symbol of our prayers and hopes and on arrival often becomes hopeful pleading with the attendant worker at the grotto that he might let us light our candle there and then. A final visit to the grotto as we bid adieu to this holy place.
The return to the hotel should mean a restful night as we anticipate the homeward journey. But it's too early. Friday night is party night in Lourdes. Many groups come together to celebrate. We are all friends now. Sure we have known one another for a full week. Fancy dress is the order of the day: priests collars and doctors' stethoscopes are put to good use, bed linen and priests albs become the attire of wealthy oil sheiks. All encouraged to do their party piece, Karaoke and magic, Irish dancing and juggling, poems and jokes, three chords on a guitar, three hands in a reel.
And then there is the realisation that tomorrow does come and that for many it is a long way home. Some sleep is snatched before the fleet of buses roll back into town for the first leg of the homeward journey. Au revoirs encore to the staff, merci to the madame and off we go. Have we forgotten anything? Well we will all have left a little of ourselves behind but that empty space has been filled seventy seven times seventy-seven.