TRYING OUT PILGRIMAGE
As a child I was known to be accident-prone. At the age of 12, I ventured onto a bus depot's roof to collect fallen conkers. Walking along the apex of the roof as if on a tightrope, I momentarily lost concentration. Desperately trying to recover my footing I stumbled down the corrugated iron panels towards the gutter, but my balance had gone. I awoke on the tarmac surface 20 feet below. Landing head first, I had suffered a fractured skull, two broken wrists and a broken ankle. Perhaps this had been my warning from God.
On August 13, 1983, at the age of 14, it all went horribly wrong once again. This time I was climbing a large tree with my cousin. I scaled some 50 feet before deciding not to go any farther; the branches did not look safe. At this point the branch I was standing on began to creak. With a loud crack the support under me disappeared. As I fell backwards and downwards, I experienced a feeling of terrifying disbelief.
Within a second I had turned upside down. This time I expected to die. Five minutes later I became conscious. As my vision slowly cleared I felt sickening relief: how had I got away with it? But it wasn't long before reality kicked in. I may have got away with my life, but I had broken my back and severed the spinal cord. I was paralysed.
Today, nearly 17 years on, I have built a career in broadcasting. Working as a video editor for Channel 4 News can take me around the world at a moment's notice. As yet, my problems have not compromised any story getting on air.
I recently took a holiday with my friend and colleague, William. Neither of us held any religious values but, not inclined to close our minds to any possibility without first-hand experience, we decided to travel to places of healing. Doctors can't help, surgeons can't help, but maybe a place of healing is not such a bad idea, we reasoned. We were sure to encounter the bizarre and extraordinary, and would film everything.
Our first stop was San Sebastian de Garabandal, the village of apparitions high in the north-eastern mountains of Spain. In 1961 four young girls from the village claimed they had seen an angel. The claim was discarded by the villagers as a silly prank, but when the girls were seen to drop to their knees in a trance on jagged rocks, without injury, people began to believe.
Over the next four years the village was flooded with pilgrims coming to see the girls in ecstasy. Sometimes they would be seen to levitate as they received a message from the Virgin Mary. One such message said that on a date known only to one of the girls, a miracle would occur in Garabandal and all those present who were sick would be cured. That day is still to come.
Our first challenge in Garabandal was to climb a cluster of pine trees up the mountain from the village. This is where most of the apparitions had occurred. The path to The Pines looked impassable for a wheelchair. It was laid with sharp rocks and boulders and horrendously steep. It took all our combined effort to move the chair a couple of feet. Villagers coming down from The Pines after prayers told us it was impossible, asking if we wanted help to get back down. But we battled on. It took us two hours to get to the top, a distance that could be covered on foot in 15 minutes.
Once there, immersed in low cloud, we took shelter under The Pines, where the atmosphere was mystical. We could almost feel a presence similar to that in a church, though much more charged. It wasn't long before we were joined by a group of American pilgrims who asked us to take part in a healing Mass the following morning: the subject of the Mass would be me.
This made me apprehensive: these people did not appear to be either con artists or wacko. I tried to convince myself that it could work. For me though, seeing is believing--how could I benefit from their healing if I was not sure I believed in God?
The next day we met at the church where I was introduced to a former Catholic priest, now the Rev Manuel Villarreal. A warm and welcoming man, he told me I would benefit from the healing: all I needed was a tiny bit of faith. I guess if I did not have that I would not have been there. He began to rub his hands over me, saying prayers and chanting: `Come to this man. Jesus. Heal his bones, Jesus. Heal his spine, Jesus.' His followers stood with their hands in the air as if absorbing divine energy.
After a few minutes he began to pull me to the edge of the wheelchair. I was desperately trying not to be sceptical and to give him that little bit of faith. Perched on the edge of the chair I felt the muscles in my legs begin to tighten. I had been anticipating muscle spasms from the moment he began to move me. This was not unusual and I had in the past used the spasms to stand up. Three of them supported me as Mr Villarreal pulled me to my feet, but I could not help thinking I was standing only because of the muscle spasms.
Mr Villarreal's followers cried: `Hallelujah'. It seemed I was the only sceptic in the church. I think everyone thought they were witnessing another miracle. I decided I had to have faith, so let go my grip of Mr Villarreal. I expected to crash to the floor but felt remarkably safe.
Soon afterwards, my legs gave up and the wheelchair was brought forward. It was a hugely emotional experience. Uncharacteristically, I was overcome with an urge to hug the reverend. He told me that I would feel the healing powers of Jesus work on my body overnight and I should see him again tomorrow. I did not feel any such powers overnight, but the next day as Mr Villarreal was giving mass, a woman sitting at the front of the church flopped to her side and down onto the stone floor.
She lay motionless, and no one went to help her. Mr Villarreal then walked forward, his flock got to their feet. One by one he placed his hands on their foreheads; one by one they too collapsed to the floor. Then he put his hand on my head. I did not feel any desire to black out. I closed my eyes and tried desperately to fight my scepticism. Maybe I was trying too hard for I felt nothing either spiritually or physically.
Our next destination was Lourdes. With upwards of five million visitors a year, Lourdes was a very different place to Garabandal. Commercial, it has countless shops selling empty plastic bottles in which to take home the precious water.
However, as people began to gather at the grotto where Bernadette Soubirous first saw the Virgin Mary in 1858, we could feel the magic we had felt at Garabandal. As the evening procession began, the banks of the river glowed with hand-held lanterns. At the front of the processions were the sick: most were in wheelchairs, but many lay on gurneys with pillows and blankets. I felt selfish to be looking for healing among so many desperately sick people.
Afterwards the wheelchairs lined up in rows, and behind and above them the faithful stood with their glowing lanterns on huge outdoor balconies. I was filming from a vantage point but, spotted by a steward, I was ushered towards the wheelchairs.
What had been silence broke as the faithful began to sing Ave Maria, and prayers were said for the sick. I wanted to capture the experience on film but I did not feel comfortable pointing a camera at people who were praying for my healing. I had never felt such genuine goodwill from strangers, thousands simultaneously directing their prayers towards me. I kept the camera rolling but held it in one position. I wanted to absorb the experience: my primary reason for being here was healing, not television.
On our last day in Lourdes we set off for the baths, where we were taken behind a curtain and instructed to remove our clothing. I sat on a wooden stretcher supported between two chairs, before being carried to the water. The bath was 10 feet long and 3 feet wide, sunk into the stone floor. I was immersed up to my chest. The four men who had carried the stretcher then began to pray and slop the icy water over me, while a figure of the Virgin Mary looked over us. By now my little bit of faith had been considerably amplified.
Will said he had never seen me look so vibrant as I did after the baths. Lourdes was a hugely uplifting experience, and I was on a wonderful high for six weeks. Sadly, living in London and working in the cynical television industry, those feelings have gone.
But I understand now why people travel to these places. It is not necessarily in search of a physical miracle: it is to recharge their batteries and give themselves the strength to continue their lives.
© Andrew Slorance, UK
The Times, 20th April 2000