The purpose of this qualitative research was to explore whether pilgrims visiting Lourdes, France had transcendent experiences and to examine their nature.
For this purpose, the researchers traveled to Lourdes and spoke with 67 pilgrims including assisted pilgrims, young volunteers, and medical staff. About two in five 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.
The authors concluded that visiting Lourdes can have a powerful effect on a pilgrim and may include an “out of the ordinary” transcendent experience, involving a sense of relationship with the divine, or experiences of something otherworldly and intangible. There is a growing focus on Lourdes as a place with therapeutic benefits rather that cures: our analysis suggests that transcendent experiences can be central to this therapeutic effect. Such experiences can result in powerful emotional responses, which themselves may contribute to long term well-being. Our participants described a range of transcendent experiences, from the prosaic and mildly pleasant, to intense experiences that affected pilgrims’ lives. The place itself is crucially important, above all the Grotto, as a space where pilgrims perceive that the divine can break through into normal life, enabling closer connections with the divine, with nature and with the self.
Some people can have powerful effects when they expect something powerful. So what?
To make any sense out of this, we need a controlled experiment. I am glad to tell you that Austrian psychologists recently published a controlled study of this type. They tested the effects of tap water labeled as Lourdes water versus tap water labeled as tap water found that placebos in the context of religious beliefs and practices can change the experience of emotional salience and cognitive control which is accompanied by connectivity changes in the associated brain networks. They concluded that the findings of the present study allow us to draw preliminary conclusions about the placebo effect in the context of religious beliefs and practices. We found that this type of placebo can enhance emotional-somatic well-being, and can lead to changes in rsFC in cognitive control/emotional salience networks of the brain. Future research is warranted to replicate the results. Moreover, future research should investigate whether the observed effects generalize across different religious affiliations. The idea of “holy water” (or blessed water) is common in several religions, from Christianity, Islam, Buddhism to Sikhism.
Placebo can enhance emotional-somatic well-being. Expectation can play all sorts of tricks on us. This makes sense to me – much to the contrary to the ‘qualitative study’ suggesting that transcendental experiences can be central to this therapeutic effect experienced by believers in Lourdes.