Every year, more than three million candles are burnt in front of the grotto. Candles of different sizes are to be found to the left of the drinking fountains. The profits of their sale go mainly towards the upkeep of the shrine. So great is the number of candles bought during the season that it is impossible to burn them all at the same time. Consequently, pilgrims are asked to hold their candles while they are praying, and then hand them to the staff in charge of the burners (to the right of the grotto, near the bath-houses). Some of the candles will be kept in a special store and then lit again during the winter months, thus prolonging the pilgrims' prayers well after they have gone.
This cave is made up of three irregular apertures - the largest one is 5 metres high, 7 metres wide and 8 metres deep. On the roof of the vault is a plume of ivy. A white carrara marble statue representing Our Lady of Lourdes was blessed and placed in this spot on 4 April 1864. The statue is the gift of two sisters from Lyon, the Misses Lacour - sisters of the speaker in the French Senate. It is the work of the Lyonnaise sculptor Joseph-Hugues Fabisch who sculpted the statue according to Bernadette's suggestion. On the pedestal are engraved the words spoken by Mary in local dialect, "Que Soy era Immaculada Councepciou" which means "I am the Immaculate Conception." These are the words the Madonna said to Bernadette during the sixteenth apparition on 25 March 1858.
At the time of the apparitions the floor of the grotto was covered with a mixture of earth, sand and gravel left behind by the River Gave during flooding. Scattered arond were dead branches, pieces of wood and the bones of animals that had been dumped there by flood tides. In front of the entrance to the grotto runs a canal bringing water down from the Savy mill and the adjacent sawmill. The canal runs into the River Gave further down. The grotto was used as a natural shelter by the fishermen and hunters of the area during bad weather. Since the apparitions, the grotto has been cleaned and restored on several occassions. In 1955 its interior was lowered by more than a metre and grey marble slabs were used to pave it. An altar for the celebration of masses and other religious cereemonies were placed in the centre. Masses are celebrated daily at the plain stone altar at the grotto. Behind the altar one can find the box where people place their prayer petitions.
Inside the grotto, to the right, the rosebush planted in the rock is a reminder of the "sign" required by Father Peyramale who said, "And have Her make the rosebush in the grotto blossom." At the back of the grotto, to the left of the altar (see picture above), you can see the flowing spring that Bernadette discovered on 25 February 1858 during the ninth apparition. It is covered by an illuminated glass pane. This spring water, in order to be made available to everyone, is now channelled towards the taps and the baths. The work was carried out in February 1949 by Father Joseph Mailhet, a renowned hydro-geologist.
In front of the grotto a large open square covering a surface area of 27 square metres has been built for the pilgrims to provide space for them to reflect quietly or to attend religious ceremonies. To obtain the space needed for the square, the River Gave de Pau had to be diverted twice. The Gave was diverted by about 30 metres with a strong protective embankment being built and the canal that Bernadette crossed was rerouted upstream. Two paving stones mark the original location of the Savy Mill canal and the place where Bernadette stood when Our Lady appeared to her for the first time. Despite the various changes, the grotto has maintained its original, simple and austere appearance.
The silent, private joy of personal prayer that Bernadette experienced during the first apparitions is today shared by millions of believers who come to pray at the grotto. Massabielle Grotto is a place for silent contemplation. Just as Bernadette used to meet Our Lady at this Grotto of Apparitions, pilgrims today come face to face with her statue - placed on the exact spot where She habitually appeared to Bernadette.
"I want people to come here," said Our Lady. Here, the first masses of the day follow one another in all languages in the quiet contemplation of the morning. Here, Pope John Paul II prayed in silence for a long time from the moment of his arrival in Lourdes in 1983. Here, before the rock. we remember Bernadette's "young lady", the Immaculate Virgin who came smiling as She appeared to the poor girl from the Cachot. It is thus God who reaches out to us, the poor beings that we are. How good it is to pray here! And it was here that my French story began. I vow to devote the rest of my life to improve on my French after I have completed my PhD thesis. To me, French is the most beautiful language in the world. Why French? Because it makes me feel close to the Grotto of Massabielle and hence close to Our Lady. Each time I take out a French book to read, my mind drifts to the Grotto of Massabielle - to the exact spot where Our Lady appeared to Bernadette and I couldn't help feeling that I am already there - at the Grotto of Massabielle with Our Lady.