No, not the holy site, but Emile Zola's Lourdes (1894), the first novel--or stop, as it were--in his The Three Cities trilogy about Pierre Froment, a Catholic priest in the unfortunate position of losing his faith. Pierre joins the pilgrimage to Lourdes in part to assist his beloved Marie, who has suffered from paralysis since a nasty fall from a horse several years previously, but also in part to regain his faith by completing his research on the life of Bernadette Soubirous. Unfortunately for Pierre, both his research and the supposed miracle that enables to Marie to walk again demolish his faith altogether--the former because he comes to view Bernadette's sufferings as, in large part, a waste; the latter because a doctor who believed that Marie's paralysis was psychological in origin managed to predict exactly how the "miracle" would go. A good chunk of the novel is devoted to Pierre relating Bernadette's biography to several other pilgrims, most of whom are enthralled. This narrative strategy seems closely indebted to J.-K. Huysmans' La-Bas (1891), the first novel in the Durtal tetralogy: Durtal, who is a doubter at the beginning, is writing a new biography of Gilles de Rais. Zola in fact flips the whole point of Huysmans' project around, since the Gilles de Rais narrative, loaded with horrors as it is, also represents the mystery of divine grace, and helps set Durtal down the path to his own conversion. (I assume that this is not news, but the secondary sources to which I have access don't discuss this connection.)
However, what also struck me about Lourdes is that the novel's "solution" to the problem of modern religious discourse is remarkably similar to that of my old friend Robert Elsmere's. In Robert Elsmere, the title character doesn't so much deliver conventional sermons or wander around proselytizing people as he simply tells them stories, both religious and secular. Oral storytelling rooted in sympathy transforms the audience's moral character, in stark contrast to the activity of Squire Wendover, a private reader isolated in his library. In Lourdes, Pierre initially sets out to read "one of those little works of propaganda issued from the Catholic printing presses and circulated in profusion throughout Christendom" (79); the book's obvious cheapness and material ugliness prefigures the kitschiness that Pierre will later encounter in the city. Moreover, although Pierre gets a few paragraphs into reading the pamphlet aloud, he soon gives up on account of "[t]he childish character of the narrative, its ready-made, empty phraseology," none of which speaks to the "tender affection and infinite pity" he feels (80). Out goes the pamphlet, then, and in comes Pierre's extemporaneous biographical narrative, based on his own research and, unlike the pamphlet, related in free indirect discourse. The implications are clear enough: Catholic didactic texts turn into the shoddy products of modern capitalism, their language as mass-produced as the knick-knacks littering Lourdes itself, whereas Pierre's researched but spontaneous story, rooted in affect instead of profit, makes his audience "captivated [...] by the touches of compassionate human feeling which Pierre introduced into his narrative" (88). The economy of such storytelling, as it were, is necessarily small-scale, since it relies so much on voice, presence, and the narrator's close relationship with his audience. It thus resists, once again, what the novel represents as the industrial-level production of religious sentiment at Lourdes. (It also implicitly resists the novel form itself--such storytelling cannot be mechanically produced for a mass readership.) At the same time, the FID complicates the story, as the reader often cannot tell what Pierre is thinking and what he is speaking--for example, presumably his critique of Bernadette's vision, which he identifies as essentially a collage of pre-existing Catholic miracle tales and images, is not relayed to his devout audience, but only revealed to the reader. This doubled narrative, which seems in some way to parody Catholic "reserve," is nevertheless part of the novel's own ambivalent attitude to Catholic faith, which it regards as outmoded but yet representative of humanity's desperate quest for "bliss for one and all" (489). Thus, Pierre does not believe in Marie's miracle, but he also does not think it right to deprive her of her belief in the miracle, either. Left hanging, he (like Robert Elsmere) can only imagine a "new religion" (488) must come into play to assuage humanity's need for the divine. Unlike Robert Elsmere, he ends the novel in this state of ambivalence, uncertain what the new religion might be, but equally unwilling to deprive the faithful of their comfort.