THE HEALING WATERS OF LOURDES
From the muddy grotto of the Massabielle near the River Gave, where silt had gathered for centuries, a special Lady from well before that in time appeared to announce the healing grace for all time. Her apparition triggered a phenomenon similar to another of her appearances in the New World in 1531. The Mother of God has that kind of pull with her Divine Son.
"Little did he [Bernadette's father] know that rather than bringing shame the Soubirous name would be immortalized in the halls of Heaven for his daughter would not only go on to become a saint whose body remains incorrupt today, but the apparitions that were given to her would make Lourdes one of the most famous Marian Shrines in the world where millions would come to attend Mass and pray...and yes, be healed physically and spiritually."
Four years after Pope Pius IX proclaimed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as dogma for the Universal Catholic Church, the Blessed Mother of God confirmed this teaching to a poor peasant girl - Saint Bernadette Soubirous that this is the privilege and the singular grace that the Holy Trinity bestowed upon the Blessed Virgin Mary to preserve her from original sin by infusing into Our Lady's soul Sanctifying Grace from the very moment of her conception in Saint Anne's womb.
Lourdes was the site Our Lady chose to verify the teaching of the Immaculate Conception as well as provide the healing waters of Lourdes near the rock cave of Massabielle where Mary first appeared on February 11, 1858.
It was a time of sorrow and poverty for the people of that region of France. Particularly hard hit was the tiny village of Lourdes, with a population of approximately 4,000 people. Among these inhabitants were the Soubirous family. Francois and his wife Louise knew the meaning of poverty, in a manner we today cannot imagine. Their oldest child was a daughter, Bernadette, born on January 7, 1844. Francois was a miller by trade, but not a particularly clever businessman. He was extremely generous with his spending, which far exceeded his income. To pay for his debts he was forced to plead with the local authorities to allow his family a mall room in an old prison that they could occupy. A place, perhaps, much like the impoverished cave where our Blessed Savior Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem.
This cramped quarter where the Soubirous family lived was a narrow, cramped, foul-smelling room which no one else in the village would approach, much less live in. But Francois moved his family in, and with stout hearts they made the best of what they had. They did not complain, they merely went on together as family with the little they had. But further humiliation was theirs, for Francois' own cousin owned this former prison called Le Cachot (the Dungeon), and the entire village of Lourdes knew Francois was bankrupt when he begged to live there. Bernadette was never a healthy child. She suffered dreadfully from asthma, and overall her health had been delicate since she'd suffered from cholera at the age of ten.
On the morning of February 11, 1858, Bernadette, accompanied by her younger sister Toinette and her cousin Jeanne Abadie left Le Cachot, their errand to gather firewood to warm the damp, cold room and to cook the meager food their mother managed to scrape together. The weather was foul...cold, damp, penetrating to the very bone. Bernadette lagged behind for she was not as strong, as robust as her sister or cousin. Finally Bernadette reached the area called Massabielle just beyond the city limits. Here there was a large rock grotto formed from centuries of water erosion. It stood at the bottom of a mountain. Toniette and Jeanne had already stripped off their shoes and stockings to wade across a shallow portion of the canal to collect driftwood. But Bernadette hesitated, looking at the icy water. She felt ill, and called out to Jeanne to come and carry her across the stream. Both girls laughed at her request. Resigned that they weren't going to help her, Bernadette sat down to remove her shoes and stockings.
It was then that Bernadette heard the sound of the wind. Startled, she looked up, expecting see the nearby poplars blowing. But they were still motionless. Unsure, she looked back again toward the grotto. Now she could see that the niche in the grotto was lighted; a light like the sun's reflection glowing off water on a brilliant day. But it was a cloud day, a miserable day. As she stared, Bernadette could see a woman standing in the midst of this glowing light. The Lady was smiling at Bernadette and she wore white with a blue sash around her dress. Instantly Bernadette reached for the Rosary beads she had in her pocket, intending to make the Sign of the Cross with them. Yet movement was impossible. It was as if she was frozen! It was the smiling Lady who, instead, made the Sign of the Cross with the Rosary she held in her hand. Only then was Bernadette able to do the same. Later, when questioned, the visionary would say: "As soon as I had made the Sign of the Cross, the great fear that had seized me vanished. I knelt down and I said my Rosary in the presence of the beautiful Lady." When the Rosary was finished the Lady motioned Bernadette to come closer. But Bernadette, a shy girl, was still too timid. The Lady, amidst the sunburst of light, vanished at that moment. Everything around Bernadette returned to normal. She became aware of her sister and cousin gathering driftwood, and immediately bounded across the stream, her socks only half off. To her astonishment, the water seemed warm, not icy. All the while Bernadette kept glancing back to the grotto, while the other girls cavorted playfully around the woodpiles they had gathered.
This made Bernadette uncomfortable. Should shuch frivolties be going on here where something wonderful had just happened? She asked Toinette and Jeanne if they'd seen anything. They hadn't, but they had noticed Bernadette kneeling and so asked her what she had seen. A trepidatious Bernadette replied she'd seen nothing and quickly changed the subject. But the urge to share got the best of her and on the way back to Lourdes, Bernadette confided to her younger sister about the beautiful Lady in white with the Rosary. Toinette scoffed at first, but seeing the serious look on her older sister's face, promised not to talk about it. Yet they'd hardly entered the doorway of the damp home at Le Cachot when Toinette began to spew forth the tale of Bernadette's story to their mother. Tired, worn out and weary, Louise spanked both girls, and Francois spoke harshly to Bernadette, warning her not to bring any more shame to the Soubirous name.
Little did he know that rather than bringing shame the Soubirous name would be immortalized in the halls of Heaven for his daughter would not only go on to become a saint whose body remains incorrupt today, but the apparitions that were given to her would make Lourdes one of the most famous Marian Shrines in the world where millions would come to attend Mass and pray...and yes, be healed physically and spiritually.
Following Our Lady's first apparition on Friday, February 11, 1858 to Bernadette Soubirous, the young French girl felt herself pulled back to the grotto the next day. Her mother had warned her not to go, and so she fought the pull, not wanting to be disobedient. Thus Saturday found Bernadette in the confessional telling the local parish priest of what she'd seen at the grotto. The priest was impressed with her account, and asked if he might tell Abbe Peyramale, the pastor of Lourdes. Bernadette gave him permission to do so.
Since Toinette and Jeanne had been spreading the story, by Sunday a group of young girls concocted a plan to draw Bernadette back to the grotto. As the girls drew closer to the grotto, all felt an exceitement welling up inside them. This time Bernadette moved faster, more agily than all the rest, even the youngest of the girls. All she could think about was the Lady whose smile filled her with such peace. They knelt, these girls, to say the Rosary. During the second decade Bernadette exclaimed to them: "There she is!" One of the girls with Bernadette handed her a bottle of holy water. Bernadette kept sprinkling the holy water. Bernadette kept sprinkling the holy water in the direction of the beautiful lady, whose smile only grew more beautiful, more entrancing with each motion. By now the others with Bernadette noticed that their friend was in a definite trance-like state. They made noise, they tried to get her attention, even to cause a minor rock slide in the vicinity of the grotto. Nothing would make Bernadette bludge. This frightened the girls who ran for help. Then went to get Nicolau, the man who operated the nearby mill. It took all of Nicolau's strength to lift this slip of a child, and while carrying her back to the mill at Savy he placed his hands over her eyes, trying to get her to bend her head. But she would only raise her head again and reopen her eyes with a smile. To say the least, Bernadette's mother was angry.
The following Monday was even worse. School presented plenty of opportunity for humiliation of little Bernadette. Forced to recount the incidents at the grotto, or at the very least to acknowledge that what the others were saying was true, one of the sisters slapped her and shouted that if she returned to that place, she'd be locked up. But on Thursday, February 18th things began looking up a bit for Bernadette. Two women came to the Soubirous door. Madame Milhet, a wealthy woman, and her seamstress Antoinette Peyret. They announced they would accompany Bernadette back to the grotto after morning Mass. Once on her way, Bernadette again sped along as if nothing impeded her. It took the ladies much longer to pick their way carefully to the grotto. There they found Bernadette already on her knees in prayer. "There she is!" Bernadette told them. The women say nothing, but could not help but notice Bernadette's eyes were riveted upon the niche in the grotto. These women were well-intentioned. They had planned to have Bernadette have the lovely Lady write down her name on a piece of paper they'd provided, along with a pen they had brought. Dutifully, Bernadette extended these earthly instruments to Our Lady, who seemed to come closer, although nothing appeared on the paper.
"It is not necessary," came the Heavenly reply, which to Bernadette's ears was soft and musical, without any earthly description.
Then the Lady made a request of her own. "Would you have the graciousness to come here for fifteen days?" she asked of Bernadette who instantly agreed, filled with peace, love and warmth. The lovely Lady went on: "I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next." Even though the two women had nothing concretely written on the paper, they had noticed the startling changes in Bernadette and began to wonder if it truly was the Virgin Mary who appeared in the grotto.
On the following Friday, Saturday and Sunday Bernadette saw Our Lady in the niche of the grotto, but these were silent apparitions. But it was sufficient for Bernadette. For from these apparitions she received such peace. On Sunday, February 21st, Bernadette, without any warning, was literally collared by the Police Commissioner Jacomet. Like a criminal, a rag-doll, she was hauled across the street to the commissioner's house for interrogation. Over and over she was questioned by well-educated men. Yet Bernadette remained cool, unflustered and related the significant details to them. Bernadette did not name the Lady as the Virgin Mary, even though many in the village of Lourdes were saying so. She referred to her simply as "Aquero" which means "That One." Finally, Jacomet released her, only to have Bernadette return home to receive severe threats from Francois, her father.
TOMORROW: Part Two on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.
February 10, 2004
vol 15, no. 41
The Sanity of Sanctity