On Pilgrimage to Lourdes

It has become the fashion among the wise and the clever, and most everyone else these days itching to be trendier than thou, to dismiss all the miracle stories of the New Testament on the grounds that such fantasy food is fit only for fools and simpletons. A German scholar by the name of Rudolf Bultmann, for instance, having left a very long paper trail in defense of Demythologization, actually thought it had something to do with the use of the electric light bulb. Evidently Edison’s invention caused modern man to turn off all the lights of heaven.

I must not have seen that memo. And so anytime some addle-headed exegete tells me that the reason Jesus parlayed five barley loaves and two fish into a meal sufficient to feed five thousand was because good people dug deep down into their tunics to pull out enough tuna to cover the crowd—I’m not buying it.

Nor am I disposed to doubt miracle stories told outside the pages of Holy Writ. Why should some twit with a terminal degree, who can’t think outside the box, prevent God from basically blowing up the box? In other words, I am wholly on board with Bleeding Hosts, Saint Sightings, Visions of the Holy Virgin—just so long as Mother Church passes favorably upon their veracity.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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All of which brings me around to the subject of a pilgrimage I recently made.  Because in travelling to this utterly remote grotto tucked thousands of miles away in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, it never crossed my mind that Mary, the Mother of God, had not actually appeared there to an illiterate fourteen year old by the name of Bernadette Soubirous living amid atrocious poverty in a jerkwater town now famously known as Lourdes.

Who on seeing the Beautiful Lady promptly reports the fact to all who will listen, most particularly to her pastor, who sensibly insists that she tell him her name. After all, if he’s expected to build a chapel in her honor—or so Bernadette is given to understand—the least she can do is to let those in charge know who’s authorizing the construction. “Go to the priests,” she had asked Bernadette (and always, in making her requests, she is the soul of courtesy), “and tell them that people should come here in procession and that a chapel be built here.”

And so, summoning her courage, young Bernadette puts the question to the mysterious woman dressed in white, with the deep blue eyes and the ever-radiant smile. Who exactly are you? And at once the answer is given that will absolutely establish the authenticity of all that Bernadette claims to have seen. “Que soy era Immaculado Conceptiou.”

How so? Because here is a name Bernadette could not possibly have conjured on her own. Not only had the girl never heard the name before, but by her own admission it entirely escaped her capacity to understand even after it was revealed to her. True enough, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception had been announced four years before, in 1854, by Pius IX, and so it was now officially an Article of Catholic Faith to which all the faithful were expected to give their assent. But it seems Bernadette’s pastor was the only one in town who had taken the trouble to read it; after which, well, the poor fellow simply failed to pass on the news to the people in the pew.

Why does it matter? If the Church managed to get along quite swimmingly without bothering to canonize a doctrine everyone more or less believed in from the beginning, why make a fuss about it nineteen hundred years later? Why stir things up? Surely even the simplest of souls must know that if God is to become one of us, it is only logical that his Mother be endowed with a purity commensurate to his own. And, yes, that is true. But because God having foreseen the terrible ravages to come as a result of the loss of innocence among us, he deemed it necessary to inspire his Vicar publicly to pronounce on the matter. And to do so in the very accent of Jesus Christ himself. Then, four years later, God decides to dramatize the point by sending she who is younger than sin (G. Bernanos), to show the world the true face of innocence lest it lose sight entirely of the beauty and importance of the virtue.

And if, after all, to see God in the flesh, and not then to die, crucially depends on the purity of one’s heart, who possesses the greater claim to it than Our Blessed Lady, who from the first moment of her existence was spared the least complicity with sin? “The serpent,” as St. John Damascas tells us, “never had access to this paradise.” Steeped in the purity of sanctifying grace, her life bears a likeness to God so perfect that even the blessed in heaven shine with less luster than she who is Queen of All the Angels and Saints.  Indeed, St. Anselm tells us that by virtue of an innocence inscribed in her being from the very start, “the Creator himself has been blessed by creation!”

In The Dilemma of Narcissus, which is a profound study of the self-centered self, written by the French philosopher Louis Lavelle—which holds out as well the very real possibility of escape from its coils—he describes purity as “a living transparency,” that reveals “its strength and efficacy by passing through all uncleanness in the world without receiving any taint, but rather leaving in its midst its own radiance….” The state of one who is pure, he says, “is an act of presence to oneself and to the world.”

Could there be a more apt description of Our Lady of Lourdes? Or of that Marian comprehension we must all hope to acquire of hunger and thirst for God, and so of virginal readiness to receive all that he wishes to give us? How else are we expected to move unmolested through the world if not armed with the shield of holy purity?

So what else did Our Lady say to Bernadette in the course of eighteen apparitions between February 17 and July 16 of 1858? And why, for heaven sakes, does she say it to someone who can neither read nor write? Was there no one else in town to whom she might entrust her message? And why Lourdes? How much simpler it all might have been had Our Lady only appeared to someone smart and stylish! Living, moreover, in a nearby affluent suburb with all the amenities we moderns have grown so accustomed to. Such a lot of bother we’d all have been spared just trying to get there!

When it comes to the content of Mary’s message, there is not much that is really new. And why would there be? She is not the source of Revelation. And, in any case, the deposit on all that business closed with the death of the last apostle. But there are certainly all the necessary notes to be sounded: “Penance, penance, penance. Pray to God for the conversion of sinners.” But this is hardly a new tune with which to string the Marian lyre. The call to repentance and conversion of heart has gotten a lot of traction down through the centuries; it is, after all, a staple of the Gospel message itself.  What is instructive, I think, is that Our Lady seldom speaks at all; usually she emits only a smile for the enraptured Bernadette amid the companionable silence they both share. But it is a smile of such irradiating incandescence that the young girl can think of nothing with which to compare it. Of the eighteen showings, there are only seven during which she chooses to speak. And of these the most striking is her request that Bernadette unearth a space a few feet away from where Our Lady appears in order to permit a stream of water to spring forth. More than a century and a half later, that stream continues to produce its customary flow, at a rate of about fourteen hundred gallons per hour, which is more than enough for the sick, millions of whom have come to be cured from all over the world, to bathe in.

Little Bernadette would never return to Lourdes following the spectacle of God’s Mother choosing to show herself exclusively to her. Disappearing into a nunnery, the world will not see her again; until, that is, her death in 1879, at age thirty-five, when, by God’s grace, she becomes one of the Incorruptibles. It is then, of course, in the blessed repose of death, that she achieves a sort of triumph, for her face becomes more beautiful than it had ever been in life. As if something of the countenance of Our Lady’s own loveliness had been miraculously impressed upon the features of her own.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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