Saint Bernadette of Lourdes
ABOUT three thousand years ago, a man stood, thrilled with religious awe, on the slopes of Mount Sinai 'in Arabia. He was a shepherd, feeding on those barren pastures the flocks of his father-in-law; his attention had been aroused, at a distance, by the unwanted sight of a fire in the desert scrub. And now that he had drawn nearer, he saw that this was not merely something beyond the ordinary, but something beyond nature itself; the bush before which he stood burned continually, but was not consumed.
At the same time a divine warning came to him that he must take off the shoes from Vis feet in sign of reverence. He did so, and when he had done so the divine voice came to him again; he was to bear a message to his brethren, the children of Israel, subject at that time to a barbarous captivity in Egypt. The God of their fathers, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, would deliver them out of their bondage; and when they had come out of Egypt, they were to do sacrifice to him on this mountain of Sinai. And, in token of the new covenant he was to make with his people, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob revealed himself by a new name: I AM WHO AM.
Rather less than eighty years ago, a little girl stood before the rock of Massabieille, in the township of Lourdes, on the slopes of the Pyrenees. No premonition of any divine event disturbed her thoughts; she was at play with her companions, and if she took off the shoes from her feet it was only to cross the stream that lay in their path. She heard a noise, like that of a strong wind; she turned, and saw that the trees in the valley were not bowed as a strong wind must bow them. She turned back towards the rock, and a rose-bush that grew in front of it. And now she saw the rosebush flamming with something mote bright, more pure, more beautiful than fire. She saw above it the figure of a Lady; what need to describe it in detail? Wherever Christendom reaches, the helpless aspirations of Christian artists have made that figure familiar to every human eye. The Lady said no word, but she made one sign, the sign of the cross; and the little girl, taking courage, said her rosary as if to defend her from harm. Then the Vision beckoned to her to come nearer; she drew back in alarm, and it vanished. She took off her other stocking, crossed the stream, and rejoined her companions, who had seen nothing. That was all; it was only in later visits that she realized what a grace had been bestowed upon her; that she, too, was to lead a world out of its captivity; draw it after her to worship God and celebrate the glories of His Mother on that mountain. It was only many days later that the gracious Lady revealed herself by name; lifted up her eyes to heaven and said: "I am the Immaculate Conception."
Moses was a shepherd, not by choice. A man of courts and palaces, he had been driven into exile, and served, in that exile, his apprenticeship among the flocks. It is curious how often God has chosen a shepherd when he has wanted to impart an inspiration that has revolutionized men's lives. Jacob was a shepherd, the founder of the Jewish race; David was a shepherd, the ancestor of its royal dynasty; Amos was a shepherd, the first of its sons to prophesy and to commit his prophecies to writing. And under the new dispensation it is not otherwise; the shepherds at Bethlehem were the first to hear from their cronies, the angels, of the divine-human birth, and you will find shepherd saints in every age of Christian piety—St. Genevieve, St. Paschal Bay Ion, St. Vincent de Paul and St. John Vianney. Curious, did we say? There is nothing curious about it when you come to think of it. For God Himself was content to be described by his ancient people as a Shepherd; "Hear, thou shepherd of Israel," "The Lord is my shepherd," "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd"; and when the Divine Word came to dwell among us, He chose for himself the title of the Good Shepherd, and handed it on to St. Peter, His favorite Apostle, when He committed to him the care of all the churches. He who would lead God's people must imitate the divine forethought, the divine patience, the divine gentleness which tends and pursues so lovingly the straying hearts of men. Shepherd to shepherd, God delegates to Moses his pastoral office.
ST. BERNADETTE, too, was a shepherd girl. Not that this was her business in her father's home; but when she went on a visit to friends of the family at Bartres, the year before her apparitions, she was given charge of a flock of sheep among which, characteristically, she made the tiniest lamb her favorite. So she, too, was apprenticed to the shepherd's trade; for she, too, was to be a leader of God's people. And the gracious Lady who appeared to her over the rose-bush, was not she the daughter of a shepherd, St. Joachim? And will not she, like Rachel before her, have fed her father's flocks? Shepherdess to shepherdess, our Lady delegates to St. Bernadette her pastoral office.
Moses led his people, and they followed him, where? To the same mountain in which he had first been privileged with the intimacy of almighty God. We were picturing just now, a solitary figure in the desert, alone with God, no other human creature in sight. Carry your mind forward a little space of time and you will see the same man closeted once more with the same Divine Audience; but, at the foot of the mountain, what is this? A vast army of Bedouin tents, the migration of a people. More than six hundred thousand souls worshipping God in the mountain He had chosen. With all that, the vision is still for Moses, and for Moses only. The people stand at the foot of the mountain, with limits appointed to them they must not transgress; Moses goes up into the mountain, and is hidden by a dark cloud from mortal view. The people see the play of lightning round the summit, but the Divine Voice is not for them; it is only through Moses that the Word comes to them. Yet that Word is sovereign; centuries go by, and the nation of Israel increases as the sand by the seashore, but still the memory of Sinai haunts them, and their dearest traditions are all prefaced with the same rubric, "Moses said."
Bernadette stood before the grotto on the eleventh of February with no other human creature near her, except two little girls, her companions, on the other side of the stream. When she knelt there on the fourth of March, just three weeks later, she was being watched by a crowd of twenty thousand pilgrims. Yet still the vision was only for her; for those others there was nothing but the grotto and the rose-bush, and the mountains beyond. They Could see the smile that lit up the face of the visionary, but that was all. But the memory of her smile still haunts the grotto, and all Christendom flocks there in its hundreds of thousands, to worship in the place where her feet stood. And still she haunts the place like a visible presence; when you offer your lighted candle, you half expect to hear her cry out: "You're burning me!" as she did when she woke from her ecstasy nearly eighty years ago.
When Moses came down from the mountain, his face shone, so that the children of Israel could not bear to look upon it. They saw there, as if reflected in a frail human mirror, the glory of Him Who had spoken with him on the mount. And Moses covered his face with a veil, lest even that reflected radiance should be profaned by human sight.
In May, 1866, the chapel which Bernadette's ecstasies had demanded was inaugurated at Lourdes. That July she took the veil with the Sisters of Charity of Nevers, and Lourdes was not to see her again. Did we think that she would wait there to tell us all her story, to touch our rosaries and sign our autograph books? No, the face which had looked into the face of the Immaculate must be veiled thenceforward; thenceforward we should not even see her smile.
Moses was sent to deliver his people from bondage, and from a bondage to which they had grown accustomed, so that they loved their fetters, and were constantly turning on him and asking why he could not leave them alone. That was his chief difficulty—they did not want to be set free. And even when they had been set free, and let out into the wilderness, they were always hankering after the luxuries they had enjoyed in Egypt, always murmuring against the rough fare of the desert. While Moses was up in the mountain, the people he had left behind him in the valley made a golden calf and fell to worshipping it, as they had worshipped in Egypt. All his life he preached to an incredulous race, condemned, for their hardness of heart, to forty years' wandering in the wilderness before they achieved their promised resting-place.
Bernadette was sent to a world in bondage, and to a world which rejoiced in its bondage. Those apparitions of hers took place in the very middle of the Victorian age, when mankind, or at any rate, the richer part of mankind, was enjoying material plenty to a degree, I suppose, unexampled before or since. And the presence of material plenty had given rise to a general spirit of materialism; a spirit which loves the good things of this life and is content with the good things of this life, does not know how to enlarge its horizons and think about eternity. She was sent to deliver us from that captivity of thought; to make us forget the idols of our prosperity, and learn afresh the meaning of suffering and the thirst for God. That is what Lourdes is for; that is what Lourdes is about— the miracles are only a by-product. You might have thought that in our day, when prosperity has waned and all of us, or nearly all of us, have to be content with less, we should have needed no longer these divine warnings from the rock of Massabieille. We know that it is not so; we know that in this wilderness of drifting uncertainties, our modern world, we still cling to the old standard of values, still celebrate, with what conviction we may the worship of the Golden Calf. The year of Bernadette's canonization finds us no less in need of public reparation for our common sinfulness than the year in which Bernadette took the veil.
DO NOT think me fanciful then if I suggest that we ought to see in Lourdes a sort of modern Sinai; and that we ought to treasure the words our Lady spoke in the grotto as we treasure the words God gave to Moses on the mount. Ten words of God to Moses which are enshrined now in the general conscience of humanity; ten words of our Lady to Bernadette, ruling principles (surely) for the Church to whose altars the little prophetess has been raised. Let us meditate them, very briefly, as they come.
At the third apparition, St. Bernadette took with her pen and ink and a sheet of paper, to write down the commands which she felt the strange Lady would want to express. And the first recorded utterance of the Immaculate bears on that point; "What I have to tell you I do not need to set down in writing. Will you have the kindness to come here for a whole fortnight?" When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, he brought with him two tables of stone, on which the Ten Commandments had been written, we know not how, by almighty God Himself. But the Christian law, St. Paul tells us, is not written on tables of stone, but on fleshly tables of the heart. It is not a code of directions exterior to ourselves, but a spirit with which we are to be imbued, an attitude which we are to assimilate. And Bernadette, accordingly, must not expect her decalogue to be registered in pen and ink. She must come to the grotto for a fortnight, as continuously as she may, and the message will write itself on her heart. And from us, too, our Lady of Lourdes asks no laborious exercise of the intellect, no feats of memory, if we are to learn her lesson. We are to watch Bernadette, and see our Lady's own image in her.
That was the first word, and the second word followed immediately, with an almost cruel abruptness: "I do not promise you that you will be happy in this world, but in the next." Moses, the servant of God, brought his people out into a land flowing with milk and honey—but he was not allowed to enter that promised land himself. And St. Bernadette was to open for us that miraculous spring from which healing has flowed into thousands of homes; the grotto in which she worshipped is hung about with a forest of crutches, the trophies of our Lady's clients; but St. Bernadette herself, what reward was given to her for all her faith and endurance? Thirteen short years of life in the cloister; years haunted with premonition, and crowned with the experience, of long and continued bodily suffering. We had so often been told, yet nothing really succeeded in making us believe, that it is eternity which matters, and times does not count. Bernadette should be a living proof of that doctrine; our Lady's favorite confidante, rewarded, not with health like us others, but with a short life and a long cross!
At the fifth apparition, during forty minutes of ecstasy our Lady taught St. Bernadette, word by word, a special prayer she was to use. That prayer she learned by heart, and used it every day for the rest of her life. What was it? we ask breathlessly. The answer is that we do not know, and shall never know till, by God's grace, we are allowed to use it in heaven. The message, I say it again, was for Bernadette, and for us only through her; we are not to go to Lourdes for this or that ceremony, this or that form of prayer; it is to be the shrine not of a ritual but of a life.
And the fourth word presses on to the heart of the mystery; it was during the sixth apparition that our Lady said suddenly, "Pray for sinners." That is not what we think of, is it, when people ask us what are the most characteristic impressions we carried away from the Lourdes pilgrimage. We think of those wasted forms in their invalid chairs grouped round the square in the afternoon, and the heartrending petitions that echo round them: Lord, grant that I may see, Lord, grant that I may hear, Lord, grant that I may walk. Or we think of the torchlight procession in the evening, and the singing of the Credo which concludes it; we remember Lourdes as the embodiment of a great act of faith. But when our Lady stood at the grotto, the first command she gave was not, Heal the sick; was not, Convert the unbeliever. Her command was, Pray for sinners. Man's sin, that is our real malady; man's impenitence, that is the crying problem.
The fifth word was unique, in that it was heard by the bystanders, not indeed from our Lady's lips, but from Bernadette's. As she knelt there in ecstasy, she repeated several times, sobbing, the one word, "Penance." They learned afterwards that she was repeating it after our Lady. This, then is our Lady's one public utterance; and, as I say, it is the message of Lourdes. We are to make there, in common, what reparation we can for our common faults. The true music of Lourdes is not the "Lord, he whom thou lovest is sick" that thunders across the square; not the Ave, Ave, that sweeps down the terraces. It is the Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo— the confession of our sins, and a desperate cry for pardon.
|... as she knelt there in ecstasy, she repeated several times,sobbing, the one word, "Penance." They learned afterwards that
she was repeating it after our Lady. This, then, is our Lady's
one public utterance . . . and it is the message of Lourdes . . .
the true music of Lourdes is not the "Lord, he whom thou lovest
is sick" that thunders across the square; not the Ave, Ave, that
sweeps down the terraces. It is the Parce, Domine, populo tuo—the confession of our sins, and a desperate cry for pardon.
The seventh word emphasizes the lesson of humiliation, and connects it with the lesson of penance. "You will kiss the ground, for sinners." Because all our worst sins take their origin in pride, the penance we are to offer—we moderns at least—must be prefaced by the mortification of reminding ourselves, what and whence we are. So, next Wednesday, we open our Lenten fast by having our foreheads smeared with ashes, while the priest says to us, as God said to Adam when he had sinned: "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." We must learn to grovel before we can learn to weep.
With the eighth and ninth words we come at last to practical, rubrical directions, which will serve to organize Bernadette's revelations as a cult. "Go and tell the priests to build me a chapel"; "I want people to come here in procession." Man is made of body and soul; body as well as soul must take part in his self-dedication to God. Material edifices, of wood and stone, outward gestures, pilgrimage and march and song, must be the complement and the expression of his inward attitude. So, when God issued to Moses His moral law, in all the grandeur of its austerity, He directed at the same time the building of a tabernacle, and the rites which were to be performed in and at the tabernacle; He would enlist material things in the service of a spiritual ideal. So, when our Lady preached to Bernadette her gospel of penance she externalized it and eternalized it by prescribing the outward ceremonies that should be its expression.
The tenth word is the best known of all: "I am the Immaculate Conception." Why (people have asked) did she say that, rather than "I am the immaculately conceived"? It is, perhaps, rash to venture on explanations. But when God appeared to Moses, He revealed Himself under the title I AM WHO AM; and theologians have read in those simple words the most profound truth about the divine Being —that there is no distinction of essence and existence, of attributes and personality, in Him; His goodness, His wisdom, His power. His justice, are nothing other than Himself. That cannot be said, obviously, of any creature. But, may we not suppose that the plenitude of grace which flowed in to the soul of our blessed Lady so overshadowed and transformed her human personality as to make her little suppliant forgetful of it; make her see, there in the grotto, no longer a human figure but the embodiment of a spiritual truth? That the thought of what she was and is was obscured, in that moment of revelation, by the thought of what God wrought and works in her?
"Today, if you hear His voice, harden not your hearts," was the message of Sinai. Moses struck the hard rock, and the waters gushed out; he could not wring tears, even so, from the hearts of a stubborn people. Surely, when she pointed to the miraculous spring at Lourdes our Lady was telling a whole world to weep for its sins. So many years have passed, and do we still come away from Lourdes dry-eyed?
Msgr. Knox was born in 1888, the son of the Anglican Bishop of Manchester. He became a convert to the Catholic Church in 1917 and subsequently served as chaplain to the Catholic students at Oxford University. He died in 1957.