LOURDES AND THE WORLD OF SECOND EMPIRE FRANCE
(Conference III: March 22nd, 2019)
“Then the Creator of all things commanded and said to me: and He that made me rested in my tabernacle. And He said to me: Let thy dwelling be in Jacob, and thy inheritance in Israel, and take root in My elect. From the beginning and before the world, was I created, and unto the world to come shall not cease to be: and in Thy holy dwelling place I have ministered before Him. And so I was established in Sion, and in the holy city likewise I rested: and my power was in Jerusalem. And I took root in an honorable people, and in the portion of my God His inheritance: and my abode is in the full assembly of saints.”
In the Old Testament Books of Wisdom, we find Wisdom itself personified. Christian belief sees in this personification a prophecy of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, the God Incarnate, we behold Divine Wisdom Itself in the flesh of a human nature. Since Mary provided Christ with His material human nature, and since that human nature was utterly without stain of sin according to the unique dispensation of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, Mary too is associated with this mysterious personification of Wisdom. Mother Church in her Liturgy therefore appropriates a passage such as this from the Book of Ecclesiasticus [also known as the Book of Sirach] to Mary as she exists eternally in the mind of God.
Virgin and Mother, her womb is the Tabernacle of the God-made-Man Jesus Christ. As the Mother of God she has brought forth Christ into the world, and so Mary has indeed taken “root in an honorable people” and her “abode is in the full assembly of saints.”
In her exultation there is a transcendent character to Mary’s living person which cannot be confined to the limits of her historic self during the time she lived on this earth. Mary’s soul “doth magnify the Lord” indeed and this cannot help but mean that the Lord “doth magnify” Mary in His turn.
We need to keep this in mind as we consider Bernadette’s description of Our Lady there in the Grotto at Lourdes. Let us hear it again, from February 11th, 1858: “I saw a girl in white, not taller than I am, who greeted me with a slight bow of her head...I saw the girl smiling at me very graciously and seeming to invite me to come nearer...The girl was lively, very young, and surrounded with light...”
The images of Our Lady of Lourdes with which we are familiar, such as the ones we see here in our Grotto and the painting atop the reredos of our high altar, show an adult Lady. This “classic” image of Our Lady of Lourdes derives from the statue which was commissioned for the Grotto at Massabielle in 1864. It was done by the Lyonnais sculptor Joseph Fabisch. It is a beautiful religious statue. It conforms well to the conventional expression of academic art in Second Empire France. It does not, however, conform to Bernadette’s description, and, in fact, Bernadette was angered by this statue. The Lady was too big and too old, she objected. This was not at all what she had seen.
And here we have a clash between devout people’s conventional expectations of a heavenly vision and what a chosen soul who is a mystic or a visionary might actually see. The Lourdes Commission set-up by the local bishop to investigate the claims of a supernatural event glossed over this discrepancy. Based on the work of the Commission the Bishop eventually pronounced Bernadette’s visions to be “worthy of belief”, but did not pronounce on how Bernadette described Mary.
It is, however, a question which should intrigue us. Ruth Harris, in her book Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age, draws out the ways in which such a description of the Virgin Mary as the little girl in white had a place in the folkloric, enchanted world-view of the people of the Pyrenees mountains and in the tradition of miniature pilgrimage statues of Mary (some of miraculous origin) found in several of the local shrines. All of this would not be readily understandable to the world outside, whether Catholic or “Free-thinker”, in the heyday of Louis Napoleon’s France. Moreover there was at this same time among some educated French people a burst of sentimentalized prettification of the people of the Pyrenees , as the charming “others”, the “Indians of France” to use one characterization then in vogue.
“Here – in the midst of this time of such rapid change in the world, of industrialization, of social dislocation, of the creation of an urban proletariat of workers, here – in the Pyrenees Mountains (such people thought) was this romantic unchanging world of custom, distinctive colorful dress, ancient particular languages, a people and a place pure, untouched by the ennui of the contemporary age. Here (to use a term from our own day) was authenticity”.
Needless to say, this charming literary construct born out of a Romantic Age did not square with the actual reality of the people of the Pyrenees. It strikes us as the kind of thing you get in tourist-marketing. But it had its appeal. And its superimposition on the events of Lourdes by some talented writers had its effect on the way the Lourdes-story was filtered for a wider Catholic audience in France.
One example of this is the way in which Bernadette was made to pose for the stylized publicity pictures in extravagant regional costume of the Pyrenees or in stereotypical traditional peasant dress, although she did not own such clothes and had not worn them during the Apparitions. As Ruth Harris writes, Bernadette “hidden more and more from public view, educated and protected, was increasingly packaged for pious popular consumption. However, it seems that she, almost alone, remained detached from the process; when presented with photographs [of her] and told they would sell for ten centimes, she replied that it was more than she was worth.” (Harris, pg. 150)
But we might also look for a point of comparison to Bernadette’s description of Our Lady with that of St. Teresa of Avila, the great Spanish mystic of the 16th Century and a Doctor of the Church. Here is how St. Teresa describes her vision of Mary in her Autobiography. She saw the Virgin as “muy niña”, a child of no more than seven years: “The beauty I saw in Our Lady was very great...dressed in white, in a very splendid light...Our Lady seemed to me like a very young child.” (Harris, pg. 77)
Therefore, how Bernadette saw Our Lady in the Grotto is not merely a “folkloric” accommodation. It can be understood in a completely orthodox religious sense, for as the Lord magnifies Mary’s soul in its glorified state He does not confine her to what were once her creaturely limits. When Heaven bids Mary to appear on earth with a message, she may appear to a person or to people in a variety of ways. Just think of the Miraculous Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the tilma of Juan Diego.
And Mary can also leave her “mark”, as it were, on the chosen soul who has seen her. So it appears to have been the case with Bernadette Soubrious in the years following the Apparitions, although we cannot expect to get them from the stylized publicity photos to which she was forced to submit. The Jesuit priest Fr. Leonard Cros, who was commissioned to write an official history of the Lourdes Apparitions, said this of Bernadette after an encounter with her in October, 1865. (Bernadette was then 21.): “I do not think it would be possible to meet a thirteen-year-old with a younger -looking face than she has at twenty-one. It is impossible not to feel the supernatural charm of her youth. [Bernadette] herself is an apparition.” (Harris, pg. 148)
The Comte de Broussard was, by his own description, a debauched atheist. He was in Lourdes in July 1858, the month of the last of the Eighteen Apparitions. He decided to talk to Bernadette in order to torment her, purely “to catch the little one in a blatant lie.” He asked her to show him how the “belle dame” smiled.
“Oh, monsieur, you’d have to be from heaven to imitate that smile.” – “Can’t you do it for me? I’m a non-believer, and don’t hold with apparitions.” The child’s countenance darkened, and her expression became severe. “Then, sir, you think I am a liar?” I was completely disarmed. No, Bernadette was not a liar, and I was on the point of going down on my knees to ask for her forgiveness. “Since you are a sinner,” she went on, “I will show you the Virgin’s smile.” Since then...I have lost my wife and my two daughters, but it seems to me that I am far from being alone in the world. I live with the Virgin’s smile.” (Harris, pg. 157)