The Blessed Virgin in the nineteenth century. Lourdes part 1.


WHEN the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed at Rome in 1854 there was, with the exception of Italy, no country of the world so enthusiastic in its rejoicing" as Catholic France. It is true France had been devoted to the doctrine since the days when Duns Scotus argued in its favour seven centuries before at the Sorbonne. Was an answer to this to be seen on Heaven's part when, four years after Rome had promulgated the great dogma, she of whose incomparable privilege it was question said at the Lourdes Grotto : " I am the Immaculate Conception " ? This is heaven's secret. In any case, the affirmation by the celestial visitant at Massabiello remains Heaven's sign-manual of the Lourdes Apparitions. Before enter ing into the particulars of the Lourdes drama of heavenly plan and performance, we will say a few words about the little human figure in the fore ground. We allude to that exquisite child-saint Bernadette Soubirous.

Bernadette was a sweet-faced, dark-eyed little girl of fourteen, very small for her age. She had but recently returned to her home, having for some time previously been in the service of her foster-parents at Dartres as shepherdess.

It was a poor home she went back to, her father, a miller by calling, being hardly able to earn bread for his six children, of whom she was the eldest. She was, moreover, weakly, and had been so from her birth. The mother of the family, Louise Soubirous, was an honest, hard-working woman. We find Bernadette so backward in everything, that at fourteen she looked a mere child and hardly knew her letters.

At the time when she went back to her parents the whole family were living in a single room in a street known as the Rue des Petits Fosses, Francois Soubirous having had to give up his mill some time before through want of means. We have recently had an opportunity of seeing this room, visited as it is by pilgrims during the Lourdes season. It now forms part of a respectable dwelling-house and serves as a priest's kitchen. At the time of which we write, nearly half-a-century ago, bread was sometimes wanting within it, and firing also.

Firewood was in reality wanting there on February 4th, 1858, a date ever memorable in Lourdes annals. It was a Thursday. Accordingly, after the mid-day meal, Bernadette and her sister Marie and a little girl, Jeanne Abbadie, sallied forth with the object of picking up sticks. Their wanderings led them to the spot known as the Roches de Massabieille. Rocks of Massabiello, what memories and what history cling around the name ! Beside it, Lourdes with its mediaeval past, its Chateau fort, and its position as key to the Pyrenees, becomes at once insignificant. But prior to the events with which we have to do, no one had given the spot a second thought.

The three little girls whose steps we are following found themselves by it as if by accident. Be tween them and the rocks there was a narrow canal supplied by the Gave, the water of which was very low just then, owing to repairs going on at a neighbouring mill. Marie Soubirous and Jeanne Abbadie took off their wooden shoes and prepared to walk across. They found the water cold, and said so when they were on the other side. Bernadette, delicate, subject to asthma, and moreover wearing stockings, thought twice before crossing. She even asked Jeanne Abbadie to come back and carry her over on her back. Having received a curt refusal to this request, she sat down preliminarily to baring her feet. The other two were already picking up sticks on the other side. The air was cold and the sky grey ; but there was no wind. Busy with her feet and looking down, Bernadette suddenly heard the sound as of a strong wind. She thought at once that a storm was coming on, and looked in the direction of the sound. Everything was still, including the trees on the banks of the Gave. She had begun busying herself with her feet as before, when she again heard the same sound. This time she was frightened and stood up. Then, looking straight before her and up at an opening in the rock having somewhat the form of a niche, she noticed that a trailing wild-rose bush growing out of it was in motion. Everything else was still. In another moment she saw the aperture illumined by a bright light. Then, in the midst of the light, she saw a human form. How describe this form? Literary and plastic art refuse to do so. Bernadette's simple language in telling what she saw is the best description. She says that the figure was that of a woman—a lady, to use her own words—young and more beautiful than anyone she had ever seen ; that it was clad in white from head to foot and girded with a blue sash or scarf, the ends of which fell in front to the bottom of the dress. She tells us, too,that on each bare foot, which the folds of the dress just allowed to be seen, there was a yellow rose as of shining gold. A white veil falling over the shoulders to below the waist and a rosary, formed of white beads and a gold chain, hanging from the right arm, completed the portrait of the Lourdes Apparition.

Bernadette was at first frightened as well as fascinated and astonished. Alluding to what she saw, she says : " She looked at me and smiled as if she had been my mother, and then signed to me to go nearer to her." The child instinctively fell on her knees and drew forth her rosary, and was about to begin saying the prayers attached to it, when she found she could not make the sign of the cross. Each time she attempted to do so her arm fell as powerless. It was not until the radiant figure in the rock, who now held her rosary in her hands, had made the sign of the cross, and one of large dimensions, that little Bernadette was able to do the same. As the latter recited the Ave Maria on each bead, the Apparition smiled approval and seemed to be listening while her own rosary beads glided through her fingers. But at each Gloria Patri she bent her head, and seemed to be saying in union with Bernadette the prayer in honour of the Trinity. At the end of the five decades she disappeared, the aureole in which she stood dis appearing afterwards. The little kneeling form below was left alone with the realities of the grey work-a-day world around.

By this time the other two little girls had returned from wandering by the rocks. Seeing Bernadette kneeling with her rosary in her hands, they twitted her with being too pious, and told her to come over and join them. She accordingly, and this time effectually, proceeded to take off her shoes and stockings. She then waded through the water, but without feeling the coldness which she had so dreaded just before. When on the other side, she began helping the others to do up their bundles of wood. This done, the three set off homeward.

On the way Bernadette was silent and musing. Before reaching home, however, she had given her companions some idea of what had taken place at the Grotto, cautioning them at the same time to keep the matter secret.

That evening, when saying her prayers, she burst into tears. The mother was then told what had happened. Attributing what she heard rather to the effect of imagination than to anything else, the good woman ended by forbidding Bernadette to go near the Roches Massabieille again ; but the child longed to go there again, and inwardly nursed the wish to do so.

When Sunday came, the longing becoming more intense and, as it were, irresistible, she ended by getting her mother's permission to go there once more. Her sister Marie and Jeanne Abbadie were her companions as before. When the three had left the house they were quickly joined by others.

On reaching Massabiello, Bernadette became the centre figure of about a dozen little girls arrayed on each side of her and forming a semi-circle. One had come provided with a bottle of holy water, in case of a satanic element having to be contended with, and a formula had been agreed upon which Bernadette was to utter in the event of the Apparition's appearing.

The favoured child was on her knees, rosary in hand, and looking up at the niche, then dark, but which had been illumined for her, as we know, on the previous Thursday. " She is there! She is there!" she joyfully exclaimed after a few moments.

The bottle of water was handed to her with a sign that she was to use its contents. She obeyed, throwing before her into the air a few drops, and saying the first part of the formula agreed upon : 4 'If you are of God, come." The second part: " If you are of the devil, go "—died away even in her thoughts in presence of what she saw. The Apparition smiled approval, and seemed to come to the edge of the rock.

" She is pleased and smiling at us all," said Bernadette.

The other girls fell on their knees. They, too, began saying the Rosary. The voyante was soon wrapt from the world around. Her attitude bespoke adoration ; her countenance became illumined by an expression of superhuman joy.

The girls on each side were deeply impressed by what they saw. Some began to weep. "Oh, if Bernadette should die ! " said one. Afterwards they compared her, as she then appeared to them, to adoring angels seen on altars.

By this time others had collected on the spot. One was a woman, Nicolau by name, who went back to fetch her son from the neighbouring mill. The young man came on the scene with a somewhat ironical expression of countenance. But when he saw the little kneeling- figure looking up, not only did all irony vanish from his face, but a look of wonder and respect took its place. Thirty years afterwards, alluding to this moment to M. Estrade, author of the Apparitions of Lourdes, he said : "I had never been so impressed by anything in my life. It was of no use reasoning with myself. I felt that I was not worthy even to touch the child before me." He did touch her, however. Urged to do so, he took her by the arms and raised her gently to her feet. Then, with him on one side and his mother on the other, Bernadette was led to the mill of Savy close by.

The little girl was at first treated strictly by her parents concerning the visions at the Grotto. It was not that these thought their child capable of deceiving them ; but they believed her to be herself deceived. Moreover, they had a horror of publicity and of becoming a town talk.

On the following Wednesday Bernadette summoned up courage to ask her mother to let her go to the rock of Massabiello. The mother's reply was a smart refusal.

On this two visitors dropped in. One was Antoinette Peyret, a member of the Congregation of the Children of Mary of Lourdes, and the other a neighbour, Madame Millet. They pleaded with the mother for Bernadette ; they even offered to go with the little girl to the Grotto.

" You, too, wish to see my child a laughing stock," was Louise Soubirous' reply.

Mme. Millet deprecated and remonstrated, and the two visitors were about to leave when the mother, in tears, gave way. " I am almost beside myself with this affair," she said. " I will trust her with you, only see that no harm comes to her."

The next morning, before it was light, Mme. Millet, Antoinette Peyret and Bernadette were on the way to Massabiello. The two women, while admitting the probability of the supernatural character of Bernadette's experiences at the Grotto, were at the same time of opinion that the luminous figure in the rock was as likely to belong to the purgatorial realms as to Heaven. To satisfy their doubts on this subject, they requested Bernadette to ask the Apparition who she was, and to ask her, moreover, to commit her answer to writing. The two, with this object in view, and with, in the matter, the naiveté of children or the knowledge of modern spiritualists, according as the reader likes, had come provided with pen, ink, and paper.

Bernadette was the first on the spot by some minutes. When the other two arrived they found heron her knees, saying her Rosary and looking up at the rock. They, too, knelt down and began saying the Rosary.

A few moments afterwards Bernadette exclaimed, " She is coming ! There she is ! " Her small frail body quivered with delight. She bent her forehead to the ground. As she looked up the other two looked up, following her gaze. All they could see was the wild rose bush growing out of the opening in the rock. Their only glimpse of Heaven was what they saw on Bernadette's face. Yet Bernadette that day gave no outward sign of ecstasy. As she continued saying the Rosary in concert with the others, her face at intervals became irradiated by smiles that no human words could describe.

At the end of the five decades, Antoinette Peyret, still possessed by the idea that the Apparition might be that of a departed spirit, approached Bernadette, and said : " Ask her if she has anything to say to us, and, if so, to write it down." With this she handed her the pen, ink, and paper.

The little girl, taking what was offered, drew a few paces nearer the rock. Knowing, rather than seeing, that the other two were following her, she, by a backward movement, signed to them to stay where they were. Then she was seen to stand on tiptoe and to hold up the writing material with both hands, and in all to try to approach as near as possible to the niche-like opening in the rock. Immediately afterwards her attitude told that she was listening to words proceeding from this same niche-like opening. Then, with a reverential movement of the body, which for grace could be likened to no human act of the kind, she went back to her former place. In going back she did not take her eyes from the Apparition, whose glance, she noticed, seemed to rest tenderly on the younger of her two companions, Antoinette Peyret. " She is looking at you," she said to Antoinette, when describing what had just taken place. The knowledge of this smile remained with Antoinette Peyret to her latest hour.

Bernadette was then asked what the Apparition had said when presented with ink and paper. The child's reply was: "She smiled and said, 'What I have to say to you does not need to be written,' adding a moment afterwards, ' I wish you to come here for fifteen consecutive days.''

"What did you say?" asked Bernadette's interrogators.

" I said that I would go."

Why," asked Mme. Millet, "did you make a sign to us to go back when we were following you just now ? "

"Because the Lady told me to do so," said Bernadette, who always called the Apparition the Dame.

"Ask her," continued Mme. Millet, "if she approves of our being here."

Bernadette raised her eyes interrogatively for a moment to the opening in the rock, and then said :

"Yes, she approves of your being here. She says that you and others may come. She wishes to see a great many people here."

Bernadette's attention was again turned wholly to the celestial visitant in the rock, while her rosary beads glided through her fingers and a beauty, not of earth, was being reflected on her features.

When the Apparition had disappeared, together with its surrounding light, the child was questioned as to whether she had not listened to other communications from above.

"Yes," she answered, half joyfully and half sadly; " she said: 'I promise to make you happy, not in this world, but in the next.' '

When Bernadette was taken back to her parents that morning, Madame Millet said to the mother : " You are fortunate in having such a child."

The parents, as we have seen, were not at all sure that they were fortunate in the sense alluded to. While thoroughly believing in their child's truthfulness, they had remained sceptical as to the reality of her visions. But now, after listening to her latest account, they felt their doubts consider ably lessen, and were consequently afraid to take upon themselves the responsibility of refusing to allow her to go to the Grotto on the fifteen days as requested by the Apparition.

The next morning at dawn a party of three set out from the Soubirous' house. These were Bernadette, her mother, and her mother's sister, after whom the child had been named. Their movements having been watched, other persons, urged by curiosity, set out in the same direction.

All met at the Roches Massabieille. There Bernadette knelt down at her usual place, and looking up at the opening in the rock made the sign of the cross and began saying the Rosary. Almost at once the smiles that began irradiating her face, and her forward-bent attitude, told that she was already wrapt from this nether world. Lookers-on under stood that the Apparition was there.

Neither the mother nor the mother's sister was prepared for what they saw. The two women thrilled and trembled at the superhuman beauty of the child in ecstasy before them. Then the mother exclaimed : " O God, don't take her from me ! "

The vision lasted about half an hour. When it was over and Bernadette had come back to herself, she went affectionately up to her mother and aunt, and was folded by turns in the arms of each.

When questioned on the way home concerning the Apparition, she replied that the " Lady "had said that she would have things to tell her later on.

The scene at the Grotto the following morning was, as far as Bernadette was concerned, much the same as on the preceding day, but the spectators were more numerous. In fact they were already to be counted by hundreds.

When questioned on her way home, the child said the Apparition had taught her word by word a prayer intended for herself alone.

On the following day, Sunday, thousands were before her at Massabiello, awaiting her arrival. Thus it was evident that the phenomena at the Grotto were no secret to the people of Lourdes. More than this, the news of what went on there daily had already sped to Tarbes, Cauterets and other places. It was a case of Vox populi vox Dei. The people believed in the reality of the visions. They believed, moreover, what they had not yet been told ; for in the Apparition that met the child's ravished gaze, they were prepared to see no other than the Mother of God made man.

Freethinkers and anti-clericals stood aloof, of course. Even at this early stage of the Lourdes drama dissidents were divided into two camps. One camp saw in Bernadette a little impostor playing a part ; the other, pretending to speak in the name of science, saw in her a victim of hallucination and hysteria. The police authorities, scenting mischief, were already on her track, as we shall see, before this Sunday with which we have now to do is at an end.

When, at about half-past six in the morning, she arrived at Massabiello, a large crowd was awaiting her there, as has been said.

She was poorly but neatly clad, with the graceful Capulet of the Pyrenean regions covering her head and shoulders. This Capulet was white. She went to her usual place as if unconscious of the crowd. Then, kneeling down and taking out her rosary, she began saying it. Almost at once her face, looking up at the aperture in the rock, became as one transfigured. Its beauty and its joy were not of earth. The eyes were fixed, the lips parted, and the whole countenance illumined. There was some one near Bernadette watching her closely. This was Dr. Dozous, one of the most prominent of the medical men of Lourdes. His object was to study the little girl from life, and thus be able to come to some conclusion respecting the phenomena being exhibited in her person. Until then he had been a open freethinker. His presence at the Grotto that morning was to make him a Christian and a Catholic ; and, moreover, one of the foremost apologists of the Lourdes Apparitions.

On that Sunday morning no detail concerning Bernadette was lost sight of by him. At a certain moment he ventured to take her arm and to feel her pulse. He found her circulation regular, healthy, and showing no nervous excitement.

Bernadette was then seen to move a little nearer the Grotto, retaining the while her kneeling posture. The reason of this was, as afterwards understood, that the Apparition had withdrawn farther into the opening of the rock, and that the voyante, in order to see her, had had to change her position.

Dr. Dozous, continuing to observe Bernadette closely, says : "Soon afterwards I noticed that her face, which until then had worn an expression of the most perfect serenity and joy, suddenly became sorrowful, while tears rolled down her cheeks."

Others noticed this also, and noticed moreover that the happy, joyous look quickly came back.

When the Apparition had disappeared and Bernadette had come to herself, Dr. Dozous questioned her as to what had just taken place. Her reply, containing a statement that was soon to become an oracle for the Catholic world, was : " When the ' Lady ' ceased looking at me, she looked above me and farther away. When I asked her why she was so sad, she said : * Pray for sinners ! '

With this explanation it was easy for the crowd to understand the change of expression they had seen on the young girl's face.

From - The Blessed Virgin in the nineteenth century (1904) by Bernard St John