Lourdes by Robert Hugh Benson. Chapter 8.

The moment Benediction was given, the room began rapidly to fill; but I still watched the singing crowd outside. Among others I noticed a woman, placid and happy—such a woman as you would see a hundred times a day in London streets, with jet ornaments in her hat, middle-aged, almost startlingly commonplace. No, nothing dramatic happened to her; that was the point. But there she was, taking it all for granted, joining in the Magnificat with a roving eye, pleased as she would have been pleased at a circus; interrupting herself to talk to her neighbour; and all the while gripping in a capable hand, on which shone a wedding ring, the bars of the Bureau window behind which I sat, that she might make the best of both worlds—Grace without and Science within. She, as I, had seen what God had done; now she proposed to see what the doctors would make of it all; and have, besides, a good view of the miraculés when they appeared.
    I suppose it was her astonishing ordinariness that impressed me. It was surprising to see such a one during such a scene; it was as incongruous as a man riding a bicycle on the judgment Day. Yet she, too, served to make it all real. She was like the real tree in the foreground of a panorama. She served the same purpose as the Voix de Lourdes, a briskly written French newspaper that gives the lists of the miracles.
    When I turned round at last, the room was full. Among the people present I remember an Hungarian canon, and the Brazilian Bishop with six others. Dr. Deschamps, late of Lille, now of Paris, was in the chair; and I sat next him.
    The first patient to enter was Euphrasie Bosc, a dark girl of twenty-seven. She rolled a little in her walk as she came in; then she sat down and described the “white swellings” on her knee, with other details; she told how she had been impelled to rise during the procession just now. She was made to walk round the room to show her state, and was then sent off, and told to return at another time.
    Next came Emma Sansen, a pale girl of twenty-five. She had suffered from endo-pericarditis for five years, as her certificate showed; she had been confined to her room for two years. She told her story quickly and went out.
    There followed Sister Marguérite Emilie, an Assumptionist, aged thirty-nine, a brisk, brown-faced, tall woman, in her religious habit. Her malady had been mal de Pott, a severe spinal affliction, accompanied by abscesses and other horrors. She, too, appeared in the best of health.

    We began then to hear a doctor give news of a certain Irish Religious, cured that morning in the piscines; but we were interrupted by the entry of Emile Lansman, a solid artisan of twenty-five who came in walking cheerfully, carrying a crutch and a stick which he no longer needed. Paralysis of the right leg and traumatism of the spine had been his, up to that day. Now he carried his crutch.
    He was followed by another man whose name I did not catch, and on whose case I wrote so rapidly that I am scarcely able to read all my notes. His story, in brief, was as follows. He had had some while ago a severe accident, which involved a kind of appalling disembowelment. For the last year or two he had had gastric troubles of all kinds, including complete loss of appetite. His certificate showed too, that he suffered from partial paralysis (he himself showed us how little he had been able to open his fingers), and anæsthesia of the right arm. (I looked over Dr. Deschamps’ shoulder and read on the paper the words lésion incurable). It was certified further that he was incapable of manual work. Then he described to us how yesterday in the piscine, upon coming out of the bath, he had been aware of a curious sensation of warmth in the stomach; he had then found that, for the first time for many months, he wished for food; he was given it, and he enjoyed it. He moved his fingers in a normal manner, raised his arm and let it fall.
    Then for the first time in the Bureau I heard a sharp controversy. One doctor suddenly broke out, saying that there was no actual proof that it was not all “hysterical simulation.” Another answered him; an appeal was made to the certificate. Then the first doctor delivered a little speech, in excellent taste, though casting doubt upon the case; and the matter was then set aside for investigation with the rest. I heard Dr. Boissarie afterwards thank him for his admirable little discourse.
    Finally, though it was getting late, Honorie Gras, aged thirty-five, came in to give her evidence. She had suffered till to-day from “purulent arthritis” and “white swellings” on the left knee. To-day she walked. Her certificate confirmed her, and she was dismissed.
    It was all very matter-of-fact. There is no reason to fear that Lourdes is all hymn-singing and adjurations. It is a pleasure to think that, on the right of the Rosary Church, and within a hundred yards of the Grotto, there is this little room, filled with keen-eyed doctors from every school of faith and science, who have only to present their cards and be made free of all that Lourdes has to show. They are keen-brained as well as keen-eyed. I heard one of them say quietly that if the Mother of God, as it appeared, cured incurable cases, it was hard to deny to her the power of curing curable cases also. It does not prove, that is to say, that a cure is not miraculous, if it might have been cured by human aid. And it is interesting and suggestive to remember that of such cases one hears little or nothing. For every startling miracle that is verified in the Bureau, I wonder how many persons go home quietly, freed from some maddening little illness by the mercy of Mary—some illness that is worthless as a “case” in scientific eyes, yet none the less as real as is its cure?
    Of course one element that tends to keep from the grasp of the imagination all the miracles of the place is all this scientific phraseology. In the simple story of the Gospel, it seems almost supernaturally natural that a man should have “lain with an infirmity for forty years,” and should, at the word of Jesus Christ, have taken up his bed and walked; or that, as in the “Acts,” another’s “feet and ankle-bones should receive strength” by the power of the Holy Name. But when we come to tuberculosis and mal de Pott and lésion incurable and “hysterical simulation,” in some manner we seem to find ourselves in rather a breathless and stuffy room, where the white flower of the supernatural appears strangely languid to the eye of the imagination.
    That, however, is all as it should be. We are bound to have these things. Perhaps the most startling miracle of all is that the Bureau and the Grotto stand side by side, and that neither stifles the other. Is it possible that here at last Science and Religion will come to terms, and each confess with wonder the capacities of the other, and, with awe, that divine power that makes them what they are, and has “set them their bounds which they shall not pass?” It would be remarkable if France, of all countries, should be the scene of that reconciliation between these estranged sisters.
    That night, after dinner, I went out once more to see the procession with torches; and this time my friend and I each took a candle, that we might join in that act of worship. First, however, I went down to the robinets—the taps which flow between the Grotto and the piscines—and, after a heart crushing struggle, succeeded in filling my bottle with the holy water. It was astonishing how selfish one felt while still in the battle, and how magnanimous when one had gained the victory. I filled also the bottle of a voluble French priest, who despairingly extended it toward me as he still fought in the turmoil. “Eh, bien!” cried a stalwart Frenchwoman at my side, who had filled her bottle and could not extricate herself. “If you will not permit me to depart, I remain!” The argument was irresistible; the crowd laughed childishly and let her out.
    Now, I regret to say that once more the churches were outlined in fairy electric lamps, that the metallic garlands round our Mother’s statue blazed with them; that, even worse, the old castle on the hill and the far away Calvary were also illuminated; and, worst of all, that the procession concluded with fireworks—rockets and bombs. Miracles in the afternoon; fireworks in the evening!
    Yet the more I think of it, the less am I displeased. When one reflects that more than half of the enormous crowd came, probably, from tiny villages in France—where a rocket is as rare as an angelic visitation; and, on the carnal side, as beautiful in their eyes—it seems a very narrow-minded thing to object. It is true that you and I connect fireworks with Mafeking night or Queen Victoria’s Jubilee; and that they seem therefore incongruous when used to celebrate a visitation of God. But it is not so with these people. For them it is a natural and beautiful way of telling the glory of Him who is the Dayspring from on high, who is the Light to lighten the Gentiles, whose Mother is the Stella Matutina, whose people once walked in darkness and now have seen a great Light. It is their answer—the reflection in the depths of their sea—to the myriad lights of that heaven which shines over Lourdes. Therefore let us leave the fireworks in peace.
    It was a very moving thing to walk in that procession, with a candle in one hand and a little paper book in the other, and help to sing the story of Bernadette, with the unforgettable Aves at the end of each verse, and the Laudate Mariam, and the Nicene Creed. Credo in ... unam sanctam Catholicam et Apostolicam Ecclesiam. My heart leaped at that. For where else but in the Catholic Church do such things happen as these that I had seen? Imagine, if you please, miracles in Manchester! Certainly they might happen there, if there were sufficient Catholics gathered in His Name; but put for Manchester, Exeter Hall or St. Paul’s Cathedral! The thought is blindingly absurd. No; the Christianity of Jesus Christ lives only in the Catholic Church.
    There alone in the whole round world do you find that combination of lofty doctrine, magnificent moral teaching, the frank recognition of the Cross; sacramentalism logically carried out, yet gripping the heart as no amateur mysticism can do; and miracles. “Mercy and Truth have met together.” “These signs shall follow them that believe.... Faith can remove mountains.... All things are possible to him that believes.... Whatsoever you shall ask of the Father in My Name.... Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them.” There alone, where souls are built upon Peter, do these things really happen.
    I have been asked lately whether I am “happy” in the Catholic Church. Happy! What can one say to a question like that? Does one ask a man who wakes up from a foolish dream to sunshine in his room, and to life and reality, whether he is happy? Of course many non-Catholics are happy. I was happy myself as an Anglican; but as a Catholic one does not use the word; one does not think about it. The whole of life is different; that is all that can be said. Faith is faith, not hope; God is Light, not twilight; eternity, heaven, hell, purgatory, sin and its consequences—these things are facts, not guesses and conjectures and suspicions desperately clung to. “How hard it is to be a Christian!” moans the persevering non-Catholic. “How impossible it is to be anything else!” cries the Catholic.
    We went round, then, singing. The procession was so huge that it seemed to have no head and no tail. It involved itself a hundred times over; it swirled in the square, it humped itself over the Rosary Church; it elongated itself half a mile away up beyond our Mother’s garlanded statue; it eddied round the Grotto. It was one immense pool and river of lights and song. Each group sang by itself till it was overpowered by another; men and women and children strolled along patiently singing and walking, knowing nothing of where they went, nothing of what they would be singing five minutes hence. It depended on the voice-power of their neighbours.
    For myself, I found myself in a dozen groups, before, at last, after an hour or so, I fell out of the procession and went home. Now I walked cheek by jowl with a retired officer; now with an artisan; once there came swiftly up behind a company of “Noelites”—those vast organizations of boys and girls in France—singing the Laudate Mariam to my Ave Maria; now in the middle of a group of shop-girls who exchanged remarks with one another whenever they could fetch breath. I think it was all the most joyous and the most spontaneous (as it was certainly the largest) human function in which I have ever taken part. I have no idea whether there were any organizers of it all—at least I saw none. Once or twice a solitary priest in the midst, walking backward and waving his arms, attempted to reconcile conflicting melodies; once a very old priest; with a voice like the tuba stop on the organ, turned a humorously furious face over his shoulder to quell some mistake—from his mouth, the while issuing this amazingly pungent volume of sound. But I think these were the only attempts at organization that I saw.
    And so at last I dropped out and went home, hoarse but very well content. I had walked for more than an hour—from the statue, over the lower church and down again, up the long avenue, and back again to the statue. The fireworks were over, the illuminations died, and the day was done; yet still the crowds went round and the voice of conflicting melody went up without cessation. As I went home the sound was still in my ears. As I dropped off to sleep, I still heard it.