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Pilgrimage into Poverty


I'm writing this month about Lourdes, and my fingers should tremble.

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bernadetteSaint Bernadette Soubirous
1844 -1879

Six million people visit the grotto every year.  I've never been there.  Franz Werfel, though not himself a Christian, wrote a fine book about Saint Bernadette's visions, and how no one believed her at first, not even her family; how she was ridiculed, slapped in prison, called a fraud by skeptics; how she maintained her simple faith throughout; and her honest account of the facts.

The journalist Malcolm Muggeridge — he who would introduce the world to Mother Teresa in the 1969 documentary Something Beautiful for God — accompanied a pilgrimage to Lourdes with his film crew in 1965.  This was long before he and his wife entered the Church in their very old age.  He didn't witness what the Church, with her severe criteria, would certify as a miraculous cure.  But he recalled the beauty of the place; the light shining in the eyes of a young lady, crippled and dying, whom he had met and spoken to as she went down to the waters.  He believed, in a way he couldn't yet describe, that Jesus the healer was present: "At Lourdes, too, bowing their heads, abating their twitchings, holding out their hands, if they have any, as the Blessed Sacrament approaches, they recall his healing words: Daughter, your faith has made you whole; go in peace."

There's no place in the world like Lourdes.  To go there in faith is to make a pilgrimage into poverty.  Muggeridge would understand, because he had seen through the vanity of what the world calls great.  Mother Teresa would understand.  Muslims go to Mecca, to adore the power of God.  Hindus go to the mighty Ganges River to immerse themselves in the waters of an ancient mythology.  But Lourdes?  It's a mustard seed by comparison.  It's a bit of leaven that an ordinary woman kneaded into some dough.  It is a pearl hidden in a field.  It is a stone that the builders tossed aside.

The girl was small

To whom should the Virgin Mother appear?  To such as Bernadette Soubirous.  Her family lived in terrible poverty.  At the time the visions came, their rented home was an old jail cell, twelve feet square, with a stinking privy in the back.  Bernadette was only beginning, at age fourteen, to learn to read.  Lourdes was a forgotten village in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" asked Nathanael, but that was before he met Jesus.

On a cold and rainy day, February 11, 1858, Bernadette, her sister, and a friend went out gathering sticks for firewood.  Think of Elijah and the widow and her son, in the years of famine.  The grotto of Massabielle had no glorious spired basilica on it then.  It was a muddy and miserable place, a watering hole for pigs, where the Gave River washed up all kinds of garbage, some of which the poor children would gather up and sell.

There's no place in the world like Lourdes.  To go there in faith is to make a pilgrimage into poverty.

Bernadette wasn't there to play a game.  The other girls had crossed the river, which was so cold it made them cry.  Bernadette needed to get across too, so she asked the girls to toss some rocks into the water for stepping stones, while she was busy sitting down, taking off her stockings.  That was all she was thinking of, the practical matter of getting across the river without bringing on an attack of her asthma or ruining the stockings.

Then she turned and saw a lady dressed in white, silently saying the rosary.

She didn't know who it was.  She even told the girls to keep quiet about it.  She didn't trust her judgment.  That's why she brought holy water to the grotto the next time she felt drawn to visit it, to splash upon the lady, in case it was an evil spirit.  But the lady smiled.

She told Bernadette to come to the grotto every day for a fortnight.  We might say that the pilgrimages began then.  Her family came with her.  People in the village came.  The police had to come to keep order.  Curiosity seekers came.  Scoffers and skeptics came.  Christians came.

What did they come to see?  On February 25, the lady made Bernadette smaller than ever: she told her to do two things that no one could understand.  She was to go crawl underneath a projecting rock and drink from the "fountain" there; and to eat some of the grass.  There was no fountain.  It was a small puddle, more mud than water.  Bernadette scratched at it until she could drink a little, and she ate the grass, too.  Imagine her muddy face, flecked with weeds.  Who could believe in her visions now?  Even her family lost heart.

But the spring bubbled up beneath the mud.  After the miraculous cure of a paralytic woman, the crowds returned, much to the chagrin of the local police.  In all of this, Bernadette never put herself forward.  All she did was to keep her promise to the lady, to return to the grotto, where she prayed silently, her countenance glowing with both sadness and joy.

The Immaculate Conception

Bernadette's parish priest, an impatient fellow, finally told the girl to demand from the lady her name.  This came after the lady had commanded a sacred procession to the grotto, and a chapel to be built at the site.  The procession was the first organized pilgrimage to Lourdes.  Ten thousand people were there.  But Bernadette still did not know the lady's name.  She did not presume to know.  She didn't even admit that she had been responsible for any cures.  She refused all money.  She wanted only to obey the lady, and to study for her First Communion.

The fortnight passed.  The Soubirous family was as poor as ever.  Lourdes was thronged with visitors.  Bernadette had returned to her ordinary life.  Then on March 25, she heard the call again, and this time the lady revealed her name, in the girl's dialect.  Tell the priest, she said, Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou: I am the Immaculate Conception.

Bernadette rehearsed the strange words on her way to the priest.  She didn't know what they meant.  Pope Pius IX had recently declared as a matter of faith that Mary had been conceived without taint of original sin.  Bernadette did not know that.  The priest did — and he was stunned.

A young man with his hip devoured by cancer enters the waters of Lourdes.  He has, on one side, no hip at all.  When he returns from Lourdes, he begins again to walk and run as he used to do. 

How shall I put these things together?  A young man with his hip devoured by cancer enters the waters of Lourdes.  He has, on one side, no hip at all.  When he returns from Lourdes, he begins again to walk and run as he used to do.  X-rays show that there is no more sarcoma.  Instead there is a hip, sound and sure.

Where did that come from?  You can't persuade your body to make new tissue out of nothing.  The new bone came from the smallest of places, that mustard seed, that leaven.  What lies within the smallest of the seeds?  God Almighty does: the power that made the universe from nothing, the eternity that is wholly present in every smallest twitch of an atom.  It's no more difficult for God to make worlds than for him to make cells rush in multiplication and build up bone; each is as nothing at all, to God.

When the flesh of Mary began to be knit in the womb of her mother Anne, what then was the work of God?  He wrought a miracle, preserving Mary from that fall of Adam that is the shadow that falls upon each of us when we are conceived.  We are born paralytics, hunched toward sin and death.  Mary was born in full health of soul.  She stood upright.

Christ the healer

By 1908, the fiftieth anniversary of the apparition of Mary to little Bernadette, the Lourdes researcher Georges Bertrin counted 3,962 bodily cures.  Only about one in fourteen of these were of nervous conditions.  Many of the rest involved the inexplicable and immediate growth of healthy tissue.  Bertrin says also that even if some of the cures were doubtful, there was a far greater number of cures that were never recorded at all.

So the Lord raised up the small against the great.

France since the revolution had been riven by materialists on one side, who hated the Church and scoffed at the piety of ordinary people, and faithful Christians on the other.  So the Lord raised up the small against the great.  Think of the poor parish priest Saint John Vianney, patron saint of students who have trouble with their exams.  Think of Bernadette.

And think of the thousands and millions of people who came to Lourdes.  Think of the spiritual miracle of conversion of heart.  Which is more difficult, to heal a clotted artery, or to soften a life-long hardening of the heart in sin?  Even in the earliest days, sinners came to Lourdes to sneer, and left in tears of joyful repentance.

The fact is, we all need the water from Lourdes.  It isn't like the Ganges, one of the most polluted rivers in the world, but which harbors a germ that eats the germs on your flesh.  Lourdes water has no such germs.  Or it does have germs: the germinal seeds of faith, hope, and charity.  Lourdes is available to us at all times.  Christ the Healer is ready with the living water.  We have only to submit, and to ask — and not heed what the scoffers will say.  Some of them too will one day come down to the everlasting spring.



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: Pilgrimage into Poverty." Magnificat (February, 2020).

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The Author

esolen54smAnthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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