Bernadette of Lourdes: Saint of Simplicity – Pt. 2

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Bernadette as Sister Marie-Bernarde

Part One summarized Bernadette’s life, highlighting the apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes to Bernadette in 1858 and the miraculous healing spring which Bernadette unearthed at Our Lady’s direction. We took a look at some of her virtues and struggles. In Part Two, we continue to explore Bernadette’s characteristics and the many challenges she faced throughout her life.

 Sense of Humor

Bernadette had a quick wit and a merry, sometimes mischievous, personality. At the convent, she often entertained the other sisters during recreation with her amusing stories and talent for mimicry. But her wit was always good-natured, never malicious or hurtful. Her sense of humor no doubt kept her from taking herself too seriously and becoming overwhelmed by the extremes of adulation and ridicule that came with being a public figure.

People often used any excuse to make her touch objects so they could have a blessed relic. Knowing their intentions, she would quip, “And after I touch it, how much more will it be worth?”

Charity

Bernadette loved nursing the sick and excelled at it. “She always had the kind word that relaxed, reassured, and got them to take their medicine,” said one of her patients. In November 1872 she was made Head Infirmarian at Nevers, a position she held until October 1873. Friendly and affectionate, she was a compassionate and understanding listener, who always had an encouraging word for the troubled or homesick novices her superiors often sent to her.

In the words of one of her fellow teachers: “I never heard her say an unbecoming word, nor fail in charity.”

Prayer

Admittedly incapable of lengthy recitations, Bernadette often repeated short prayers throughout the day, such as: “My God, I believe in You, hope in You; I love You.”

She loved common prayer but did not practice many private devotions, except the ones she considered most important: Mass, Communion, and the Stations of the Cross. She placed a strong emphasis on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and had a profound respect for priests. “The priest at the altar is always Jesus on earth,” she often said. “If you encounter a priest and an angel, the priest should be acknowledged first.”

Deluged with endless prayer petitions, she always agreed, on one condition: “I also need prayers. I don’t give something for nothing!” She was faithful to the Virgin’s message of prayer and penance given at Lourdes, and offered her prayers and sacrifices to Our Lord each day for the conversion of one sinner.

Although she had some initial difficulty learning the Rosary, it remained a favorite devotion throughout her life. She often recommended it to others, saying, “You will never say it in vain. Go to sleep reciting it…like little children who fall asleep saying ‘Mama’.” She was also devoted to St. Joseph and her Guardian Angel, and told a novice, “When you pass the chapel and haven’t time to stop, tell your Guardian Angel to take your messages to Our Lord in the tabernacle.”

Silence

Although vivacious and talkative by nature, when it came spiritual matters, Bernadette found God in the practice of recollection. She had difficulty with formal meditation, but loved the Congregation’s rule of silence during specified times and would break it only for the most urgent reasons.

“Silence was one of Bernadette’s fundamental traits,” said Bishop Forcade of Nevers. “Although people delight in attributing to her countless beautiful sayings that I, for my part, have never heard, I have always observed that she suffered, like everything else she did, simply and without words.”

Devotion to Mary

Bernadette never referred to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, except when giving an account of the apparition of March 25 in which the Lady identified herself by that title. When speaking of the Blessed Virgin, she usually called her “my Good Mother,” or “my Mother in heaven.” Ironically, Bernadette’s earthly mother, Louise, died on December 8, 1866 — the feast of the Immaculate Conception! Of this Bernadette said, “The Blessed Virgin wanted it that way to show me that she would replace my mother, whom I had lost.”

Bernadette’s piety towards Mary was simple, trusting, daughterly, and like everything else about her, without ostentation. She always urged others to “love her very much,” exclaiming, “If you only knew how good the Blessed Virgin is!” When asked if the Virgin was beautiful, Bernadette replied, “So beautiful that when you’ve seen her once, you can’t wait to die see her again….When you’ve seen her, you can’t love this world anymore.”

Most of the time, however, Bernadette spoke of the Lady of Lourdes only when asked, and then her answers were brief, objective and reserved. Over time, Bernadette’s memory of the apparitions grew dimmer, and she could no longer see a clear image in her mind’s eye. But she didn’t need a picture, because it was forever engraved in her heart.

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The Shrine of the Grotto at Lourdes as it appears today

Our Lady’s Promise

Although Bernadette rarely spoke of the Virgin’ s words, “I cannot promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next,” she accepted them fully as her own personal penance. She did not consider the second part of the promise to be a guarantee of heaven, but conditional upon her doing what was required. Throughout her life, she suffered illness, frustration, separation from family, and every public reaction to her from veneration to curiosity to harassment and ridicule. “Oh, how tiresome this is!” she would sigh. “When will they stop treating me like a strange animal?”

A considerable amount has been written, much of it exaggerated, about the complex relationship between Bernadette and her superiors at Nevers, particularly Mother Marie-Therese Vauzou. It’s true, however, that this situation was one of Bernadette’s heaviest crosses. Mother Vauzou, despite her initial excitement at having the visionary of Lourdes join the Order, was often cold and severe with Bernadette, subjecting her to frequent humiliation and testing her almost beyond endurance.

One likely explanation was the problem presented by the entrance of so extraordinary a figure as Bernadette into the Order. The Sisters recognized the challenge of trying to treat her like any ordinary novice. Most likely, in their zeal to protect Bernadette’s soul as well as the dignity and integrity of the Congregation, her superiors sometimes carried their efforts too far.

Another factor was the basic difference in personality between Mother Vauzou and Bernadette. Mother Vauzou wanted the sisters in her charge to openly confide in her, and hoped to be privy to the innermost thoughts and soul-stirrings of the chosen one of Mary. Bernadette’s disinclination to analyze or verbalize about the spiritual life must have greatly frustrated and disappointed Mother Vauzou.

Moreover, being somewhat of a snob regarding class distinctions, Mother Vauzou was probably resentful and jealous of the graces and attention that had been showered upon Bernadette, a mere peasant girl. For Bernadette’s part, although she felt somewhat reserved and uneasy around Mother Vauzou, she loved and admired her, and suffered greatly when she didn’t receive the same affection as the other nuns did.

Whether a warmer relationship with her superiors would have jeopardized Bernadette’s sanctity is impossible to say. But she eventually attained a state of detachment that allowed her to endure such psychological suffering without complaining or harboring grudges. During a retreat, she wrote in her notes: “Work on becoming indifferent to everything my superiors or companions say or think about me….To live for God only, for God everywhere, for God always.”

Patience and Fortitude

From the age of six, Bernadette was plagued with various physical illnesses, including stomach and spleen ailments and asthma. At Nevers, she developed tuberculosis of the bone. An enormous tumor on her right knee caused her excruciating pain, and she suffered attacks of coughing so severe they nearly choked her. Eventually, disease ravaged her entire system. Agonizing sores erupted all over her body, including abscesses in her ears that affected her hearing.

In addition to physical afflictions, Bernadette experienced a “dark night of the soul,” during which she was tormented with demonic attacks and temptations of doubt and despair. She told her good friend Julie Garros in 1873: “It’s really painful not to be able to breathe, but it’s much worse to be tortured by interior distress. It’s terrifying.”

Sister Marthe once found Bernadette crying and inquired if she was feeling sick. Bernadette replied, “If you only knew everything that’s going on inside me…Pray for me!” At the heart of this inner torment were her deeply disturbing, though unwarranted, doubts about the apparitions and the fear that she “might have been mistaken” about them.

Throughout all her sufferings, Bernadette remained cheerful and patient. Her first thought was always for others rather than herself. Although she accepted her afflictions with tremendous grace and courage, she did not love suffering for its own sake or voluntarily seek it out. Despite her devotion to St. Bernard, her patron saint, she admitted, “I don’t imitate him very much. St. Bernard loved suffering, while I avoid it as much as I can.”

During the final phase of her life, Bernadette’s spirituality evolved into a state of complete abandonment to God. She removed all the holy pictures with which she had surrounded her sickbed, keeping only the crucifix. When asked why, she said, “This is enough for me.” In the throes of her deepest agony she would clutch it and say with resignation, “Now I am like Him.”

In a letter to the Pope, she wrote: “My weapons are prayer and sacrifice, which I will grip firmly to my dying breath. Only then will the weapon of sacrifice fall, but prayer will come along with me to heaven where it will be much more powerful.”

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The partially incorrupt body of St. Bernadette at the Convent of St. Gildard in Nevers, France

An “Exquisite Soul”

The essence of Bernadette’s sanctity is beautifully expressed in the words of Pope Pius XI, who called her “a simple miller’ s daughter, who possessed no other wealth than the candor of her exquisite soul.” In his homily at Bernadette’s canonization Mass, he said: “When one considers Bernadette’s life…[it] can be summed up in three words: Bernadette was faithful to her mission, she was humble in glory, she was valiant under trial.”

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Author’s Note: I have loved St Bernadette and the story of her life and the apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes since I was a child and first saw the beautiful movie, “The Song of Bernadette,” based on the best-selling novel by Franz Werfel. Although the novel and movie contain some fictionalized or romanticized elements, they are based on historical fact and give a wonderful overall picture of the marvelous events at Lourdes and the life of St. Bernadette Soubirous. I highly recommend both the book and the movie. Jennifer Jones gives a glowing and poignant portrayal of Bernadette, and the movie is worth watching for her performance alone, which won her the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1943. It’s hard to watch the ending without being moved to tears.

Interestingly, Franz Werfel was a German-speaking Jewish novelist, playwright and poet, born in Prague, Czechoslavakia. While escaping from the Nazis during WWII, Franz and his wife, Alma, were given refuge in Lourdes, France, where Franz heard the story of Bernadette Soubirous and the Lady.  Impressed and gratified by the assistance and kindness he received from the people of Lourdes and the staff at the famous Lourdes shrine, he made a vow to write about Bernadette once he was safely settled. He and Alma eventually journeyed to California, where they lived for the rest of his life. 

In fulfillment of his vow, Franz Werfel wrote “The Song of Bernadette” in 1941, which remained on the New York Times bestseller list for a year and occupied first place for 13 weeks. In Werfel’s own words: “All the memorable happenings that constitute the substance of this book took place in the world of reality…. My story makes no changes in this body of truth. I exercised my right of creative freedom only where the work, as a work of art, demanded certain chronological condensations or where there was need of striking the spark of life from the hardened substance….’The Song of Bernadette’ is a novel but not a fictive work.” 

My own two-part article on this blog was based on extensive research into the life of Bernadette Soubirous, not on the Werfel novel, and I have not strayed from the facts. I mention the novel and the movie because they first kindled in me a love for Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes, and because I strongly feel that both are masterpieces well worth reading and watching, as I have done many times.

 

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Bernadette of Lourdes: Saint of Simplicity

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Bernadette Soubirous

PART ONE OF TWO

On January 9, 1844 in Lourdes, a town at the foot of the Pyrenees in southwest France, two-day-old Bernadette Soubirous was being baptized. Much to the embarrassment of her relatives, she wailed incessantly throughout the entire ceremony. “All she does is cry,” her godfather complained on the way home. “She’ll be a bad one!”

Bernadette, the first child of the miller François and his wife, Louise, spent the first 10 years of her life at the Boly Mill, which her father operated. Then, in 1854, the business fell on hard times. The family, which now had grown to six, was evicted and forced to move into the dungeon room of a former prison, considered too damp and unhealthy to house criminals any longer. Despite their extreme poverty and deplorable living conditions, the Soubirous were devout and close-knit family.

Spirited, fun-loving Bernadette was petite and pretty, with a round face, beautiful chestnut hair and gentle, velvety dark-brown eyes. As the eldest daughter, she cheerfully and efficiently performed all the traditional family duties expected of her. Although of delicate health, she was to all outward appearances an ordinary, unremarkable young girl. But on February 11, 1858, when Bernadette was 14, she had an experience that would change her life beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

While gathering wood in the grotto at Massabielle, she saw an indescribably beautiful young lady dressed in a white veil and a white gown tied with a blue sash, standing in a niche above her. The Lady had a rosary on her arm and golden roses on her bare feet. She smiled at Bernadette and held out her arms in welcome. The astonished girl fell to her knees, instinctively reached for her rosary, and began to pray.

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The Lady of Lourdes (“Aquero”) as described by Bernadette

This was the first of 18 apparitions occurring over a five-month period. During the third apparition, the Lady spoke for the first time. With a tender smile, she asked Bernadette, “Would you have the kindness come here for 15 days?” At Bernadette’s consent, the Lady added, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next.”

For many weeks, Bernadette had no idea who the Lady was; she referred to her simply as “Aquero” (“that one”). When, at the urging of her companions, Bernadette offered the Lady pen and paper to write her name, the Lady laughed gently and replied, “It is not necessary.” On February 25, at the Lady’s direction, Bernadette unearthed an underground spring, which ever since has been a miraculous source of spiritual and physical healing.

“Aquero” finally revealed her identity during the 16th apparition on March 25, feast of the Annunciation. Folding her hands and raising her eyes to heaven, she said: “Que soy era Immaculada Counchetsiou (I am the Immaculate Conception).” So as not to forget, Bernadette silently repeated the unfamiliar words all the way to the rectory, where she dutifully reported them to the pastor, Fr. Peyramale. It was only after the priest explained the meaning of the words to her that Bernadette finally knew that “Aquero”  was the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In July 1866, Bernadette left Lourdes forever to join the order of the Sisters of Charity at Nevers, where she took the name Sr. Marie-Bernarde and served as Infirmarian and Sacristan. Her health continue to decline steadily, and she died on April 16, 1879, at the age of 35. She was beatified on June 14, 1925 and canonized on December 8, 1933. She is buried at the Convent of St. Gildard at Nevers. Her body remains mostly incorrupt to this day.

THE SPIRITUALITY OF BERNADETTE

Bernadette’s holiness was humble, straightforward, and unpretentious. She possessed no great knowledge of theology; she was, in fact, a poor student who struggled to memorize her lessons. Her nurse, Marie Lagues, became so frustrated trying to teach the young Bernadette catechism, she threw a book across the room and shouted at the crying girl, “You’ll never know anything!”

Bernadette did not perform heroic deeds or suffer martyrdom; she died quietly in a French convent after a long and painful illness. She did not seek out suffering or extreme mortification, but accepted with grace and courage the many trials, pain, and humiliations life handed her.

She has been compared with St. Therese of Lisieux, who was 6½ years old when Bernadette died in 1879. In actuality, Bernadette was living the “Little Way” years before Therese was born. Yet, unlike Therese, who left such prolific spiritual writings that she was declared a Doctor of the Church, Bernadette has been called “the most secretive of all the saints,” because she was not given to deeply analytical, sentimental, or effusive discourses on spiritual matters. She lived her faith naturally and instinctively.

In this simplicity lies Bernadette’s appeal. She is a model we can emulate, someone whose common-sense spirituality is down-to-earth and approachable. In fact, Bernadette herself insisted on learning about the faults and spiritual trials of the saints, which humanized them and inspired her to overcome her own shortcomings. Similarly, in this series we will explore the virtues and struggles of this charmingly simple, humble saint.

Mirror of Mary

Like Mary of Nazareth, Bernadette’s life was one of poverty, humility, obedience, fortitude, and total dedication to doing the will of God. In his excellent biography, Bernadette Speaks, Fr. Rene Laurentin writes: “Chosen by God, Bernadette splendidly demonstrated the happiness of the poor. This child, unknown or disregarded, would be proclaimed blessed by all.” Father Raffin, a witness at Bernadette’s beatification process, stated: “She delighted in saying that if she had been chosen…by the Blessed Virgin, it was because of her littleness, her lowliness, so that all honor would revert to the Blessed Virgin and to the glory of God.”

Humility

Bernadette did not take pride in the great spiritual favors she had been accorded or feel she deserved them; yet neither did she resort to contrived displays of false humility. Her attitude was well-balanced and tinged with good-natured humor. “The Blessed Virgin picked me up like a pebble,” she would remark. Bernadette’s humility was the result of her awareness of being only an instrument of the Divine, of being nothing without God’s great love. “I was like a broomstick for the Blessed Virgin. When she no longer needed me, she put me in my place behind the door,” she said, adding happily, “Here I am and here I’ll stay!”

For Bernadette, poverty was a means of preserving humility. “I want to stay poor,” she told a journalist who was laying out before her the prospect of wealth. She repeatedly turned down gifts of money that well-meaning people tried to press on her and her family. “It burns me!” she would say.

Even in the convent, she received many visitors who wanted to see her and hear about her extraordinary experiences. These visits became a great trial to Bernadette, who wanted nothing more than to remain hidden and be just an ordinary nun. She did, however, dutifully see visitors when directed to do so by her superiors.

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Illustration of the grotto and miraculous spring at Lourdes during an apparition of the Blessed Virgin to Bernadette Soubirous

One evening, a woman named Felicitie Benoit visited the convent and hoped to meet the famed visionary. While taking a walk with a short, unfamiliar nun, Felicitie asked if she could see Bernadette. “Oh, Mademoiselle!” the sister replied, “Bernadette is just like everyone else!” Felicitie later repeated to another nun her request to see Bernadette. “What?” the sister said in surprise. “You didn’t recognize her? Why, just a little while ago you were strolling with her!”

Sr. Marthe du Rais, a contemporary of Bernadette’s, described her humility: “When she received undeserved reprimands, she would say, ‘The good Lord sees my intentions. Fiat!’ and preserve the same serenity of soul. She remained friendly as before towards people who had caused her pain.” But Bernadette was realistic enough to know that pride is an elemental part of human nature. During a discussion on self-esteem, she made a circle with her thumb and forefinger and said, “Let her who doesn’t have any, put her finger here.”

Acceptance

What hurt Bernadette most was feeling useless and being called “good for nothing.” But she accepted this without bitterness, remaining always grateful to God for the many graces she had received, and to the Congregation at Nevers, whom she felt had accepted her out of charity. Like Therese of Lisieux, she wanted to do great and wonderful deeds for God, but was prevented from doing much because of poor health. She once referred to being sick as “her job.” Believing she was a burden on the motherhouse, especially as her health deteriorated, she would say, “I’m good for nothing. The only thing I can do is pray.”

Obedience

Obedience did not come easily to Bernadette, because of her quick temper, strong will, and exuberant personality. She found it hard to adjust to the strict and confining life of the convent, and sometimes reacted spontaneously despite her best efforts to conform. She would get discouraged, but this only caused her to depend more totally on God’s grace. “How I need the help of God!” she would exclaim.

Perhaps the hardest test of Bernadette’s obedience was the strict order of her superiors at Nevers not to speak to her fellow nuns about the visions of Lourdes. She naturally would have longed to share her extraordinary experience, and the other sisters were bursting with curiosity. Yet, with unflinching  obedience, she kept silent about it.

“Above all, the depth of her obedience was dependent on its relationship to God,” writes René Laurentin. “He is the one whom she obeyed in all things.”

(In Part Two: Bernadette’s characteristics and challenges)