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The Relevance of Holiness | Patricia A. McEachern, Ph.D. | The Introduction to A Holy Life: St. Bernadette of Lourdes | Ignatius Insight

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On a cold winter day in 1858 in Lourdes, France, Bernadette Soubirous, a tiny, asthmatic shepherdess went in search of wood along the Gave River. The visions this humble young girl experienced that day has since deepened the faith of millions.

Bernadette could scarcely believe her eyes when a beautiful Lady appeared before her. Eventually, she would come to understand that it was the Holy Virgin Mary herself who had appeared to her that day and on seventeen subsequent occasions. Church authorities could not have been expected to believe immediately that the Virgin Mary had appeared in a grotto where pigs took shelter from the thunderstorms that sometimes raged through the countryside surrounding the small village in the Pyrenees. Even more unlikely was that she would have enlisted the aid of a poverty-stricken, uneducated girl whose family had been reduced to living in a former jail cell condemned as too unhealthy even to house prisoners.

It was highly improbable that the Immaculate Conception herself would choose this fourteen-year-old girl whose own living conditions were so very far from immaculate. Bernadette understood that the Blessed Mother had demonstrated great humility in appearing to her, conversing with her and asking for her aid, and asking so kindly and respectfully. Bernadette would spend the rest of her brief life trying to follow the example of humility that the Queen of Heaven herself had shown to her.

The story of Saint Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes has exerted a powerful influence on the spiritual lives of millions of people for a century and a half. Scores of writers, be it scholarly, religious or secular, have written about Saint Bernadette and her visions of the Holy Virgin Mary at the Grotto of Massabielle. Bernadette is typically portrayed as an honest, but illiterate and uncatechised young girl, as she was at the time of the apparitions. The catechist who prepared her for her First Communion went so far as to claim that she was incapable of learning, and Father Pomian, her confessor, accurately referred to her as a tabula rasa, that is, a blank slate. Indeed, she was thoroughly uneducated when the Holy Virgin Mary first appeared to her.

Hence, it comes as a surprise even to her most ardent dévotés that in reality Bernadette became a prolific letter writer; she even corresponded with Pope Pius IX to ask for his apostolic blessing. In addition to her letters, Bernadette compiled a tiny anthology of Private Notes in which she carefully recorded quotes, reflections, prayers and spiritual advice. More than any other document, her Private Notes offers a glimpse into the profound spiritual life of this "most secret of saints". Her letters were not collected and published in the original French until the late twentieth century and they are translated into English here for the first time.

Saint Bernadette is as relevant now as she was in 1858 because the message of Lourdes is conversion, and Bernadette lived that message. On August 14 and 15, 2004, Pope John Paul II made his second papal visit and pilgrimage to Lourdes to celebrate the 15oth anniversary of the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception as dogma. The year 2008 marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the apparitions when the Holy Virgin appeared to Bernadette and confirmed this dogma with the words: "I am the Immaculate Conception." An uncatechised tabula rasa like fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous would not have heard the expression "Immaculate Conception" in the tiny, isolated mountain village of Lourdes.

When Bernadette told Father Peyramale, her parish priest, that the Lady who appeared to her in the Grotto had identified herself with these words, he responded that she could not have said such a thing because conception is an event, and a person cannot be an event. Nevertheless, this expression is a grammatical parallel of the words of Jesus Christ himself when he said: "I am the resurrection and the life." These expressions are grammatically illogical, yet spiritually true. How could an uneducated shepherdess have made such a grammatical parallel on her own, a fascinating parallel that evidently her parish priest did not recognize?

Saint Bernadette continues to attract millions of pilgrims to the French towns of Lourdes and Nevers, just as she did when she was living. Each year, thousands of pilgrims pray before her incorrupt body at the chapel of Saint-Gildard, the convent in Nevers where she lived and died. Since the time of Bernadette's visions, Lourdes has become the most frequented Marian shrine in Europe and is one of the greatest healing centers of the world. It boasts an average of one authenticated miraculous cure every two years (the latest in 1999) as well as thousands of cures that either cannot be investigated by the Medical Bureau or cannot pass its uncompromising standards.

In 1990, so many pilgrims visited Lourdes that a "holy-water shortage" was temporarily declared, and for the first time in its history there was rationing. An unlikely ensemble of authors and periodicals have written about Saint Bernadette Soubirous and the healing waters of Lourdes, including the New York Times, William E Buckley, Jr., Time Magazine, The Economist, Emile Zola, J.-K. Huysmans, Francois Mauriac and Franz Werfel. A wistful and reverent example of Bernadette's continuing influence is evident in Leonard Cohen's plaintive folksong entitled "The Song of Bernadette", in which he pays tribute to the visionary in an intensely personal way. The story of Bernadette Soubirous and the "beautiful Lady" of her visions has captivated people for one hundred and fifty years, but until now we have only been able to know her through articles, books, films and songs. At last we have the opportunity to meet Bernadette through her own words.

When the cause for canonization was opened for Saint Bernadette, it was due in large part to her popularity as an exemplary model for Christians seeking to live a devout life. It is only in her writings, however, that we can begin to see past her veil of secrecy and realize the depth of her spirituality. It is true that Bernadette is famous for her extraordinary experience of having been favored with visions of the Holy Virgin and because of her participation in bringing forth the spring that would heal many; however, the story of her courageous struggle for holiness is perhaps even more extraordinary than her visions. At the age of eleven, she contracted cholera, a disease that stunted her growth permanently. She never grew any taller than the child-like height of approximately 4 feet 7 inches. In addition, the ravages of cholera left her with severe, chronic asthma and eventually she contracted tuberculosis of the lungs and bones. She was given last rites on four different occasions.

Bernadette suffered terribly for many years before her death at the age of thirty-five, but her response to suffering was genuinely heroic. This humble, self-effacing nun transformed excruciating suffering into spiritual fecundity. Her letters and Private Notes serve as a model for those who are passing through their own trials. Bernadette's writings are permeated with her strong desire for humility, her ever-present expressions of gratitude and her deep appreciation and love for the Eucharist. They reveal an intimate and profound love for God the Father, Jesus and Mary. Anyone interested in pursuing a deeper spiritual life or in knowing Bernadette as she truly was and in her own words will appreciate the person that the pages of this volume reveal: a humble soul, with her own human frailties, who sought holiness.

Related Links and Articles:

"This book is the fulfilment of my vow" | The Preface to The Song of Bernadette | Franz Werfel
Interview with Sydney Penny, star of the movie, "Bernadette"
"Holy Visions" | An article about Dr. McEachern and A Holy Life on the Drury University website.
Forty-Four Hours in Lourdes | Stephen Sparrow
Glorifying God with Children's Cinema | An Interview with Jim Morlino, President of Navis Pictures

Patricia A. McEachern, Ph.D., received her doctorate in French Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her Master's Degree from Florida State University. In 1990, she earned a graduate exchange position with the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure, rue d'Ulm in Paris, where she studied with French philosopher Jacques Derrida. She has been teaching at Drury University since 1996.

She is also the author of Deprivation and Power: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa in Nineteenth-Century French Literature, Lourdes: Reverencing the Source as a Source of Healing. Dr. McEachern In addition to teaching all levels of undergraduate French, she has taught an Honors Course on Free Will vs. Determinism and she is responsible for the team-taught Animal Ethics course.

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