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Probably the main reason I follow the story of St. Bernadette is that one can learn, through her eyes, so much about Lourdes and the people who once lived here, and with a lucidity that we don’t get from merely reading history books or watching documentaries. How did they survive as a civilised town, a vast distance from the nearest city (which I think is Toulouse), without the transport, supply and communications infrastructure most of us take for granted? What were their culture and beliefs, and how did they experience the world? We can also learn quite a lot in the museums at the Chateau Fort, which I also visited again this afternoon.

I joined a tour guide in passing through the places associated with the Soubirous family, which began in the Domain’s museum. We visited the Cachot, which was the disused jail in which the family stayed after technological advances put Bernadette’s father, Francois, out of business. It was when Bernadette was out collecting wood for the fireplace there that she reportedly encountered the apparition.

The Maison Paternelle de St. Bernadette, which I’ve already visited several times, was apparently given to Francois Soubirous by Bishop Peyramelle sometime afterwards, and it was one of several mill houses that were occupied by the family over the years. Also along the trail was the birthplace of Bernadette, which was a large house by modern standards.

Commonly it’s asserted that Bernadette was too uneducated to have known about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, but I have my doubts about this. The Miraculous Medals bearing that title were in already in circulation for about 25 years before, and there are references to Bernadette having worn one at the time of the apparitions, so she must have at least been aware of it.

This brings me to the main question. What are we to make of Marian apparitions themselves? Some accounts I’m sure are fabrications and cases of people seeing things that aren’t there – the Medjugorge ‘apparition’, for example – but some accounts, such as St. Bernadette’s, aren’t so easy to dismiss.

One thing I believe with certainty is that Marian apparitions are largely a product of the human mind, and I believe this because the appearance, imagery and symbolism are unmistakeably borrowed from romanticised artistic representations of Our Lady rather than manifestations of something non-human. Also, apparitions are typically experienced by a single person in an hypnotic state or trance, perhaps even an epileptic seizure, which further suggests there’s a phychological element to the visions. Typically there are no third-party witnessesses or physical evidence that anything appeared. I’m open to the possibility of a supernatural cause, because there’s still so much we don’t know or understand about how reality works. Sometimes things happen that cannot be understood or explained.

Also, it’s important to understand the culture was very different back then. It’s evident, from what’s been preserved, that the community of 19th century Lourdes was heavily religious by our standards, and far more aware of their environment because they were more connected with nature. In comparison, the perception of the average person in modern society is very limited, because we’re continually isolated from the natural, our senses are barraged with artificial stimuli and we’re collectively very materialistic.
My point is that a group of shepherd children in 19th century Europe, for example, would have noticed phenomena that a modern Westerner would have been oblivious to, and they would have more readily ascribed some religious significance to things they couldn’t explain. It’s my personal belief that St. Bernadette witnessed something at Massabielle – possibly the same optical illusion I experience there sometimes, or something genuinely paranormal – and her mind interpreted it as a lady in white. At a later point, others planted the idea she’d seen an apparition of the ‘Immaculate Conception’.

As for the spring Bernadette uncovered at the Grotto, it might be relevant to note that it was indeed special, in the sense it was a clean source of water, at a time when many people in Lourdes died of cholera from contaminated water supplies. Inexplicable cures do happen there, but the verifiable cases amount to something like ~100 visitors in several hundred million – statistically one is just as likely to be inexplicably cured in somewhere like central London.

I bumped into Ivan the Hungarian (not his real name) again on my return from Massabielle. There is (or was a couple of years ago) a group that would impersonate homeless people around Lourdes, and we’re discouraged from giving them money, but some people are genuinely in need, and I think we have a moral duty to at least do something for them.
Ivan spent some time in Britain as a care worker, but landed himself here after making a few mistakes in life. Among other things, I stop to chat and pray the rosary with him, and teach him how to do it in English. He’s joining a religious community in another part of France soon.