Today we celebrate the Feast of the Apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes.
For, it was on the 11th February, 1858 that St. Bernadette Soubirous, at fourteen years of age, witnessed this first of Eighteen Apparitions in the cave at the rock of Massabielle, close to Lourdes.
It began when young Bernadette was accompanying her sister and another girl, sent by their mother to collect firewood.
The three clambered down the rocky outcrop of Massabielle, a short way out of the town.
Coming to a mill stream, the two girls left Bernadette at the edge. For she was a sickly child, and they wanted not to endanger her health. The two waded through the icy water, in search of better firewood on the other side.
Bernadette, wishing to follow, began removing a stocking. But suddenly, she was stopped in her tracks. For an unusual sensation of wind surrounded her. She was startled, for all was still around her; the day was otherwise calm. The wind ceased and she continued to remove her stocking.
But then it came again, that same sensation of wind. This time, Bernadette’s attention was drawn to the cave in the rocky outcrop. High up on a small niche was a rose bush and it was gently moving.
Bernadette gazed at the rosebush and there before her, appeared a lady of heavenly countenance.
She was a young lady of unearthly beauty, surrounded by a radiant light, shining white, yet golden. The light billowed out from the niche in the rock and the lady seemed born from it. Yet she was most definitely of flesh and blood.
She was dainty and petite and wore a white robe and veil, with a blue girdle, all made of materials so exquisite, they seemed not of this world. Her slender feet were pale and pretty. And upon their arches lay two golden roses.
Bernadette was enraptured – this vision was beyond words. As the lady’s eyes gazed upon her and her own eyes upon the lady, she felt a love, a compassion that consoled the very depths of her being.
Bathing in this love, this exchange, Bernadette was lost, entranced by the beauty before her.
Suddenly she realised that she was sitting, whilst her heavenly visitor was standing. Quickly, she rose and the lady responded with a smile.
Bernadette greeted her and the lady returned the greeting, her smile becoming broader, brighter. To differentiate herself from this wondrous figure, Bernadette dropped to her knees. The roses upon the tiny feet of the lady glowed. She then reached out her slim hands, towards Bernadette, in a gesture of embrace.
The thought came to Bernadette that it would now be appropriate to pray, so she reached for her rosary and attempted to make the sign of the cross. But, she could not. Her arm simply would not move.
The intensity of this moment is captured by Franz Werfel, in his wonderful book, The Song of Bernadette, which I’ve reviewed here.
The lady in the niche did now raise her right hand with its fragile fingers, slowly, almost instructively, and over her entire countenance made a great, almost gleaming sign of the cross, such as Bernadette had never seen made by a human being. And that sign seemed to remain floating in the air. At the same time the lady’s face grew very serious, and this seriousness was another wave sent out by that loveliness which leaves the beholder breathless.
Only then, after the Lady had made this solemn act of Benediction, could Bernadette cross herself. And together, they prayed the rosary, although the lady uttered not the Angelic Salutation. She simply moved her beads in time with Bernadette. But, she bowed deeply at the invocation of the Holy Trinity … Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost …
Then, the lady beckoned to Bernadette, who became frightened and her heavenly visitor disappeared.
Werfel describes Bernadette’s countenance, whilst she beheld the Lady:
Her whole being was jubilant over the beauty of the lady. Now… From every human countenance which we call beautiful there streams a radiance which, though bound to bodily forms, is of the spirit. But the beauty of this lady seemed less of the body than any other beauty. It was that spiritual radiance which alone we call beauty.’
According to Donal Foley, in his book, Marian Apparitions, the Bible, and the Modern World (also reviewed here), Bernadette herself said:
She is so beautiful that when you have seen her once, you would wish to die in order to see her again.
Bernadette was bowled over in love with this heavenly creature. From this point on, nothing captured her imagination or thought, but the Beautiful Lady. She was changed forever. And through her short, suffering life, she effected change in many others, as the Beautiful Lady’s love flowed through her.
Today we celebrate the fruits of that love, mediated through the Eighteen Apparitions, which occurred between the 11th February and the 16th July, 1858.
We pay heed to Our Lady’s call to Penance, Penance, Penance! and Her petitioning us to pray for sinners.
We acknowledge the unearthing of the miraculous spring, ceaslessly pouring forth its healing waters.
And, just four years after Pope Blessed Pius IX declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, we recall the poignant moment when the Beautiful Lady revealed to the young, barely literate Bernadette, her name. In patois (the local dialect) She announced herself:
“Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou” (“I am the Immaculate Conception”).
This revelation of the Beautiful Lady’s identity provided a grace – a grace that enabled the fruits of the Apparitions to be harvested by Holy Church. For, it was our Lady’s identity that the Lourdes clergy had requested, to verify the Apparitions.
And it was this grace that Bernadette longed for. As, she desired nothing more than her Beautiful Lady’s words and actions be taken seriously. She gave everything of herself for this. The Apparitions received Church approval in 1862. And we will be reaping their gifts, richness and benefits until the end of time.
Today, thousands upon thousands of pilgrims still flock to the Apparition site, seeking solace and healing from the maternal love of our Heavenly Mother. And just as Bernadette was changed there, millions of souls have subsequently been changed. For many who have visited the grotto at Lourdes, have been healed or converted.
By the grace of God, Roger and I were able to visit Lourdes several times. When one prays or simply sits, contemplating the mystery of this holy place, one cannot help but sense Our Lady’s presence in some way, continuously nurturing her earthly children, as they come to refresh and bathe themselves in Her motherly presence.
Across the Catholic world, grottos have been erected, in imitation of the rocky outcrop of Massabielle. And the faithful pray before them, as did St. Bernadette, before her Beautiful Lady.
For those interested, we have an old and unusually fine, detailed account of the Apparitions at Lourdes at this website. It wass written by Bernard Martin, who lived in France in the nineteenth century and studied the Marian Apparitions in great depth. (You can find Martin’s piece staring as a serial here.)
And in celebration of the Apparition at Lourdes, let us now look at the final Apparition, from 16th July 1858.
Bernadette was waiting, waiting for the Lady to call her. Suddenly at sunset, she felt the summons and knowing it to be the last time, she raced to Massabielle alone, wanting to savour this final meeting for herself.
Yet her haste attracted all and sundry, so she was far from alone as she approached the grotto. Yet, this did not really matter to her. All that mattered was the lady.
As Bernadette approached, the place was magnificent with the light of the setting sun.
And to conclude, we turn to Franz Werfel, who beautifully captures the warmth, richness and splendour of this final Apparition:
Even the interior of the grotto … flamed with the sunset. Or did it flame with a quite other fire? … veritable clouds of golden glow seemed to issue forth. And yonder moving whiteness … Was it not the lady’s bridal veil? Yes, there she stood in the rock, the lady … [Bernadette] cried out: ‘There she stands! … Yes, she is there …’
For the first time the lady stood with her inviolate waxen feet upon the flat earth. The roses on those feet were radiant. More than ever was the lady … a creature all youth, all floating, dainty maidenhood …
Today the lady harboured in her heart no aims beyond the radiation of love. Today for the first time was the full and undivided love of her who brought such bliss turned wholly toward her who needed to absorb it …
Never yet had the bridal veil fluttered so gaily … never had the eye’s been of a blue so crystalline … nor yet had the white fabric of the dress or the blue of the veil been so breathtakingly gleaming as on this day …
Bernadette … sank wholly into contemplation, more deeply than she had ever done … as though she had to fill the chambers of her soul with what she saw, as though she must … store away the object of her vision in every cranny of her being … for Bernadette knew this was farewell. But the lady, too, was giving her utmost. She offered and she gave herself in steady waves, drawing close and closer to the very boundary of the possible …
When at last Bernadette could hardly see any longer and the lady’s figure was but an uncertain gleaming, then did she begin to withdraw. She did so very slowly and without taking her eyes from Bernadette … Bernadette … stared into the night … the stars waxed more and more. They seemed to grow great with joy at receiving their queen … Bernadette … kept staring into the darkness at the spot where the last white glimmer had faded into night.’
Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us.
St. Bernadette, pray for us.