The Lesson of Lourdes: From January 18, 1958

What exactly is the lesson of Lourdes? Thoughtful persons of every faith and many of no faith at all have been asking themselves and each other that question for a hundred years now. Some, to their sorrow, have found no answer to it; some have given conflicting or inadequate answers. Probably no one can answer it completely--certainly I cannot. But I can, at least, try to outline what its lesson has been to me, in the hope that this may help a few others who are still groping.

Part of the answer, in my opinion, lies in the life story of Bernadette, which has been told so many times that it does not need retelling now in any detail. But perhaps it is fitting to remind those burdened by excessive humility and false feelings of inferiority that her background was sordid poverty, her education rudimentary and her opportunities limited. When she first went to the Grotto of Massabielle, on a bitterly cold day, it was with no inkling that she would be given a vision of "a Beautiful Lady"; she was looking for stray branches, blown from the trees by the piercing wind, with which to build a pitiful little fire in the hovel that served her for a home. Yet by so doing, she became the mouthpiece of miracles.



Over and over again, through the ages, men and women underestimated and even misprized by their fellows have been considered by God worthy to make manifest His glory and deliver His messages. Our Lords foster father was a carpenter, and His first four disciples were fishermen; Joan of Arc was a shepherdess; St. John of the Cross was a poor, obscure priest; Juan Diego was an illiterate Indian; Catherine Labouré was the daughter of a struggling yeoman farmer and had no schooling at all.

This is not to say, of course, that many of Gods outstanding servants have not been found in the seats of the mighty; kings and their counselors, great scholars and great warriors are also numbered among His saints. But it is to say that no station in life where it has pleased Him to place His faithful followers is so obscure and so humble that they cannot hope to serve Him in some way. It may be a little one or it may be an important one; that is for Him to decide. But the decision will not be based on their social position or their worldly goods; it will be based on their worthiness to serve Him. Bernadette is a supreme example af this. Through her we learn the first lesson of Lourdes: that we should not be so timorous as to suppose we have no qualifications which will justify us in believing that God can make use of us.

The second lesson which Lourdes has taught, at least to me, is that its importance and significance as a shrine of mental, physical and spiritual healing are so great that nothing can undermine or even permanently obscure these attributes. Many visitors cannot help being appalled by the cheap and strident commercialism that pervades the main streets of the city. Others--I cannot say how many, but I know of quite a few--have been disillusioned in their first impressions and even deterred from going to the grotto by the demeanor of a guard at the entrance of the avenue which leads to it.

The last time I was there, this functionary was a slovenly old man, who wore a dirty cap and had the stub of a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and who snarled or shouted to women and girls as they entered the avenue that they should cover their heads. If it were already time for them to do this--the grotto is a long way from the entrance--then it was surely time that his own head should be uncovered and, certainly, he should not have been smoking. Moreover, he brandished a cane, which quite possibly may have been one which he himself needed for support, but which, as he used it, gave him a violent and threatening appearance. His fulminations were in French, which probably was the only language he spoke, but which many of his hearers did not understand. I myself have seen three persons reluctant to proceed to the shrine after such a reception, and two others who were so repelled that they turned away altogether; and I have heard reliable reports of many more.

A courteous greeting, a gentle admonition to the effect that the grotto is also a shrine, accompanied by friendly gestures which would make this intelligible to an unaccomplished linguist, would do wonders to correct such bad impressions; so would the restrictions of commerce connected with the messages and the miracles. In Lisieux, such commerce is concentrated in two or three small areas, closely associated with the life of St. Thérèse; at St. Anne de Beaupré, visitors are warned that there is only one place where souvenirs in any way connected with the shrine and authorized by its directors may be purchased. I believe that similar restrictions would greatly enhance the value of Lourdes to the average devout and intelligent visitor.

In fact, I am reminded of a story, which may quite possibly be apocryphal but which is, nevertheless, apt, about a young man, the son of Protestant parents, who expressed a desire to study for the priesthood. They were appalled, but finally gave their consent on one condition: that he would pursue his studies in Rome and that these should, at first, take only the form of history written by secular scholars. The parents were persuaded that, if their son would follow this program, he would soon give up the idea that was so distasteful to them. He accepted their conditions and faithfully kept his side of the bargain. In due time, his parents went to visit him in Rome. "Surely by now you are convinced of the error of your ways?" they asked him cheerfully. "By no means," he answered with an equal degree of cheer, "if a church can survive nearly 2,000 years all the corruption these historians claim for it, there can be no reasonable doubt that its strength has a divine source. It is the church for me." Since Lourdes has survived the aspects which detract from its sublimity, not to mention the aspersions, sometimes amounting to downright slander, that have been cast on it, this seems to me a sure sign that it is a place of miracles.


And what about the miracles? Do I believe in them--both in the apparitions of the "Beautiful Lady" to Bernadette and in the subsequent marvels at the spring and at the shrine? (I am interpreting the term miracle--with the American College Dictionary--to mean "an effect in the physical world which surpasses all known human or natural powers and is therefore ascribed to supernatural agency.") I certainly do believe in the miracles, and in that belief I am only one of a vast company, which includes scholars and scientists of great learning and unimpeachable integrity.

The average lay person may not be aware that the Medical Bureau and the Medical Commission at Lourdes include not only French Catholic doctors but doctors of a dozen different nationalities, including non-Catholic and even non-Christian physicians, all men of unimpeachable standing. Nor are the bureau and commission approached by cripples and invalids independently, but under the sponsorship of their own local physicians, who vouch for their patients veracity and testify to the nature of their diseases and to the treatments previously given such sufferers. The pronouncements of such persons cannot be lightly or incredulously put aside.

Again, I shall venture to tell a story which I hope will serve to clarify my conviction about miracles, though what I shall attempt to describe did not happen at Lourdes but in Persia, as it was still called when I first went there. The wife of a greatly beloved Protestant missionary, the mother of several young children, entered the British Hospital at Isfahan for an exploratory examination. The surgeon-in-chief, a hard-headed Scot and a graduate of a major medical school, was assisted in the operating room by two other physicians of high standing. Their unanimous verdict was that this woman was the victim of cancer that had already progressed so far that it would be futile to operate. She and her husband were informed of this sad verdict and began their preparations to meet her tragic end.

But the news soon went beyond home and hospital and, presently, a group of representative Persians called on the missionary and asked him if he would lend them his chapel for a day. Puzzled, but pleased, he agreed to do so, since there was nothing in his form of faith which would make such a loan unsuitable. The delegation, accompanied by many friends, some Christian, some Mohammedan, some professing no special creed or religion, met early in the morning and spent the day in prayer. Most of this was silent, but occasionally a fervent petition was voiced. As the sun was setting, a young man rose and held up his hand, commanding attention. "Let us all now give thanks to God," he said gravely and reverently, "for the recovery of our beloved friend." The next day, the surgeon and his staff examined their patient again. There was not a trace of cancer left in her body. She afterward gave birth to several more healthy children and lived to a ripe old age.

This is not a legend. I myself was the house guest of the Scottish surgeon and his wife when I was in Isfahan, and he declared that the circumstances were those which I have very briefly outlined. His statement was corroborated by that of several missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, including the husband of the woman who was miraculously cured by prayer.

I have chosen this as an example of one of my personal reasons for belief in miracles, only because the conditions under which it took place were available for my own observation, and because I know that such a presentation is often more convincing than one based on indirect evidence. It happens to be the most remarkable one with which I have come into close contact. But it is by no means an isolated instance of the power of prayer; it is the sort of thing that happens in many parts of the world, not "far away and long ago," and that happens today, in Lourdes--a place which can be reached in a matter of hours from any place in the United States.

If the first lesson of Lourdes is that "God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform," and that this mysterious way includes the use of such persons as Bernadette, the greatest lesson is that miracles are not only a thing of the dim and distant past, but also of the close and vivid present. They are the ever present testimonial to the great truth spoken by our Lord Himself when He said: "Amen, amen I say to you, he that believeth in me, the works that I do, he also shall do; and greater than these shall he do."

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