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A TOWN OF MODERN MIRACLES
ON one side of a narrow valley among the foothills of the Pyrenees in southern France, rises a great ragged precipice. It faces to the north, and the sunshine never warms it, and its shadow serves to deepen the natural gloom of a narrow cavern that reaches back into the base of the cliff. Fifty years ago the herders from the town of Lourdes, not far distant, fed their pigs here on the banks of the swift mountain river Gave, which hurries noisily through the ravine; and when a sudden shower caught the herders unawares they drove the swine to the cave, and crouched in its shelter to wait till the rain passed.
The aspect of the place has altered since then. It would be sacrilege now to put the cavern to such plebeian uses; for in 1858 a little shepherdess, Bernadette Soubirous, had a series of visions at this spot the fame of which has served to make Lourdes one of the most notable places of pilgrimage in the world.
The town is old, and in feudal days its situation gave it considerable importance. Its castle, perched then as now on a lofty and almost inaccessible rock where seven valleys meet, was the key to all the mountain district lying to the south, and Lourdes was the scene of many a fierce combat and long siege in the old wars with the English. But changes in methods of warfare and, especially, the advent of railroads made the town and the ancient castle no longer of consequence. The currents of life flowed in other channels, and this region of big hills and rude mountain ridges became one of quiet and stagnation.
When Bernadette was born in 1844, Lourdes was apparently destined to an existence of unending commonplace. The inhabitants were pious, law-abiding, and contented, but at the same time were ignorant and unenterprising. Most of Bernadette's childhood was spent a few miles from Lourdes, at Bartres in the home of a foster-mother. Bartres was a little village of four hundred inhabitants, very secluded and far from any frequented highway. Its few houses and small church reposed in a green hollow with wooded slopes about and a clear rivulet went always singing through the lowlands. The house of Bernadette's foster-parents stood solitary at the end of the village. It was like that of any ordinary peasant, low and damp, with floors of flagstone and a roof of thatch.
As soon as Bernadette was large enough she was put to tending sheep, and season after season she spent her days watching her flock on the lonely hillsides. She was very thin and always suffering from a nervous asthma which stifled her in bad weather. At the age of eleven she could neither read nor write and was infantile and backward. She had great trouble in learning her rosary, but, once acquired, she repeated it all day long as she followed her grazing sheep. Her foster-mother had a brother who was a priest. He occasionally visited the family, and in the winter evenings, by the blaze of the home fire, he sometimes read marvellous stories to the household — stories of saints, angels, and heroes, of prodigious adventures, and of all kinds of strange and supernatural events. The books from which the priest read had pictures in them, and at these Bernadette was fond of looking. They were mostly of a religious nature — God enthroned in all his glory, scenes from the life of Christ, and representations of the Virgin Mary. But the book read most of all in that Bartres home was the Bible. Bernadette's foster-father, the only member of the household who knew how to read, had an old copy that had been in the family over one hundred years, and it was yellow and grimy with time and use. Every evening he would take a pin, pass it at random between the leaves, open the book where the pin had chanced to enter and begin reading at the top of the right-hand page.
The inhabitants of the region were all simple-minded and superstitious, and Bernadette was like the rest. The whole countryside was peopled with mysteries — with trees which sang, stones from which blood flowed, and crossroads where if you failed to pray promptly a seven-horned beast was likely to appear and carry you off to perdition. Bernadette's especial terror was a certain tower of the vicinity which she never would pass after sundown because it was said to be haunted by the fiend.
When Bernadette was fourteen she began to plan for her first communion, and applied herself to learning her catechism at the church. She never had received any schooling, and her progress was so slow that her parents were displeased, and took her home with them that she might continue her studies with more diligence. The Soubirous family were very poor and lived in one of the humblest and narrowest streets of the town. They had a single room on the ground floor at the end of a dark passage, and here dwelt father, mother, and five children. In that wretched, gloomy room they did their housework, ate, and slept.
Bernadette had been in Lourdes only two or three weeks when one chilly February morning the mother told her to go down to the borders of the Gave and pick up some wood, that she might have fuel with which to cook the dinner. A younger sister and a girl from one of the neighbor's accompanied Bernadette, and the three together, hugging their ragged wraps about them to keep out the cold, went down to the stream. They had been there after wood too often to find it plentiful, but they gradually filled their arms with fragments until, following along the banks, they came to the great rocks a half mile from the village, rising sombrely almost from the verge of the stream.
It was now noon, and the Angelus rang from the parish church. At its sound, Bernadette, who had lagged behind the other girls, felt a great agitation within her, and her ears were filled with such a tempestuous roar that she fancied a hurricane had descended from the mountains and was about to overwhelm her. But the trees were motionless and the air quiet. Then she glanced toward the rocks and was half blinded by a great light which gathered against the side of the cliff where an aperture like a rude oval window sank into the crag just above the gloomy mouth of a cavern running back a rod or two under the base of the precipice. Bernadette fell on her knees in her fright, but kept her eyes fixed on the niche above the cavern. Little by little in the light she discerned a white form, and she trembled lest this figure should be the devil. To protect herself against the possible evil nature of the apparition she began to tell her beads, and then the light slowly faded, and she hastened to join her companions.
To her surprise they had observed nothing unusual, and when. her interrogations aroused their curiosity, and they began in turn to question her, she was confused and troubled, and did not reply. But as they walked back to the village with their arms full of broken sticks, the questioning continued, and at length she said she had seen something white. That was interesting, and ' her companions on reaching home repeated the tale to their intimates, and it soon ran through the neighborhood. Bernadette's father and mother were much displeased with this childish nonsense, as they called it, and told her to keep away from the rocks by the Gave in future.
However, the curiosity of the townfolk was such that, come Sunday, nothing would do but the girl must go to the spot again, armed with a bottle of holy water, to ascertain whether or not it was the devil she had to deal with. Just as before, she saw the dazzling light, and in the light the figure, which this time became more clearly defined, smiled on her, and showed no fear of the holy water. As soon as the figure vanished, the townspeople crowded around Bernadette, eager to learn what it was she had seen. At first she replied hesitatingly and vaguely, but when she was pressed she said the figure was that of a lady, and she wore a long veil which covered her head and fell to her feet. Her robe was of the purest white, her sash blue like the sky, and on each of her bare feet bloomed a golden rose.
The following Thursday Bernadette went for the third time to the riverside, and on this occasion the radiant figure requested that she should come there every noon for fifteen days. Friday and Saturday the Lady bowed and smiled but did not speak. On Sunday, however, she wept and said to Bernadette, "Pray for sinners."
Monday she failed to appear, but Tuesday she again shone forth from the dark niche above the grotto, and confided to Bernadette a secret which concerned the girl alone, and which she was commanded never to divulge. On that day, too, the Lady said, "Go tell the priests they must build a chapel here."
Wednesday the Lady frequently murmured the word, "Penitence—penitence!" and the child repeated the word after her, kissing the earth.
Thursday the Lady said, " Go and drink and wash at the spring, and eat of the grass that is beside it."
This command Bernadette did not understand, for she knew of no spring near. But when she searched and went within the cavern, a cold fountain of water began to bubble forth from the rock at the touch of her hand.
The Lady for a second time failed to appear on Friday; but was shining in the usual place on the six days following. She repeated her commands, and Bernadette humbly listened and told her beads, and each time when the apparition vanished kissed the earth and on her knees sought the spring in the grotto, there to drink and wash. On the last of the six days the Lady requested more pressingly than before that a chapel might be built, and she promised that multitudes should resort to it from all nations. It was three weeks later that the apparition next shone from the cavity above the grotto. This time the Lady clasped her hands, turned her eyes toward heaven, and said, "I am the Immaculate Conception."
Twice more she appeared, at somewhat long intervals, the final time being July 16, when she bade Bernadette farewell.
This series of apparitions, eighteen in all, caused intense excitement at Lourdes from the very beginning. Every one was curious to set eyes on the scene of the mystery, and at times many thousands were looking on while the little shepherdess, kneeling before the dark precipice, saw that glorified figure. The multitude beheld only Bernadette's ecstasy. For them there was no light, no figure, no sound of voice. They turned their eyes toward the shadowed crag, and as far as they could discern, it was the same it always had been; and then they looked at the rapt countenance of the girl, and they could not agree whether her vision was a reality or not. Some believed and some doubted. All sorts of stories were in circulation. It was remembered that a shepherd had spoken of that very cliff and prophesied that great things would take place there. On the other hand, an old woman of Lourdes said she had seen a toad's foot in Bernadette's eye, and that she was simply a witch.
When the miraculous spring appeared in the cavern, many drank of the water, and certain ones who had been grievously sick announced themselves cured through its agency. From that time forth the common people had no question but that the Blessed Virgin, in compassion for suffering humanity, had come to earth there at Lourdes and given the vicinity of the grotto, with its spring, supernatural powers to heal. Bernadette had an almost wholly sympathetic audience in her later visions. To the assembled onlookers she was a saint, and they kissed her garments. When she knelt before the grotto with a lighted taper in her right hand and her rosary in her left the crowd broke into sobs, and a frenzy of lamentation and prayer arose.
At first it was the populace only who accepted the truth of Bernadette's visions. The clergy held aloof for months, while the civil authorities made every effort to put down the excitement by force. To the officials Bernadette was either a liar or a lunatic, and they threatened her with imprisonment. The commissary of police had her before him as soon as the story of her early visions began to attract general attention, and he did his best to catch her tripping, but her story never varied. Afterward she had to appear before the judges of a local tribunal, who endeavored in vain to wring a retraction from the child. Finally two doctors examined her and pronounced her case one of nervous trouble and diseased imagination. On the strength of this the authorities would have sent her to a hospital, but they feared the public exasperation.
Things grew worse instead of better, and at last the prefect had the approaches to the grotto occupied by the militia. The cave had been decorated with vases of flowers; money and various trinkets had been thrown into it; and some quarrymen, inspired by the contagious religious enthusiasm, had, without remuneration, cut a reservoir to receive the miraculous water, and had cleared a path under the hillside.
The prefect felt the time had come to take decided action and root out the whole superstition. He would remove the offerings from the grotto and build a palisade across the front to keep the deluded mobs away. It took him half a day to find any one willing to let him have a cart on which to carry off the accumulation of offerings. Two hours later the person of whom he hired the cart fell from a loft and was seriously injured, while the next day a man who lent him an ax had one of his feet crushed by the fall of a block of stone. The Lord was plainly on the side of the people, but for some reason or other the commissary escaped unscathed. Amid jeers and hisses he took away the pots of flowers, the tapers that were burning, and the bits of money and the silver hearts which lay on the sand.
Then the palisades were put up. But the people, hungering for healing, found ways to pass the guards and to get over or through the palings, and the prohibition of the authorities only aroused anger and spread the fame of the place wider. The names of trespassers were taken, and soon a woful procession of the lame and sick came before the justice of the peace to answer for their defiance of the law. It seemed to them that the officials had no pity for human wretchedness. One day, a whole band of poverty-stricken and ailing folk went to the mayor, knelt in his courtyard, and implored him with sobs to allow the grotto to be reopened. A mother held out toward him her child, barely alive — would he let the little one die in her arms when there was a spring so near, which had saved the children of other mothers? A blind man called attention to his eyes, and there were others who showed unsightly sores, maimed arms, crippled legs. But the mayor was unable to promise anything, and the crowd withdrew, weeping and rebellious.
The struggle went on for nearly half a year, and the people grew more and more restive. It was rumored that whole villages intended to come down from the hills and "deliver God," as they termed it. The parish priest, at the time of the visions, did not hesitate to express his scepticism of their genuineness, and he and the rest of the clergy of the region ignored, as long as they could, the whole affair; but in the end they succumbed to the popular will, and gave their sanction to the truth of all that the people believed. Then the civil authorities retracted, the palisades were removed, and everybody was allowed free access to the grotto. Immediately afterward the surrounding land was purchased by the bishop of the district, and the Church began its work at Lourdes. As miracles multiplied, and money flowed in more and more from all parts of Christendom, the scope of the work enlarged, until to-day the property at Lourdes is strikingly imposing and immensely profitable.
On ordinary occasions, I think the first thing the visitor to Lourdes remarks is the vast concourse of hotel omnibuses in waiting at the station. A tenth of the number would have sufficed for all the business there was doing the day of my arrival, but if I had come at the time of one of the great pilgrimages, every vehicle would have had its load, and even then the crowd would not have begun to be accommodated. The scenery amid which the town is placed is wild and impressive. Everywhere are big hills that roll and tumble, and sometimes lift into stony mountain heights, while in the far south can be seen the white-peaked Pyrenees, marking the dividing line between France and Spain. On a rugged steep, rising out of the midst of the Lourdes valley, sits the old castle, looking down from its rocky eyry with a fine sense of watchfulness and impregnability. In the depths below is the river Gave, always foaming and hurrying along its tortuous course, and beside the stream, at its more accessible points, you are sure to see groups of women busy with their washing. They prefer the early morning hours for the work, but even in the heat of midday some of them are still there, scrubbing away on their knees at the edge of the torrent. When a woman finishes her task, she packs up the wet clothes in a basket which she carries off home poised on her head. That seemed to be the common method of carrying heavy burdens in Lourdes.
ONE OF THE TOWN'S-WOMEN
Close under the castle crag stands the gray old parish church on the borders of the market-place, whence the crooked, narrow ways of the old town go straggling off in all directions. The life of the old town appeared sleepy and ancient. Homes were humble, methods of work antiquated, and heavy outdoor tasks fell to the lot of the women to a degree unusual even for France. I noticed, for instance, two of the women following after a heavy municipal garbage cart and shovelling into it the heaps of street refuse.
Immediately outside the old town to the east is open farming country. When I went for a walk in that direction one morning, I found the peasantry busy cutting the grass with their broad-bladed scythes and spreading that which had lain in swaths or tumbles since the day before. Others were working in the fields of Indian corn. Corn-fields were common in many sections of the south of France, and they had such an American flavor that they made me homesick. But there was nothing American about the farm folk who labored in them. Here at Lourdes the men looked like Spaniards, and the sunburned women with colored kerchiefs over their heads might have been Italians. In cultivating between the rows of corn a plough was used that was about as aboriginal an instrument as could be devised. A pointed spade took the place of a ploughshare, and this was attached to the lesser branch of a crotched stick, while the longer branch served as a neap. The plough was usually drawn by a yolk of little cows, and it was a very common custom in that part of the country to make cows do all the work that generally falls to the lot of oxen. I suppose the farmers think it economical to have workers and milkers combined in one animal, but it must tell on the milk both in quantity and quality. Except for the labor exacted of them the cows seemed to be treated with consideration, and they had light blankets on their backs and fringes of string were draped across their faces to keep the flies from their eyes. Sometimes when attached to carts in the hay-fields the cows were further protected from insect pests and from the glare of the sun by a forkful of hay placed on their heads.
An interesting peculiarity of the roadside houses was the custom of building the barns with one gable open. There was then no occasion to drive inside with loads of hay or grain. Everything could be pitched in from without; and if the building was judiciously placed so that the opening faced away from the prevailing winds and storms the arrangement was not a bad one, even if the barn did look half finished. I doubt, however, if an open gable would do in New England. Our prevailing winds come from too many different directions.
On all the roads around Lourdes are frequent tall wooden crosses, and you see other crosses on the adjacent mountain tops, but they are most numerous on a steep, rocky hill that rises just outside the town borders. This hill is known as a Calvary, and the path which climbs with short turns up its incline has a cross at every angle until you reach the summit, where there is one greater than any of the others, bearing a figure of Christ. From the Calvary the view commands all the region around. On a hill across the valley stands the castle, with old Lourdes lying at the foot of its guardian cliff. Lower and nearer, is new Lourdes, full of big hotels and lodging-houses, rows and rows of souvenir shops, and, a little more retiring, convents, hospitals, and other buildings of a religious nature. The souvenir shops are a curious feature of the town. There are great numbers of them existing side by side through whole streets, most of them only one story high and open to the sidewalk, so that the merchants can pounce on you with their urgent appeals to buy if you so much as glance at their wares. The pious knickknacks in which they deal are much the same in the different shops — chaplets in skeins and in heaps and at all prices, Blessed Virgins great and small, in metal, wood, ivory, and plaster, scapularies, devotional pictures, medals, rings, brooches, and bracelets ornamented with stars and crosses and sacred figures, purses, paper-weights, even snuff-boxes and wooden pipes from which beam the figure of Our Lady of Lourdes. Unfortunately most of these things are either crude or ugly.
In front of the town of hotels and shops is a long esplanade or public park laid out beside the Gave, and at its far end are the three churches of Our Lady built by the contributions of the faithful.
The churches make an odd group, for they are not three distinct buildings, but are imposed one above another. The lowest is the Church of the Rosary; its form that of a heavy squat dome; the next is the Crypt cut in the solid rock; and finally, above all rises the Basilica with its slender and very lofty spire. No effort has been spared to make the buildings splendid without and within, especially the Basilica, which is most prominent. Its high, narrow interior is rich and full of color, and is particularly noticeable by reason of the immense numbers of banners and votive offerings that adorn the walls. They are everywhere — hung from the vaulted roof, against the pillars, and in the side chapels; there are banners of silk, satin, and velvet, often beautifully embroidered, and there are jewels, crosses, bridal wreaths, and thousands of gold and silver hearts. All empires and kingdoms of the earth are represented.
From the Basilica colossal gradient ways, one on either side, reach down in the form of a horseshoe to the level of the esplanade. They make the Basilica look like some great creature of stone with long forelegs extended and holding the lower church in their grasp. Under the cliff on which the upper church stands is the grotto. To reach it you pass beneath one of the arches of the gradient way, walk a short distance along a fine, tree-lined avenue skirting the Gave, and there it is before you — a low, wedge-shaped aperture no larger than a room in an ordinary dwelling-house. The rocks do not look at all extraordinary, masses of ivy trail down the face of the crag, the breezes come and go, and all the functions of nature seem to be pursuing the same course they would anywhere else. Yet, with its worshippers, and the spell of its strange history, and its adaptation by man to the uses of a holy shrine, the spot is very impressive.
What catches the eye first is the statue of the Virgin in a dark niche above the cavern, a white figure with a blue sash, and on her feet golden roses, exactly as the apparition has been described by Bernadette. Next you observe that under the roof of the cavern is hung a vast array of crutches and body supports of all kinds; and the people to whom these belonged have come here cripples and gone away restored and sound. The whole space before the grotto is smoothly paved, and the river's bed has been pushed back from its old course so that there is room for the gathering of a great number of people.
A high iron fence has been put up across the front of the grotto, with an opening at one side for entrance, and one at the other side for exit. The interior contains a few chairs, a small altar, and an organ, and it has the look of a miniature underground chapel. Its most pronounced feature is its scores and scores of lighted candles. They are of all sizes up to monsters seven or eight inches through, and six feet high. Tapers of this caliber cost ten dollars or more and burn for a month; but there are candles to suit all purses, and you can get very little ones that will burn three hours for a penny. I believe such are not supposed to make so efficacious an appeal to Heaven as the ten-dollar ones, though much depends on the accompanying faith and fervency of the donator. The heat of the wavering flames keeps the tallow dripping, and the wind makes the grease trickling from the tops of the tapers cool in fantastic shreds. The grotto would overflow with tallow after a time if the drippings were not cleaned up and carted off. A man in an apron had charge of this work, and he kept an old broom and an iron scraper handy just back of the entrance gate. He had not the air of sanctity one would expect in a person so closely associated with the shrine, and his manner as he went about his scraping and brushing showed as little concern in his surroundings as if he had been digging ditches. The candles burn continuously, day and night, all through the year. Even when the icy tempests of the dark winter nights are whitening the valley, and lashing the great trees by the stream side, the candles in the grotto flare and flicker just the same. The deep stain of soot on the cavern walls testifies to the numbers that are burned.
As I glanced about the grotto I observed that the wall in one place looked like polished black marble. This smooth, shining patch was just beneath the cavity where the Virgin appeared, and the secret of its polish was that there the pilgrims rub the chaplets and the medals they wish to consecrate, and there millions of lips have kissed the cold, grimy rock.
Another curious thing which one cannot help remarking is a recess in one corner of the cave half full of letters deposited in it or thrown through the grotto railing by devotees who have some request to make of the Lady of Lourdes. There is nothing for which they do not ask — health, prosperity, triumph in a lawsuit, that a marriage may be effected or an enemy be brought to grief. Some are angry in tone and upbraid the Virgin for not granting the writer's prayers. The letters are opened by the priests, who take charge of any money they may contain and then leave them in the recess to get such answer as they may from the Blessed Virgin.
Nothing is to be seen of the miraculous spring. It is in the floor of the grotto covered with an iron door, and the water from it is conducted by pipes to faucets outside, and to the baths in a low line of buildings at the foot of the cliff near by. The flow is usually small, and a cistern has been made in which the water collects during the night. Otherwise the supply would sometimes fall short. After copious rainfalls the spring acts just as other springs would—increases in volume, and it occasionally bursts bounds and floods the grotto floor. The water is very cold, and I found it excellent to drink on a hot day, but it gave me the chills to think of bathing in it. Even the fathers of the grotto admit that to certain patients the sudden shock of cold is dangerous, and they either refuse the baths to such or warn them that they bathe at their own risk.
I saw no marvellous manifestation while I was at Lourdes, yet the scene before the grotto was always strangely interesting in spite of its uneventful quiet. The spot was away from all the noise of the town, and the people who gathered there were for the most part silent, reverential, and intensely in earnest. They drank of the water, many washed their hands, and some pulled up their sleeves and bathed their arms with the flow from this fount of life. Often they filled bottles or cans to carry home with them for their own further use or for the cure of relatives or friends.
Immediately in front of the grotto were several rows of settees, and this was the favorite gathering-place of devotees, though some liked better the dusk of the grotto interior, and others sat afar off on a continuous seat which was part of a stone parapet skirting the Gave. Among the most constant of the concourse before the cavern during my stay were a priest and his old mother, in whom I took a special interest because they had arrived at Lourdes on the train which brought me, travelling in the same apartment. The priest had a dreadful hacking cough, and it was for his welfare, not the old mother's, that they had come. He was a cold, hard-featured man, but he looked gritty, and was plainly determined to fight his ill health to the bitter end — and how the mother loved him! Every time the cough caught in his throat the tears came to the old woman's weak eyes, and she bowed forward and looked at the image of the Virgin standing in the niche of the dark crag before her in heartfelt supplication. So they sat, hour after hour, he in the black robes of his order, she in the black garments of an old woman, thinking, hoping, praying.
Some of the worshippers fell on their knees to beseech the intervention of Heaven in behalf of themselves or their loved ones. Usually they knelt far up in front, sometimes grasping the bars of the fence, before the grotto, sometimes a little farther back, with arms extended and eyes on the mute marble figure in the rock above. Once in a while there were those who humbled themselves to a still greater degree, and bowed down and kissed the paving. The people were of all sorts, those ill in body and those ill in mind; and a portion of those who sought the Virgin’s help had no troubles other than the feebleness of age.
Once while I sat looking on a young man of the bourgeois class, accompanied by his wife and little girl, approached the grotto. The mother with some difficulty induced the little one to courtesy to the statue of Our Lady, then left her in the care of the father while she went to kneel near the entrance of the grotto. The child toddled about for a few moments, and then in some way tripped and fell so that her head struck the paving with a good deal of violence. She broke into a loud wail of pain and fright, the mother jumped to her feet and ran to the spot, the father caught up the little girl in his arms, and every one in the audience was in a tremor of regret and sympathy. At once humanity was full of compassion, and all hearts were stirred; but the white figure and the grotto with all their supernatural powers of healing were untouched and gave no sign. A great bump rose on the child’s forehead, and the parents kissed her and tried to comfort her, and they let the water of the fountain flow on the hurt, and then they laid on wet handkerchiefs and went away.
A BARN WITH AN OPEN GABLE
The child’s sobs grew faint in the distance, and quiet again brooded over the place. There stood the silent white figure in its niche, there was the dark grotto under the high, vine-draped cliff, the little flames were eating down into the tallow on the candle tops, the water tinkled from the brass faucets, the leaves rustled on the great trees, and wavering shadows contested with the burning sunshine on the stone paving. A human atom had been hurt, but there was no visible indication that it made a particle of difference to either deity or nature.
That marvellous cures are made at Lourdes is beyond question, but that these are due to the miraculous power of the place, and not primarily to some wholly natural mental or physical change in the persons cured, is not so clear. Every one to be treated in the baths comes provided with a certificate from a doctor, frequently from several doctors. If a cure takes place, the cured one goes to the verification office not far from the baths, the certificate is examined, and the patient’s past condition is compared with the present to see if the benefit is real. But was the patient’s physician correct in his diagnosis, is the cure permanent, and is there any assurance that the Lourdes examiners are infallible or even disinterested?
Of the alleged cures I will only mention one that was related to me by a friend who personally knew about the circumstances. It is an American case — that of a Philadelphia boy who had never walked. One of his legs was shrivelled, and he was always wheeled about in a little cart. As he grew, the only change was to get a larger cart from time to time. His parents spent all their money seeing doctors and trying cures. Finally they lost hope. Then the boy’s godmother suggested they should take him to Lourdes. The father scoffed at the idea. He did not believe in present-day miracles — it was all nonsense. See what the doctors had said. Besides, he had no money.
Then the godmother offered to pay all expenses. Nevertheless, nothing would have been done had not the boy himself become interested and begged to go. So they made the long journey. His was not a case of coming out of the bath wholly restored at once, but he began from the first to improve, and in a short time he could walk like other boys. The shrivelled leg did not become quite as large as the other, but it was serviceable, and the miracle, if not perfect in its details, was sufficiently wonderful. To the sceptical the flaw in it lies in the fact that the boy was himself so eager to try the cure. He believed, and he made an effort to use his limbs such as he had never made before. However, whether the grotto has supernatural power or not, most of suffering humanity is always eager to grasp at possible restoration independent of logic or of science, and is ready to pursue a phantom if it is a last chance. Lourdes has waxed great and famous through this inherent tendency of human nature, and pilgrims will continue to flock to it until some new spot with power still more miraculous shall draw them elsewhere.
The most notable of the large pilgrimages that are coming to Lourdes throughout the summer, is the National Pilgrimage of France. It starts from all quarters of the republic, at a date in August appointed beforehand. From thirty to fifty thousand are transported yearly, and probably fully a thousand of these are ill past recovery. Several trains go from Paris alone, to make an uninterrupted journey of twenty-two hours. The sick are provided with pillows and mattresses, and friends and nuns are present to wait on them, but the trains are much crowded, and there is a good deal of discomfort. The pilgrimage arrives at Lourdes in great confusion, and confusion and intense excitement are rife all through the half week’s stay. There are gatherings by day and by night; new cures incite to fresh ardor; prayers unnumbered ascend; the suppliants drink the water, bathe, burn tapers, and then they go home — a few benefited, but the many disappointed.
From two hundred to five hundred thousand pilgrims visit Lourdes every year — and what became of the little shepherdess whose visions are the source of all this coming and going? Soon after the time of the apparitions she left her home to become the charge of the Sisters of Nevers, who had a convent in Lourdes, and who cared for the poor in the town asylum. The convent afforded some protection, though not a very effective one, from public inquisitiveness, and there Bernadette made her first communion, and was with difficulty taught to read and write. She continued to suffer with asthma, and, as the miraculous water of the grotto failed to be of any benefit in her case, she was taken to some baths in the mountains, but she returned unrelieved. She helped in sundry petty duties, and always had a piece of needlework, knitting, or embroidery in hand when her ill health was not such as to keep her in bed, as it often did for weeks at a time. She had fine eyes, clear and childlike, but her other features were very ordinary — puny, unobtrusive, and dull. She never had intimate friends or companions, and seemed attracted most by children. With the little ones at the asylum where the sisters ministered, she was happy and even quietly gay; and the children returned her affection, and liked to embrace her, and to have her look on while they played. Her piety continued keen, yet was neither ecstatic nor in any way overwrought. She had no more visions, and never of her own accord spoke of those eighteen apparitions of her childhood. When questioned about them she answered briefly, and then sought to change the conversation. The crowds that flocked to see and pay reverence to Bernadette were a source of annoyance and fatigue. Often she grew faint with repeating her story. No day passed without its stream of visitors. Ladies of high rank fell on their knees before her, kissed her gown, and would have liked to carry a piece away as a relic. They tried to buy her chaplet. Many hoped she would perform a miracle for their benefit. Children were brought that she might lay her hands on them, and she was consulted in cases of illness, and attempts were made to purchase her influence with the Virgin. But she did not wish money, and sometimes in a passion, when it was forced on her, she threw it on the floor.
It was a hard life, and at the age of twenty-two she was taken away to central France, to the convent of St. Gildard in Nevers. Yet there, too, she was pursued by the irresistible desire to obtain favors from her saintly person. People believed they would become lucky just by gazing on her; or if they could, on the sly, rub some medal against her dress, that suited their purpose better still. She wept with weariness. “Why do they torment me like this?” she said. “What more is there in me than in others?”
As she grew older, her illness became more and more pronounced, and, when not confined to her bed, she spent long days in an easy-chair, her only diversion the recitation of her rosary, or the reading some pious author. She was very little, the smallest of the convent sisters, and she was very thin, and her face long and hollow. When well she showed a childish liveliness that won the love of her associates, but her sufferings sometimes made her cross-grained and even rough. After her little displays of temper she repented with remorse, and hastened to ask pardon of every one, in great fear that she would surely be damned for her unholy conduct.
Her infirmities increased until, in her last days, she could only drag herself from chair to chair. As her nervousness and asthma grew more aggravated she had spasms of coughing that left her pitifully weak and exhausted. She again tried the Lourdes water, but, as before, without gain. “Heaven is at the end,” she sobbed, “but how long the end is coming!”
On Easter Monday in the year 1879, she was seized with a fit of shivering, and with hallucinations in which she saw the devil prowling about and jeering at her. In great fright she cried out to him to be off. Death brought its welcome relief the latter part of the same week, and for the three days following multitudes came for a last look on her face. Even in death there was no solitude, and the crowd brought medals, chaplets, and pictures to rub against her garments, hoping for one more favor. Now her body rests at St. Gildard beneath a stone slab in a little chapel, amid the shadowy silence of the old trees of the convent garden. She has peace at last.