Singing Bernadette's beautiful song

By  Charles Lewis, Catholic Register Special
  • March 23, 2011
Bernadette Soubirous was a French peasant girl who went out with friends to gather firewood for her family one February morning in 1858. Bernadette lived in Lourdes in stunning poverty. She was a terrible student and there was nothing about her or her family that was the least bit notable.

She was also sickly, suffering all her life from debilitating asthma. That ailment prevented her from carrying on with her friends to gather firewood that February day. So she waited by a grotto.

Most know what happened next. She saw a beautiful woman, with roses on her feet. No one else had ever seen this vision but over the following weeks crowds came to see Bernadette as she knelt in front of the grotto. It was the transformation in Bernadette’s face that transfixed the crowd. For reasons not explained by the intellect, those who gathered knew they were witnessing something extraordinary.

I never knew much about Lourdes or Bernadette until recently. I had seen the movie years ago but found it sappy and somewhat childish. I could not relate to the visions of a young peasant girl. That is probably why the book The Song of Bernadette sat unopened on my shelf for so many years. I thought it would be a book for children or those who like religion with a lot of sweet syrup. I’m not even sure why I bought it in the first place.

Then about a month ago I picked it up and began to read. By the time I reached the last page I concluded that I had just read one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century.

The genius of the book likely came from the perspective of its author, Franz Werfel. He was a Viennese Jew on the run from the Nazis after Germany entered Austria in 1938. He was like many German-speaking Jews of his day,  loyal to his country — he served on the Russian front in the First World War — with a deep desire to make a cultural contribution.

Instead, he and his wife barely escaped certain death. While on the run, he visited the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes and was treated kindly by the orders that maintained the site. The shrine gave him deep solace — a comfort even more profound because Werfel was not a Christian.

As the story goes, Werfel vowed that if he survived he would write a book about Bernadette. He made it to the United States and kept his promise. He died in 1945, a few days short of his 55th birthday.

The Song of Bernadette is less about visions of the Virgin Mary than the powerful effect the visions had on the surrounding culture. Bernadette deeply upset the civil government that felt the crowds following her represented a threat against public order. Civil servants, police and prosecutors could not understand how this nothing of a girl could usurp their authority and they despised her for it.

The Catholic Church suspected she was a fraud and many clergy thought she was either insane or a consummate liar. They could not understand why the Virgin Mary would speak to “this child” of all people. They must have forgotten that Jesus was born into poverty and was never known to dress finely or pal around with the elite. The Church too could not deal with someone who seemed to have a direct link to the divine.

Oddly, Bernadette never said she saw the Virgin Mary — only that she saw the most beautiful woman in the world.

The intellectuals of the time — those who met in cozy cafés to discuss events of the world — were less obviously against her but found it hard to square the events around the grotto with their own desire for a post-Christian France free of “superstition.” Every power on Earth was against her — except for the poor. In that sense she was in good company with the one who died 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem.

But some who hated her eventually began to realize their suspicion and cynicism were poisoning their own soul. One of the intellectuals finally reached a personal crisis and could no longer resist following his heart — to the grotto.

“The prayer behind him seemed to lay many gentle hands upon him. He who had always despised numbers as a conglomerate of low instincts and low interests now felt the devout behind him become a single loving incorporeal body that helped him more and more.”

(Charles Lewis writes about religion for the National Post and is the editor of the newspaper’s online religion site, Holy Post.)

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