Bernadette Soubirous emerged as a visionary at a time of growing nineteenth century religious skepticism. France, a traditionally Catholic country, was becoming increasingly secular due to the anti-church legacy of the French Revolution and the “rationalism” of the European Enlightenment. Many believed that the new scientific age would sweep away religion “like cobwebs in a musty closet.”

Lourdes, however, an isolated village in the Pyrenees foothills in the southwest part of France, remained devoutly Catholic and deeply devoted to the worship of the Virgin Mary. It was in this setting that  Bernadette became the image and interpreter of the Divine, bringing countless numbers to a deeper faith in God.

The “lady” appears

Bernadette was born January 7, 1844 in Lourdes, the oldest of five children. Her parents, poor and dispossessed, eked out a living as day laborers. The family lived in an abandoned dungeon on the outskirts of town, and Bernadette, who was often ill, suffered chronically from asthma.

At age 14, she experienced a deep spiritual awakening. Over a five-month period, she was blessed with eighteen visions of a beautiful figure in white who eventually identified herself as Mary, the mother of Christ.

The first of these visions took place on the morning of February 1, 1858 when Bernadette was gathering firewood with her sister and a friend, on the outskirts of Lourdes near a grotto (cave) known as Massabeille. Thinking to catch up with the other two girls who had already crossed the nearby river, Bernadette sat down to take off her stockings.

Suddenly she heard a rush of wind “like a storm” and saw movement in a cluster of brambles in a small niche in the rocks above the grotto. She then saw a golden cloud and “lady” in white who greeted her with a slight bow. Over the “lady’s” right arm hung a rosary.

Instinctively Bernadette reached for her rosary to make the sign of the cross, but could not lift her arm until the “lady” had crossed herself. After making the sign of the cross, she and the “lady” began praying the rosary together. When they finished, the “lady,” smiling graciously, withdrew into the niche and disappeared.

Willing to die to see her again

The following week, the unnamed apparition appeared to Bernadette twice more. On the morning of February 18, during the third apparition, the “lady” spoke for the first time, and asked Bernadette if she would come to the grotto for a fortnight (two weeks).

Drawn to the grotto by what she described as an “irresistible force,” Bernadette went every day of the fortnight and saw the “lady” on all but two occasions. She later said that having seen the “lady” once, “one would willingly die to see her again.”

A transforming experience

As news of the apparitions spread throughout Lourdes and the surrounding countryside, crowds began to gather at the grotto. At first mainly women and peasants, the onlookers soon formed a cross-section of Lourdes society—the prosperous and the poor, the educated and the illiterate.

Visions of Mary were not uncommon in the Pyrenees foothills. What distinguished Bernadette’s was their public nature. Crowds eventually numbering in the thousands saw her become completely immobile in ecstatic trances, her face illumined by a holy light. Describing Bernadette when the “lady” appeared, one person wrote:

Suddenly, as though a flash of lightning had struck her, she gave a start of amazement, and seemed to be born into another life. Her eyes lighted up and sparkled; seraphic smiles played on her lips; an indefinable grace spread over her whole being.

A priest from a neighboring parish described his—and the crowd’s—reactions:

The whole crowd felt a gentle thrill. Bernadette alone saw the Apparition, but everyone felt, as it were, conscious of its presence. Joy mingle with fear was depicted on every face. It is difficult to imagine a more religious spectacle. Oh, how good it was to be there! I felt I was on the threshold of Paradise.

Even skeptics who came to jeer were transformed. One man recounts:

I had felt [the “lady’s”] presence and I was convinced that her motherly gaze hovered over my head. It was the most solemn hour of my life! I was thrown almost into a delirium of madness by the thought that a sneering, cynical, self-satisfied fellow like me had been permitted to come so close to the Queen of heaven.

By the end of the fortnight on March 4, more that 10, 000 people would witness the 15th apparition.

Threatened with imprisonment

After the 6th apparition on February 21, Bernadette found herself at the center of a growing controversy. Concerned about the size of the crowds, and convinced that the apparitions were either a hoax or the hallucinations of an uneducated peasant, Police Commissioner Jacomet summoned Bernadette for questioning.

An experienced interrogator, Jacomet used various kinds of trickery to provoke her into contradicting herself, but ultimately had to admit defeat. Bernadette’s story never varied, and she corrected Jacomet each time he tried to put words in her mouth. She replied calmly to his threat of imprisonment if she returned to the grotto, saying, “Sir, I have promised to go there every day for a fortnight.”

But when Jacomet threatened to imprison her father if she returned, Bernadette was torn, for she did not want her family to suffer. That night, she prayed deeply for guidance

The next day, upon entering the school courtyard after the midday meal, she was “irresistibly” drawn to the grotto where she again saw the “lady.” She later explained, “ I could not get my legs to work except to go to Massabeille.” Her father was never arrested.

A message of penance

With the eighth apparition, Bernadette delivered her first message to the crowd. Entering into deep state of ecstasy, she seemed to converse with the “lady.” Then, standing up suddenly, she repeated the words, “Penance! Penance! Penance!

The message of penance for the expiation of sins would be repeated in later apparitions, as the “lady” instructed Bernadette to kiss the ground and, on one occasion, to walk on her knees. The crowd, moved by these demonstrations of humility and obedience, also kissed the ground.

“Go and drink at the spring”

The ninth apparition culminated with Bernadette’s discovery of a miraculous spring for which Lourdes is famous today. Bernadette later explained:

The “lady” said to me, ‘Go and drink at the spring and wash yourself in it.’ Seeing no spring I went to drink at the river. She said it was not there. She pointed with her finger to a place under the rock. I went there and saw a bit of dirty water so small I could not get hold of any. I scratched the ground and the water came but it was muddy. Three times I threw it away; the fourth time I was able to drink some…

The crowd, thinking Bernadette insane for trying to drink from a seemingly non-existent spring, began to mock her. The next day, however, the spring was flowing freely and after two miraculous healings, the crowds quickly returned.

The stream tangibly reasserted the existence of the miraculous at a time when science scoffed at the miracles of the Bible. It was also a deeply appreciated solace for an area notable for the ill health of its population.

Proof against every temptation

During and after the fortnight, the police interrogated and threatened Bernadette. She and her family were closely watched. Skeptics, determined to expose a hoax, offered Bernadette and her family money, gifts, and other favors as entrapments.

Bernadette’s insistence that the family refuse all such offers foiled these schemes. Indeed, her detachment and unaffected simplicity won over many critics. A formerly hostile newspaper commented:

She is well—behaved, very sincere, pious, and above all, gay-spirited…. What is more, she and her family, despite their poverty, show a disinteredness that is proof against every temptation: they accept absolutely nothing from anyone….Bernadette appears indifferent not only to the admiration but also to the ridicule of which she is the object.

“I am the Immaculate Conception”

As the fortnight continued, the “lady” repeatedly requested a procession at the grotto and that a chapel be built. Three times Bernadette went to Abbe Peyramale, the Cure of Lourdes, with the “lady’s” directives—only to be sternly rebuffed by his skepticism and doubts.

Finally relenting, Peyramale said, “Ask the lady her name once more, and when we know who she is, we will build her a chapel.” The fortnight ended, however, and the Lady had not told Bernadette her name.

Three weeks later, Bernadette, feeling the inner call to return to the grotto, again asked the “lady” to reveal her name. After three requests, the “lady” announced, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

Bernadette immediately reported this to Peyramale, who found the news staggering. Four years previously, the Pope had declared the new article of faith of the “Immaculate Conception”—a dogma not widely known except among the church hierarchy, let alone to an ignorant peasant girl. The majority of Lourdes, including Peyramale, now accepted that the apparitions were of divine origin.

In 1862, the Church, after a prolonged investigation, declared that the “lady of the grotto was indeed Our Lady.” Christians could now go the grotto in procession and a chapel would soon be built.

Harsh treatment by her superiors

Declared a saint by the multitudes, Bernadette was besieged by a steady stream of visitors, including church dignitaries. Yearning for a life of obscurity, after four years as a boarding student at the hospice of the Sisters of Nevers in Lourdes, she became a nun at age 22.

She was an exemplary nun—kind, simple, humble, sincere and well regarded by her companions. Nonetheless, for eleven years, she was subjected her to an undeserved harshness by certain of her superiors. Although deeply hurt, she saw God in her superiors and bore no grudge.

During the last four years of her life, Bernadette suffered acutely from tuberculosis of the lungs and the bones. She died April 16, 1879 at age 35. Pressing a crucifix close to her breast, she cried, “All this is good for Heaven!”

*****     *****     *****

The Call To Be a Visionary
by Swami Kriyananda
(From How To Be a True Channel, Crystal Clarity Publishers)

One little-known aspect of this subject of channeling is that the magnetic appeal, and the conscious preparation that makes it possible for one to become a channel, may have taken place in a prior life.

A case in point is that of the three children at Fatima, Portugal, who received miraculous visions of the Virgin Mary, followed by a channeling of world prophecies and a number of amazing miracles.

Another case is that of Bernadette Soubirous, to whom the Virgin Mary appeared at Massabeille, outside Lourdes, France. At the end of those appearances there appeared the miraculous spring, in the waters of which countless people have since been healed.

None of these children actively sought the divine experiences they received…. No one has ever suggested that they were in any way unworthy of the graces they received. All agree that they were exceptionally pure in heart and mind.

We may assume that there was a magnetic appeal in their very purity, born of who knows how many devotional practices in the past. It was this quality, surely, that drew to them the graces they received.

Nakin Lenti, a minister and longtime Ananda member, serves in the Sangha Office at Ananda Village.

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