Bernadette, the Little Maiden of Lourdes:
A Life of the Beatitudes (Part II)
“I must become a saint. My Jesus wants it.”
– St. Bernadette
by Marianna Bartold
“At fourteen, not knowing how to read or write, a complete stranger to the French language and ignorant of the Catechism, Bernadette looked upon herself as the most worthless child of her years.”  On Thursday, January 28, 1858, the 14 year-old Bernadette returned to her parents, joyfully exclaiming, “Now at least I shall be able to go to school and Catechism! That’s why I’ve come back.” 
Circumstances were no better for the Soubirous family, but her parents gave their promise. The next day, Bernadette was in school. Upon hearing the child’s motive and determination, the Sisters enrolled her as a future communicant.
Coincidentally, on Thursday, February 11, 1858 – exactly two weeks after her return because she greatly desired her First Holy Communion - the humble girl was graced to see a “most beautiful Lady.” Bernadette would see this Lady a total of 18 times, the last vision occurring on July 16, 1858.
That particular Thursday was a school holiday, so Bernadette was home with her family. Although a bitterly cold day, the air was still and there was no wind under the sunless sky. Shortly after 11 a.m., Bernadette set out on a necessary, tiresome task, accompanying her sister Toinette and a younger, impulsive classmate, Jeanne Abadie. The trio went in search of two things: fallen branches and twigs that they could rightfully take and use in the Soubirous’ fireplace and old bones to sell to the rag-and-bone man.  Their expedition led them into a forest and then over a foot-bridge to the Lafitte family’s property, which formed an island. One side was enclosed by a bend in the Gave River, the other by a canal which powered a saw-mill and flour-mill, called the Savy. The extreme point of the triangle was a tall, rocky formation known as “Massabielle” (Old Hump).
Massabielle was “naturally shaped into an arch from which a cave ran backwards, and to the right, about fourteen feet up, there was a small niche where a wild rosebush was growing.”  In the spring season, the bush was “ablaze with white blooms.” This wild outgrowth of rock, with its little oval niche, was also called “the grotto.” In the small space before the grotto, Bernadette was forced to wait, as her healthier companions decided to remove their shoes and stockings, cross the freezing cold stream, and continue their search for dead branches and discarded bones.
They were already on the stream’s other side when, anxious to help, Bernadette resolved to join them. She removed her shoes in anticipation of walking through the water. “I had hardly begun to take off my stocking when I heard the sound of wind, as in a storm.”  (Two days later, Fr. Pomian – an assistant priest to Fr. Peyramele, the parish priest at Lourdes – was particularly struck by Bernadette’s mention of the “sound of wind, as in a storm.” It reminded him of Acts 2:2, when the Holy Ghost descended upon the Virgin and the Apostles: “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.”)
Although the trees across the way were not moving at all, Bernadette said, “I had half-noticed, but without paying any particular heed, that the branches and brambles were waving beside the grotto.” She returned to removing her stockings and was already putting one foot into the water when she again heard the same sound of wind, this time in front of her. She looked up and saw the branches and brambles “underneath the topmost opening in the grotto tossing and swaying to and fro, though nothing else stirred around.”
The Lady at the Grotto
It was within the oval niche that Bernadette saw a “golden cloud” and then a beautiful light, instantly followed by “a girl in white, no bigger than myself, who greeted me with a slight bow of the head; at the same time, she stretched out her arms slightly away from her body, opening her hands, as in pictures of Our Lady; over her arms hung a Rosary.” Bernadette described that the Lady was “smiling at me most graciously and seemed to invite me to come nearer. But I was still afraid. It was not, however, a fear such as I have had at other times, for I would have stayed there forever looking at her; whereas, when you are afraid, you run away very quickly.”
The Lady wore “a white dress reaching down to her feet, of which only the toes appeared. The dress was gathered very high at the neck by a hem from which hung a white cord. A white veil covered her head and came down over her shoulders and arms almost to the bottom of her dress. On each foot, I saw a golden rose. The sash of the dress was blue and hung down below her knees. The chain of the Rosary was yellow; the beads white, big, and widely spaced. The girl was alive, very young, and surrounded with light.” 
When asked for additional details, Bernadette would also describe the girl’s face as oval in shape and of “an incomparable grace.” The Lady’s eyes were blue, and her voice, “Oh, so sweet!” The Rosary held by the Lady was not the usual length for the Psalter of all 15 decades but a five-decade Rosary. As Bernadette prayed the Rosary, the Lady let Her own Rosary slip through Her fingers, silently counting the beads with Bernadette. The Lady, however, did not pray the Our Father or the Hail Mary, but She did pray the Glory Be.
Abbé Trochu, her foremost biographer, noted: “This last detail, which the little one in her ignorance could not have invented, reveals an accurate and deep theological truth. The Gloria, which is a hymn of praise to the Adorable Trinity, and is Heaven’s Canticle, is indeed the only part of the Rosary suitable for Her, whose name Bernadette would not learn for another month. The Pater is the prayer of needy mortals, tempted and sinful, on their journey to the Fatherland; as for the Ave, the Angel’s greeting (to the Virgin Mary), this could be used only by the visionary, as the Apparition had no need to greet Her own self.” 
In the first two apparitions, the Lady did not speak to Bernadette, although She greeted the girl with a noble, yet inviting, bow of the head. During the third apparition, the Lady spoke for the first time, asking Bernadette, “Will you do me the favour of coming here for a fortnight?”  Bernadette said, “After asking permission from my parents, I will come,” to which the Lady replied, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the other” (a literal French-to-English translation).
As Bernadette would soon understand, the Lady did not state that She herself would always appear. Rather, the request applied only to Bernadette. A brief summary provided by the first inquiry of the ecclesiastical Commission which later investigated the Lourdes apparitions thus states: “Bernadette was faithful to her appointment: she went most punctually to the grotto for a fortnight. She always obtained the same favours there, except on two days when the Apparitions did not appear.” It was from this time forward that the young Bernadette was “accompanied by an ever increasing crowd. When she had the happiness of seeing the Vision, she forgot everything: she no longer noticed what was taking place around her: she was entirely absorbed.” 
This World and the Other
As for the Lady saying, “I do not promise you happiness in this world, only in the other,” her words quickly became self-evident. From the first day of the Apparition and until the end of her brief life, Bernadette would suffer misunderstandings, humiliations, false accusations, open derision, and many other trying circumstances.
For example, when her mother, Louise, first heard the story from the younger sister, Toinette, she questioned Bernadette and then took a rod to discipline both girls. At school, a much younger student slapped Bernadette across the face, while some of the teaching sisters taunted her to learn her catechism from the Lady. For many hours, the secular authorities would discourteously treat her, not even offering her a chair while they interrogated her. Even Fr. Peyramele was, at the first, very gruff with Bernadette.
Throughout her life, Bernadette was many times cross-examined about the Apparitions. In fact, she “wrote and signed numerous accounts of her visions In addition, she underwent repeated interrogations by both ecclesial and civil authorities, during which her testimony was transcribed. In none of these accounts did she contradict herself; on the other hand, there is no one single version that includes every detail.” 
What is consistent is Bernadette’s fidelity to testifying to the Virgin’s message and in living it. In the total of 18 apparitions, the Blessed Mother only spoke a handful of times. Once, She delivered three secrets that were for Bernadette alone – “a commission which, on her deathbed, she [Bernadette] declared she had carried out.”  For the public, however, the main message was one of penance, prayer for the conversion of sinners, and a request that the priests build a chapel and that processions come to the grotto. There was also the Lady’s gift, through the hands of Bernadette, of a hidden spring of water where graces of spiritual and bodily healing are to this day bestowed.
When the fortnight ended, the Lady had still not identified herself. During that interim, Bernadette had, at Father Peyramale's insistence, requested two things of the heavenly visitor – Her name, as well as a sign to confirm that the Apparition’s request for a chapel was truly from God. On Thursday, February 25, 1858, the Lady had already instructed Bernadette, “Go and drink at the spring and wash yourself in it.” From young girl’s hand, the miraculous spring of Lourdes would come forth. To the request for Her name, however, the Lady only gave Bernadette a gentle smile.
After March 4, Bernadette felt no inner call to return to the grotto until March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation. When she arrived, she found the Lady was already waiting for her. On this day, Bernadette thrice implored the Lady for Her name. Then came the final confirmation of Lourdes, for the Lady raised Her eyes to Heaven as She joined Her hands, brought them close to Her heart, and said, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” After the briefest moment, She then smiled at Bernadette and disappeared.
Life after Lourdes
The Holy Communion so ardently desired by Bernadette was received on the Feast of Corpus Christi. Then, on July 16, the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, the Lady appeared to Bernadette one last and unexpected time. To deter pilgrims, civil authorities placed boards around the grotto, including the spring. Bernadette was by the Gave River when suddenly the Lady appeared: “I saw neither the boards nor the Grave. It seemed to me that I was in the grotto, no more distance than the other times. I saw only the Holy Virgin. I had never seen her so beautiful.” 
Bernadette’s actions during the apparitions emphasized both the Rosary and humiliating penance for sinners, but the Vision’s requests also tested her humble piety, fortitude, spirit of penance, and perseverance. Thus her coming years were foreshadowed, for she would continue to practice and interiorly grow in these and many other virtues.
The future saint was well aware that the grace of seeing the Mother of God did not grant her automatic access to Heaven. She would later write in her spiritual diary: “Often remind yourself of this word that the Most Holy Virgin said to you: Penance! Penance! You should be the first to put it into practice. For this intention, suffer trials in silence so that Jesus and Mary may be glorified…” 
Bernadette learned to read, write, embroider and sew. She became a Sister of Charity and Christian Instruction at Nevers, France, and was given the name of Sister Marie-Bernard. She worked in the infirmary as a nurse’s aide, and was later given the lighter task of altar sacristan. In the convent, she lived a life of both interior and physical suffering. She was often ill and frequently misunderstood and humiliated by her superiors and, on occasion, her fellow sisters. Abbé Trochu noted that “for the space of eleven years – much as she was esteemed and loved by her companions – she had been subjected to an undeserved coldness by those in authority over her. She always refused to speak of her suffering, which was a mixture of bewilderment and pain. She put up submissively with being reprimanded in public and more frequently than was her share.” 
Due to Bernadette’s lack of higher education and her frequent illnesses, to cite just two examples, she was called a “good for nothing” and “a lazy lie-abed.” Deeply hurt by such uncharitable comments, Bernadette never retaliated, although on occasion she might respond with a brief, appropriate remark. Once, when a passing superior flung a quick jest that the ailing Bernadette needed to arise and get about her business, the saint calmly replied, “It is my business to be ill.”
St. Bernadette understood that hers was an apostolate of suffering. A brief glimpse into her diary reveals the hidden gem of her interior life: “My divine Spouse has made me desire a humble and hidden life. Jesus has often told me that I will not die until I have sacrificed all to Him. And to convince me, He has often told me that when it is over, He alone, Jesus crucified, will console me.” 
What was the secret of Bernadette? She tells us in her own words: “To love what God wills always, to will it always, to desire it always, to do it always: this is the great secret of perfection, the key to paradise, the foretaste of the peace of the saints!” 
 Trochu, Abbé Francois. St. Bernadette Soubirous: 1844-1879 [Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1985. Translated and adapted by John Joyce, S.J. First published in France under the same title by Librairier Catholique Emmanuel Vitte, Paris, 1954. English edition copyright 1957 by Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., London. Published by TAN in arrangement with Longman Group Limited, London. Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, June 21, 1957): p. 36.
 Bones were used “for knife handles, toys and ornaments, and when treated, for chemistry. The grease extracted from them was also useful for soap-making.” Rag-and-bone man, Wikipedia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rag-and-bone_man]
 Foley, Donal Anthony. Marian Apparitions, the Bible, and the Modern World. [Herefordshire, England: Gracewing, 2002. Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur]: p . 159.
 Trochu, loc. cit., p. 42.
 Loc. cit., pp. 42-43.
 Loc. cit., p. 44.
 A fortnight is 15 consecutive days.
 Trochu, op. cit., p. 63.
 McEachern, Ph.D., Patricia A. A Holy Life: The Writings of St. Bernadette of Lourdes [San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2005. Kindle Edition]: Loc. 116.
 Foley, op. cit., p. 160.
 McEachern, op. cit., Loc. 2354.
 Ibid., Loc. 573.
 Op. cit., Loc. 284.
 Op. cit., Loc. 330.
 Op cit., Loc. 542.