Lourdes and the Modern World

Published February 13, 2008

One hundred fifty years ago, on Feb. 11, 1858, an illiterate, impoverished 14-year-old girl received the first of 18 visions of Mary, who eventually revealed herself to Bernadette Soubirous as “the Immaculate Conception.”

In mid-19th century Europe, Lourdes, a small town in the French Pyrenees, was about as backwater as backwater gets. Today, as for the past century and a half, Lourdes is one of the world’s great pilgrimage sites, a place of decency, fellowship and spiritual healing where inexplicable physical cures have also taken place.

In Lourdes: Font of Faith, Hope, and Charity (Paulist Press), Elizabeth Ficocelli tells the story of the shrine of Lourdes through the prism of the three theological virtues. Her description of Bernadette — whom the Church recognizes as a saint, “not because she saw visions, but because of her heroic virtue in responding to God’s mysterious call” — is a powerful reminder that sanctity is for everyone, and that the extraordinary enters the ordinary in order to call us to our true vocations. Genuine conversion, not spectacle, is what visions are for.

So if you want a good introduction to the history and spirit of Lourdes, Elizabeth Ficocelli’s book is for you. For those interested in examining the phenomenon of Lourdes through the eyes of a sympathetic secular scholar, there is Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age (Penguin Books), by the Oxford-based British historian Ruth Harris.

Professor Harris’ scholarship is impeccable, but it’s neither detached nor dessicated. As few secular academics do, she went to Lourdes as a volunteer aide to the sick and found herself caught up in a web of human solidarity, open-mindedness and “spiritual generosity” (as she puts it in a fine phrase).

That experience, coupled with the discovery that modern medicine had no diagnosis (let alone a cure) for a condition then plaguing her, led Ruth Harris to question the modern mythology of scientific progress, according to which phenomena like Lourdes are mindless and reactionary. Breaking with the chief unexamined assumption of secular modernity — that humanity, tutored by the scientific method, will outgrow its “need” for religion — Professor Harris found her scholar’s interest piqued by aspects of the story of Lourdes that skeptics typically miss.

Like the fact that Lourdes became one focal point for a new Christian feminism in 19th century France, as the pilgrimage to the Pyrenees “offered [women] a world of opportunity” for service and leadership. “The hundreds of thousands of Catholic women in the religious orders, mainly working in nursing and teaching, and the untold legions of lay women active in fundraising and charity” demonstrated by contrast how small and ineffectual were the initiatives on behalf of women taken by the hyper-secularist French Third Republic.

Or the fact that Lourdes became a place of social solidarity immune from the class divisions and rancors that had riven French society for centuries. As Harris puts it, Lourdes “brought different ranks of society together… [in] the seemingly spontaneous creation of a Christian collectivity that erased class and status.” What Marx imagined and Lenin tried to ramrod into history by mass murder, Bernadette effected by summoning others to faith, hope, and charity.

Without making a big point of it, Ruth Harris’ richly textured book is a devastating critique of the human emptiness of the secular city, which can’t deal with pain and tries to push it off-stage or eliminate it by scientific advance. Medical pain-relief is, to be sure, a worthy cause. But it becomes a false quest — an ultimately inhuman, even demonic, quest — when it seeks to eliminate suffering from the human condition.

It can’t, because physical pain is not the only pain, or even the worst pain. Animals feel pain; only humans suffer. At Lourdes, you can’t help but recognize that suffering is an integral part of the human experience, and that while suffering can’t be eliminated, it can be transformed and transcended — by faith, hope and love.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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