The young girl who first saw the Virgin Mary that February day in Lourdes was an unlikely visionary. She lived in a mountain village far from the urban and political centers of Europe. Once fairly prosperous, her family’s fortunes had declined to the point that they were living in a dank and miserable room that had once been the village jail. She was illiterate and in poor health, having contracted cholera and tuberculosis as a child. The girl worked as a hired servant and spoke only the local dialect. But Bernadette had an inner strength that belied her quiet manner and deprived upbringing: she knew she had experienced something remarkable, and she never wavered in the telling of her story.
Bernadette’s life changed forever as a result of her visions in the grotto. She was sent to the local school, where she learned to read and write. Her fame meant that she was continually pressed to repeat her story. She never altered any significant details, though surely she must have tired of the attention. “I am here to tell you what happened,” she would say. “I am not here to make you believe.”
In 1866, at the age of twenty-two, Bernadette entered a convent at Nevers, a town 500 miles away. She would never return to the site that had made her name famous. In the convent she worked in the infirmary caring for the sick. She died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-five, her constitution clearly weakened by the years of poverty and hardship she had endured while young.
In 1933, Bernadette was declared a saint by Pope Pius XI. By that time, Lourdes had become one of the most famous places in the world.
Looking back on my trip to Lourdes, I continue to be intrigued by the story of Bernadette. I can’t rationally explain what happened to that poor, uneducated girl on a February day near the town garbage dump. Her visions don’t fit neatly into the theology I was taught as a child, nor the dominant worldview of the culture I now inhabit. And yet something extraordinary happened to Bernadette in 1858, something that the rest of the world is still trying to comprehend.
By all ordinary standards, she lived a miserable life after the visions. The subject of worldwide speculation, she was forced to endlessly repeat her story. Fleeing to the shelter of a convent far from Lourdes was no doubt a relief to her, though the curious followed her even there.
“I am here to tell you what happened,” she would say. “I am not here to make you believe.”
That raw honesty is perhaps the best testament to the truth of her visions. She realized that she could only point the way, not lead people to the destination.
I have come to think that perhaps the best way to try to explain the mystery is this: one hundred and fifty years ago, a bell was struck in Lourdes, creating a divine sound that resonates to this day. Not all who journey to Lourdes can sense it, but the echoes of that immense thunderclap continue to reverberate for those who have ears to hear.