The life of St. Bernadette Soubirous was steeped in paradox and irony. She was the chosen visionary of our Lady at Lourdes and was to bring forth, by heavenly guidance, a spring that would bring miraculous healing to thousands. Yet Bernadette herself was beset with health problems that would cause her dreadful suffering. Her quiet and heroic suffering, something she accepted with obedience and as a kind of mission for souls, is not common knowledge today. Hers was a beautiful, difficult testimony; she suffered mightily. I base my reflections here on a biography of her by Fr. Rene Laurentin: Bernadette Speaks: A Life of St. Bernadette Soubirous in Her Own Words.
Bernadette Soubirous was born in January of 1844. Her father and mother were among the working poor of the town of Lourdes, France. Her father was a resident miller of a mill he did not own. For a time, the family found lodging in the Boly Mill, where Bernadette was born. Surely the persistent, gentle sounds of the mill grinding the wheat were some of her earliest memories. But famine brought financial ruin to the Soubirous family; the mill was sold and they lost everything. So poor did they become that they were forced to live in a cell of the former town jail.
Such poverty and poor nutrition surely contributed to her later health troubles and to her diminutive stature. Bernadette stood only 4 feet 7 inches tall and had an asthmatic condition that would be her cross throughout her life. Many who heard of the visionary of Lourdes and sought to meet her were surprised by the woman they met: diminutive, short of breath, and with a persistent cough. Her life was filled with suffering, and like Jesus, who suffocated on the cross, she would die in a similar (though less violent) fashion.
Bernadette’s suffering began at a young age; her health declined beginning in the sixth year of her life. She had stomach trouble, seemingly a disorder of the spleen. And the cholera epidemic of 1855 struck her cruelly. From that time on Bernadette was asthmatic. Even in the period just after the apparitions, she was so sick that she received the last Sacraments.
Although she recovered, she was constantly sought out by a constant influx of visitors to Lourdes; this tired her greatly. Her pastor and her family sought to protect her as much as possible, but she found it impossible to refuse such numbers entirely. Although Bernadette preferred solitude and shunned the fame that others gave her, she strove to be generous and patient with the steady stream of pilgrims and admirers.
Many were surprised by what they saw when they met Bernadette. They noted that she often coughed and that her asthma seemed to give her much trouble. One visitor was quite startled by her appearance, calling her “puny.” Some years later, another visitor described waiting in the entryway of the convent-school while Bernadette was summoned. As Bernadette came up the hall (with a sister escorting her) the visitor heard the sound of labored breathing and wheezing. The sister entered, followed by a “small child who looked to be merely 13 or 14.” Yet Bernadette was by this time 19 years old. The visitor noted that her face was oval and full, but her cheeks were rather red (a common problem in those who have asthma).
Yes, many visitors were surprised that a woman whose legacy loomed so large was herself so diminutive and in such poor health. They would ask, “Have you prayed for a cure?” The answer often came back simply, strangely, and laconically, “No.”
A visiting priest arrived to question Bernadette about the apparitions and, finding her in bed, asked how long she had been sick:
“Over a week,” she answered.
“And what ails you?”
“My chest,” she noted.
He observed that her cough indicated a considerable weakness in her chest.
“Are you asking the Blessed Virgin for a cure? Hasn’t the water from the grotto helped many people? Why wouldn’t she heal you?”
“Perhaps she wants me to suffer,” Bernadette replied.
“Why would she want you to suffer?”
“Maybe I need to suffer.”
“Why do you need to suffer?”
“Ah, God knows!” she said.
“Yes, people say that she told you that you would suffer very much.”
“Yes,” replied Bernadette, “but she promised me I would be happy in the next life.”
And here is a brief picture of what would be her life: often terrible sufferings, but accepted because she believed that she had been (in some sense) “assigned” this lot. Yes, it is a great paradox.
Despite her many illnesses, Bernadette certainly had her strengths. She stood up to strong interrogation. At one point the town commissioner, anxious about the crowds, warned her not to return to the grotto. She indicated respectfully that she was compelled to go there and that she could not guarantee that she would not. He threatened to lock her away in jail. “Then I guess I couldn’t go to the grotto!” was her fearless response. She was no shrinking violet, despite her illnesses. She knew what she had seen and heard, and no amount of scoffing or threats made her doubt what she had experienced. She also fiercely resisted anyone’s attempts to embellish or misrepresent the apparition. What had happened had happened; there was to be no adding or subtracting from it. She was serenely confident and never wavered from her descriptions.
Bernadette’s teachers among the Sisters of Charity of Nevers noted that her character was strong and that she had her stubborn moments. She could be sensitive to small injustices and was said to be somewhat mischievous, especially in her younger years. Despite her fame for being a saint (because she had seen the Blessed Virgin), she displayed no affectations of sanctity. Bernadette did not play to the crowds. Her family and the nuns who taught her insisted that she was as normal a girl as one could imagine.
As the years went by, her health problems multiplied. One of the sisters in the school she attended noted that Bernadette was regularly short of breath and that she experienced all kinds of other troubles: toothaches, frequent rheumatism in her leg, and a painful shoulder—so painful that it almost caused her to faint. Her frequent coughs brought on vomiting, and she often coughed up blood, sometimes in large quantities. She would often have to be brought to the window to help her breathe.
In sickness Bernadette was never known to be impatient. The winter and the months of early spring were the worst for her.
Many visitors would ask her if she wanted to be a nun. She said, “Yes, but I haven’t the health.” By 1864 her poor health had not improved much, but her attraction to the religious life had grown. Bernadette despaired that she would ever have the health to enter into the religious life. And yet the sisters who saw her growth in holiness were willing to make exceptions.
In 1866 Bernadette entered The Sisters of Charity of Nevers, the same order that had schooled her in Lourdes. Entering the novitiate, she looked forward to the relative seclusion and solitude. The steady stream of visitors and the burden of her fame continued to weary her.
Within a month of entering, as the cool of late September approached, Bernadette’s asthma grew worse. The sisters who ran the infirmary marveled at her ability to withstand suffering. Her choking and coughing were profound yet she did not complain. She said to the sisters, “It’s necessary; it’s nothing.”
So intense were her sufferings that by late October the chaplain was summoned. It was announced to the community that Bernadette would probably not last through the night. The local bishop was summoned as well, and he admitted her into solemn vows that evening presuming that she would not survive the night. Indeed, she had just vomited a basin-full of blood and could barely recite her vows; the Bishop of Nevers recited her answers on her behalf. He left the room that night convinced he would never see her alive again.
And yet Bernadette made another miraculous recovery. Patterns such as this continued until her death in 1879. With every passing year, the asthmatic flare-ups in the winter and early spring worsened, each time bringing her closer to death.
Bernadette entered the infirmary for the last time in December of 1878. In addition to her asthma, she had a tumor that produced rigidity in her knee and caused horrible suffering. The pain was so intense for Bernadette that it sometimes took an hour to move her into a “good” position. Her face was said to have taken on a cadaverous appearance. If she was able to sleep at all, even the slightest movement of her leg would elicit involuntary screams. She lost weight and was said to have slipped away to almost nothing. The descriptions of her condition at this time included the following: chronic asthma, chest pains accompanied by the spitting up of blood, an aneurysm of the aorta, a tumor on the knee, stomach pains, bone decay, abscesses, and bedsores.
Bernadette revealed that she was no longer able to meditate. She was heard to murmur from time to time, “My God, I offer this up to you. Give me patience.” One of the sisters in the Infirmary said that Bernadette’s poor body seemed to be nothing but one large wound.
During Holy Week of 1879, Bernadette’s bedsores became extreme. She coughed almost continuously. By now she knew and stated aloud, “My passion will last until I die.” Still, she rarely complained, though involuntary groans often came forth. Bernadette’s concern seemed to be more about the others around her in the infirmary who were disturbed by her coughing, than about her own condition.
Added to this were satanic attacks. She was heard to say, “Be gone, Satan.” She admitted that the devil tried to frighten her. But when she invoked the holy name of Jesus, the devil soon disappeared.
As death drew near she marveled, saying, “I wouldn’t have thought it took so much suffering to die.” But she then added, “It is no sacrifice to give up a miserable life, where we encounter so many hardships, to belong to God.” She further lamented, “I’m afraid I’ve received so many graces, and have profited so little.”
Her gaze was now directed most frequently toward the crucifix on the wall. She began to extend her arms in imitation of Christ on the cross, saying, “My Jesus! How I love Him!”
Two days before she died, St. Bernadette offered a metaphor for the mystery of her suffering. Something in her hearkened back to the Boly Mill where she grew up in Lourdes. The grinding of the millstone had lulled her to sleep as an infant and accompanied her first years as a child. Perhaps it was that now-distant memory that caused her to say, shortly before she died, “I am ground like a grain of wheat.” She had never willfully complained about her suffering. Somehow she seemed to know this was her mission: to suffer for others.
Yes, it was a supreme paradox that this visionary of Lourdes, who found through God’s grace and Mary instruction a spring of healing water for multitudes, would herself suffer so much for souls, offering her agonies for them, for us. It was her personal and hidden passion for us. The other side of the gift of healing that Lourdes gives is the grace to endure suffering.
Bernadette died on April 16, 1879. Her long passion was now ended. Like Jesus, she gave over her spirit and breathed her last. She was 35 years old.
Visitors to her tomb are able to see her incorrupt body in the glass casket at Nevers. But the face that they look upon is really a wax mask. Surely it captures her beauty, but it also hides the glory of her suffering: suffering embraced and accepted. Her true face at death was more gaunt and showed the effects of the cross she accepted as she was “ground like wheat” and as she lost herself entirely in the Cross of Jesus.
Most know St. Bernadette simply as the little girl kneeling in prayer before the Virgin Mary in countless grottos throughout the world. Less well known is the private, personal, and profound passion of a great woman who discovered that her mission was to suffer for others.
Where does the water of Lourdes get its power to heal? Surely from the Lord. But something of Bernadette’s passion runs through those waters as well. They are indeed precious waters, bought at great price.
Saint Bernadette, pray for us.