To Be a Pilgrim: A Visit to Lourdes

Pilgrims pray in front of the Grotto of Massabielle (lower right) in Lourdes, France, in 2016. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)
On God, miracles, and communal spirit

Editor’s Note: Ten years ago this week, National Review’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., passed away. To commemorate the anniversary of Buckley’s passing, NRO will be reprinting a number of his pieces over the next few days. For more information about the National Review Institute’s efforts to preserve Buckley’s work, please visit the Buckley Legacy Project.

The following originally appeared in the August 9, 1993 issue of National Review.

I went to my doc and told him that for five days I hadn’t done anything much except sleep, that I had even had to abort a long-planned weekend in Nassau with my wife. “I assume it’s the same old thing,” I said — my refractory sinuses punishing me, this time around, for spending 21 consecutive days on airplanes, flying here and there on the lecture circuit. He went through his customary motions, took maybe his 150th throat culture, and told me to come back the next day with a set of sinus X-rays, and I told him, No, that was not possible because I had to fly the next day, and he said I was positively not to fly until after he had seen the X-rays, and I said to him, Look, doc, I have to go to Lourdes tomorrow and I can’t believe Our Lady would make me sick en route to Lourdes, that would make no sense. He said why didn’t I leave one day later, and I told him that was not possible because I was flying non-stop as the guest of a friend with a private plane.

We struck a bargain: I would agree to submit to a big-deal MRI on the spot, ten blocks away; he would examine it and (presumably) tell me if one more flight would be lethal. Later that afternoon I heard from his assistant. Her exact words were, “The doctor said since you’re going to go anyway, we may as well let you go.”

So off I went, equipped with antibiotics and auxiliary medications. If you have an eye for piquancies, here is one — that the first two nights at Lourdes I slept consecutively not more than four hours. On night three I decided it was time for a shoot-out with whatever neurological hobgoblin was playing degenerative games with me, and so at bedtime I took not one tablet but two. From my experience with this drug I had long since concluded that this must have been the stuff they gave to Juliet, so effective is it. I reckoned that if the next morning I did not wake up at all, I would be left with a serious theological problem. But I slept the whole night through; and when I woke, prepared to resume the scheduled program of our pilgrimage, theological questions were on my mind anyway, indulging as I was not only the experience of a pilgrimage to Lourdes but a corollary curiosity about what exactly goes on there and what would be its impact on one first-time visitor.

A reason one doesn’t hear so much about Lourdes these days (compared, say, to a generation or two ago) has to be that people don’t really know what more there is to say. The inquirer whose mind turns for the first time to the subject begins by asking the questions one would expect, the first of which is of course, “Was there really an apparition?”

This translates to, “Did the little girl called Bernadette Soubirous actually see something? Or was what she reported no more than the product of an inflamed imagination?”

That question was first posed on February 11, 1858, to her family, whose reply was plainspoken: Bernadette’s mother spanked her and put her to bed.

There was something about the dogged sincerity in the 14-year-oId’s recounting of her experience that brought on a grudging acknowledgment — not that Bernadette had in fact come face to face with an apparition, but that something was going on worth investigating, even if it turned out to be nothing more than her mental health.

But there was something about the dogged sincerity in the 14-year-oId’s recounting of her experience that brought on a grudging acknowledgment — not that Bernadette had in fact come face to face with an apparition, but that something was going on worth investigating, even if it turned out to be nothing more than her mental health. Accordingly, three days later her mother gave permission to return. Back Bernadette went, to the little grotto alongside which, on Day One, Bernadette, a younger sister, and a friend had been foraging for firewood.

That was when Bernadette had suddenly stopped, immobilized for a full half-hour. When she came out of her trance she excitedly described the lady in white, with the blue eyes, the smile, and the blue belt-sash hanging down the front of her white robe.

On that second day at the grotto, once again in the company of her sister and their friend, she lost her composure while in communion with the apparition. The trance over, she opened her eyes and said that the lady in white had come and gone. But she could not rise, nor could her companions lift her up from the ground. They called on a neighboring miller for help. He handled her as a muscular aide would handle a heavyweight boxer who had been knocked insensate in the ring. Bernadette’s family ruled that the phenomenon was ridiculous and profane and once again forbade her to return to the grotto. But of course she did. And her third visit, four days later, proved special because, for the first time, the lady in white spoke to her.

What had she said?

She had said that Bernadette should come back every afternoon for the next two weeks.

Bernadette did so. As one might expect, with each visit a larger number of villagers accompanied her, curious to witness the girl’s catatonia and to hear from her own lips, after she came out of it, what it was that she had seen, and heard.

*    *    *

Lourdes was (and still is, really), a small town, situated in the northern foothills of the Pyrenees. Charlemagne is said to have fought over it, laying siege to its imposing fort in the eighth century, when the Moors occupied it. He struck a bargain with them: They would be permitted to survive the siege provided they converted to Christianity. In the years that followed, Lourdes, like the islands of the Antilles, became a musical chair: France had it, Spain had it, England had it. Permanent French occupation came only in the 15th century.

Lourdes withstood attacks during the religious wars, remaining stoutly Catholic, so that Bernadette’s neighbors were indisputably French and indisputably Catholic: but notwithstanding the fabled Gallic skepticism, they were themselves hypnotized by the apparent transfiguration, before their own eyes, of the miller’s oldest daughter. Whatever it was that was inducing those trances, the consensus gradually consolidated that they were not self-induced. For one thing there was nothing in the least theatrical in Bernadette’s disposition, and certainly nothing in her background that would encourage anything of the sort. Her father was a casualty of the Industrial Revolution, well on the way to bankruptcy because technology had come up with more economical ways of making bread than grinding flour with roughly the same tools that had been used at the time of Christ. In the single room that made up the home of M. Soubirous, his wife, and their four children, histrionic episodes, one confidently deduces, were neither expected nor countenanced.

The elders of Lourdes were now prepared to acknowledge that Bernadette was seeing “something.” But they were resolute in disbelieving that the lady in white was the madonna.

And then when Bernadette woke from her trances, her accounts were always direct and unambiguous. The lady in white usually did not speak to her, emitting only a smile. Seven times, during the 18 apparitions, she broke silence. On one occasion she called on Bernadette to relay her plea for repentance — hardly an irrelevant request, in the south of France in 1858, or for that matter in the north of France in 1958. Then came the second declaration: Bernadette was to pass on the word to the clergy — they must construct a chapel alongside the site at which the apparition was taking place. Next, she instructed Bernadette to dig in the earth a few feet away. She did so, and soon a stream of water sprang out. It continues, 135 years later, to flow, at a rate of up to 1,400 gallons per hour; water from the Pyrenees mountains that empties into the river Gave, and fills the thousands of receptacles in which it is collected by pilgrims. It is this water that fills the baths in which over one million pilgrims have immersed their bodies, their motive to experience a cure for an infirmity, or else merely to perform a devotional act, even as, in the secular world, a line might form to kiss the emperor’s ring or curtsy to the queen.

The elders of Lourdes were now prepared to acknowledge that Bernadette was seeing “something.” But they were resolute in disbelieving that the lady in white was the madonna: Whatever the chimera was, it was surely something other than the mother of Christ. The parish priest, a hardy skeptic during the entire fortnight, said repeatedly to Bernadette that she must ask the apparition to give herself a name: Who was she?

The priest’s request was compliantly transmitted, but the lady only smiled in response — until the 16th apparition. This time the lady in white answered Bernadette. She said, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette dutifully reported these words to the priest and the general company. The reaction was electric: The lady in white had declared herself to be the Blessed Virgin, the mother of Christ. The awe increased when Bernadette was closely questioned, and it transpired that she a) had never before heard the term, “Immaculate Conception,” and b) had no idea what it meant or to whom it referred.

*    *    *

What followed was the usual sluggish reaction to any extraordinary event (Thomas Edison brought on no headlines when he announced that he had harnessed electricity). But the First Stage was now complete. No one associated with her any longer doubted that Bernadette — who went on to a novitiate in a nearby nunnery, where she died early from tuberculosis and the asthma she had contracted before the apparition — had truthfully described what she had seen and reported what she had heard.

The lady in white had given no intimation that the little spring she had brought to life would have therapeutic effects on many who touched it or were touched by it, but in fact it did.

In due course the chapel she had been instructed to propose was realized: The basilica is very large, its satellites numerous. The lady in white had given no intimation that the little spring she had brought to life would have therapeutic effects on many who touched it or were touched by it, but in fact it did. And even when her story had become nationally and internationally accepted, well before her death in 1879 at age 35, few gave any thought to the canonization of Bernadette Soubirous (this happened in 1933). Certainly no one had any idea that 100 years later several million people every year would travel to Lourdes to see the grotto where the lady in white appeared, to feel the waters that continue to flow from the spring she unearthed, and to return from their visit to Lourdes substantially — in many cases, critically — affected by the experience. It is a matter of record that there are cases of the lame and the halt who have returned whole from Lourdes, and for every one of them there are tens of thousands who return affected in other ways.

*    *    *

Oddly, English-speaking visitors cannot find Lourdes literature other than photographic books with slender textual matter. The French, yes — their Lourdes library is copious. But even the cosmopolitan bookstores don’t carry copies of The Miracle of Lourdes, written 38 years ago by Ruth Cranston, and more or less updated in 1986. It is a useful volume, by a Protestant who became a devotee of Lourdes. The book is valuable primarily for its inclusion of basic data about the shrine. It records in considerable detail, for instance, a dozen of the cures attributed to Lourdes.

It is not surprising, but worth stressing, that there is no tribunal in existence more skeptical than those through which you need to pass if your claim is to have been cured at Lourdes. One faces first the so-called Medical Bureau. It is a cadre of doctors who donate their time, spending periods of various lengths in residence at Lourdes. Their duty is to examine — their opportunity is to learn from — the phenomena that pass by. Only a minority of these men of science are professing Catholics.

It is not surprising, but worth stressing, that there is no tribunal in existence more skeptical than those through which you need to pass if your claim is to have been cured at Lourdes.

On the extraordinary occasion when the Bureau, after exhaustive investigation, places a stamp of approval on the claims of a “Curé,” it is saying formally that there is no known or hypothetical scientific explanation for the physical transformation the doctors have documented. The case goes then to a second medical examining body, an international committee whose headquarters are in Paris. If this body concurs, that validation is then referred to a canonical commission in the diocese in which the candidate lives; and the skepticism here is not only scientific hut theological: The Church has almost always been the last to believe that a miracle actually took place, but of course prepared to believe that what took place was a miracle. In this respect the Church learns from Thomas, who declined to believe in the Resurrection until the palpability of Christ’s wounds was experienced. Do not ask the ecclesiastical tribunal at Lourdes to acclaim that you have been miraculously cured (unless you have been). You would have better luck at that bank in London that continues to store remnants of the Czar’s treasury announcing yourself as Anastasia.

Before the International Medical Committee will agree to pursue your case further, 16 questions (I am not responsible for the English rendition) have to be answered satisfactorily — questions such as: Has the diagnosis been established by adequate objective examination? Does the comprehensive clinical picture rule out psychogenic overlay? Does the prognosis rule out the possibility of spontaneous remission, natural cure, significant improvement, or long-term remission? Has the sick person noticed the disappearance of subjective symptoms? Did the cure appear completely contrary to the prognosis? Was the cure sudden and consistent with the disappearance of objective pathological signs?

*    *    *

A questionnaire, with every one of its taunts answered as a miracle would require, will not satisfy everybody. Emile Zola, a devout, indeed consecrated atheist, went to enormous pains, practical and poetic, to affirm his animating axiom, which he once reduced to simple words: “Even if I saw a miracle, I couldn’t believe it.” So eager was he to affirm his disbelief that he based one work of fact/fiction on a Lourdes pilgrim. The story was taken from life and he coped with his problem by simply falsifying the documented record, poor Zola. Every now and again a dedicated body of skeptics engages somebody’s theatrical energies with the aim of faking his way through the Lourdes accreditation process in order to discredit it. My favorite of these is the young lady who arrived at Lourdes complaining of a lifelong affliction, getting worse as the years went by — an anal fistula. She took the baths and on emerging announced herself triumphantly as cured! She was taken to the Medical Bureau, where the doctors proceeded to put together her record — her family history, history of the illness, history of the cure. The paperwork having been done, the doctors were ready to go on to the next stage, a physical examination. The record gives us the ensuing exchange:

“Examine me — but why?”

“In order to verify your cure, madame.”

“And all that I have been telling you — that is for nothing?”

“For nothing, madame, if we do not examine you.”

“But I do not wish to be examined.”

“In order to verify a cure, we must examine the patient. If you do not consent, we shall tear up the record.”

“Then I shall not be verified?”

“No, madame.” The dear lady faced a problem, and the chronicler, Mrs. Cranston, tells in her book of the proceedings:

“After much protesting and objecting, finally she yielded, and the examination took place, five or six doctors assisting.”

“There was nothing whatever the matter with the woman, and never had been — certainly not the malady she described. When the doctors asked her to show them where the anal fistula was, she pointed to a little white scar (the vestige of an old cyst operation) quite high up on the back and in a spot where certainly no one ever had an anus.”

Fewer than one hundred “cures” have been certified by the Church as miraculous.

Well, one does try. After protracted questioning the lady broke down. “She had been purposely sent, by an antireligious organization of one of the big departments in the middle of France, to bring back a personal document showing that at the Medical Bureau of Lourdes they recognized miracles without even examining the patients.” It is really quite charming, this confidence of the young lady impostor, that no gentlemanly doctor would propose to examine — that part of the body — in search of mere medical evidence.

Fewer than one hundred “cures” have been certified by the Church as miraculous. This number is drastically smaller than the number of “cures” plausibly claimed by men and women who have traveled to Lourdes but who for whatever reason (they did not care; they had not kept records; their local doctors would not cooperate) didn’t submit to the rigorous examinations required; or else did so, and did not pass these tests. Mrs. Cranston, who spent many years in residence at Lourdes and engaged in meticulous record-keeping, estimates at 10,000 the number who have declared themselves cured. But even if her calculations are correct, that leaves us with one cure per ten or 15 thousand pilgrims. The odds, one supposes without actually going to statistical archives, are not very different from what one might expect on buying a lottery ticket. People go to Lourdes for other reasons, and if my own experience is representative, they leave profoundly affected.

*    *    *

The book by Mrs. Cranston gives the record, as noted, of many documented cures. I select one, not because it is singular but because it is, in essential respects, typical. Marie Bailly was a patient of a French doctor who, when finally he complied with the family request that he accompany his patient to Lourdes, wrote down, for the record, what would be the transformation he would need to see before acknowledging that any cure had taken place. He confronted, first, a general question: What kind of ailment would qualify as miraculously treated? His answer: “An organic disease: a cancer disappearing; a bone regrown; a congenital dislocation vanishing.”

He went on in his notes to describe the plight of his patient, a young woman in the last stages of tuberculous peritonitis. “I know her history,” he recorded. “Her whole family died of tuberculosis. She has had tubercular sores, lesions of the lungs, and now, for the past few months, peritonitis diagnosed by both a general practitioner and the well-known Bordeaux surgeon, Bromilloux. Her condition is very grave. She may die right under my nose. If such a case were cured, it would indeed be a miracle.”

One hour before Marie Bailly was carried to the grotto, he examined her yet again at one of the adjacent hospitals, remarking in his notes her white, emaciated face, her galloping pulse — 150 to the minute — the distended abdomen, the ears and nails turning blue. He told the Sisters, “She may last a few more days, but she is doomed. Her heart is giving out. Death is very near.”

The doctor accompanied Marie Bailly to the grotto. There he saw her face change color, losing its ashen hue. Her swollen abdomen flattened out under the blanket. Her pulse became calm and regular. She requested a glass of milk. Her respiration had become normal. Mrs. Cranston records the doctor’s reaction. “The sweat broke out on his forehead. He felt as though someone had struck him on the head. His own heart began to pump furiously. It was the most ‘momentous thing’ he had ever seen.”

The doctor roused himself from his trance and took his patient back to the hospital, where he examined her in the company of three other doctors. They confirmed what he knew already from his intimate knowledge of her case. His patient had been — cured. The doctor told a colleague. “When one reads about such things one cannot help suspecting some kind of charlatanism. But here is a cure I have seen with my own eyes. I have seen an apparently chronic invalid restored to health and normal life….Such cures cannot be brought about by natural means.”

Of course. One can’t go any further than to say that a) there was a cure, and b) there is no scientific explanation for it. On the other hand, you cannot conclude using scientific methodology that the transformation was a “miracle.” To do so would be to place oneself in the hands of the theologians. “miracle 1. a. [OED] A marvelous event occurring within human experience, which cannot have been brought about by human power or by the operation of any natural agency, and must therefore be ascribed to the special intervention of the Deity…”

The word is casually used in the modem world — “Miraculously, Silky Sullivan came from last place and won the race by a nose.” But the dominant meaning is as given in the Oxford Dictionary: something caused by an act of divine intervention. If one is required to describe what happened to Marie Bailly as other than a “miracle” one needs to use words that don’t come easily to the tongue. Was it a…thaumaturgical event? But in a) ruling out a natural cause, we are required b) to acknowledge a supernatural cause. In formal logic, it would not need to be a Christian agent that brought about the miracle, but given the story of Bernadette, Christianity does, well, come to mind; and anyway, the secular humanist has a problem because in his etiology there has to be a natural cause for every phenomenon. Those who seek relief from the quandary — If it wasn’t a natural cause that effected the cure, what did? — will need to come up with a superforce of some sort. Who was it at the grotto in 1858? Madame Allah? The skeptics run the risk of being ambushed by: God/Christ/the Immaculate Conception. The whole Christian package.

But the Christian too is without explanation for what happens at Lourdes, because we cannot reason to why Marie Bailly found relief while so many others do not.

But the Christian too is without explanation for what happens at Lourdes, because we cannot reason to why Marie Bailly found relief while so many others do not. But then this only reminds us that what in the secular coinage we would think of as stochastic (Why the death-dealing volcanic eruption here? the pestilence there?), religion ascribes to a divine order that countenances extemporaneous afflictions, natural and personal. God’s ways are inscrutable. So where is the skeptic left? I thought of the liberating sentence of Chesterton in which he recounts that in his desperate search for a suitable cosmology, be had stumbled upon orthodoxy. It was chance that I stumbled, the second evening at Lourdes, on this paragraph in a Chesterton essay. GKC was an ardent admirer of W. B. Yeats; indeed he and the poet were friends. Chesterton is here reflecting on the endless search for timelessness on earth. “A very distinguished and dignified example of this paganism at bay is Mr. W. B. Yeats.” He quotes a passage from Yeats’s “delightful” memoirs:

I think it [Christianity] but deepened despair and multiplied temptation….Why are these strange souls born everywhere today, with hearts that Christianity, as shaped by history, cannot satisfy? Our love letters wear out our love; no school of painting outlasts its founders, every stroke of the brush exhausts the impulse; pre-Raphaelitism had some twenty years; Impressionism, thirty, perhaps. Why should we believe that religion can never bring round its antithesis? Is it true that our air is disturbed, as Melarme [sic] said, “by the trembling of the veil of the temple,” or “that our whole age is seeking to bring forth a sacred book”? Some of us thought that book near towards the end of last century but the tide sank again.

“Of course,” Chesterton moves in — “there are many minor criticisms of all this. The faith only multiplies temptation in the sense that it would multiply temptation to turn a dog into a man. And it certainly does not deepen despair, if only for two reasons: first, that despair to a Catholic is itself a spiritual sin and blasphemy; and second, that the despair of many pagans, often including Mr. Yeats, could not possibly be deepened. But what concerns me, in these introductory remarks, is his suggestion about the duration of movements. When he gently asks why Catholic Christianity should last longer than other movements, we may well answer even more gently: ‘Why, indeed?’ He might gain some light on why it should, if he would begin by inquiring why it does. He seems curiously unconscious that the very contrast he gives is against the case he urges. If the proper duration of a movement is twenty years, what sort of a movement is it that lasts nearly two thousand? If a fashion should last no longer than Impressionism, what sort of fashion is it that lasts about fifty times as long? Is it just barely conceivable that it is not a fashion?”

*    *    *

Pilgrims who travel to Lourdes make up their own schedules, in cooperation with the Administrative Office there. The routine of our group began one afternoon with Mass at the upper Basilica, one of the many churches. An odd sense of tranquility settled on us. I can’t offhand remember when last, other than at sea, I felt so little concern for timetables. On Friday there was a “Morning of Recollection” and the anointing of the sick at another chapel (St. Joseph’s). There are three hospitals — more properly, hospices — all of them administered by volunteers. Few of us were sick, but we were reminded that from the day of birth, we are on our deathbeds. In the afternoon. Mass at the Salle Notre Dame, and in the evening a candlelight procession in front of the Rosary Basilica. It is not easy to imagine 20,000 candles shaping a cross. The ensuing four days included a daily Mass in different churches; easy access to confessions, heard in six languages, throughout the day; the Stations of the Cross, twice life-sized bronze statuary, rising up a steep hillside, invoking the travail of Calvary. The schedule left several hours every day during which one could do as one chose (there are historical sites, including the birthplace of Bernadette, and the great, massive fort built during the Middle Ages), and one tends to choose to walk about, and to take keen pleasure in casual encounters.

The reason so many people come, many of them on their second or tenth visit, is that what is effected is a sense of reconciliation, if not well-being.

The sense of the visit is rapidly communicated. There are thousands of gurneys (voitures, they are referred to) for the malades, the all-inclusive French word for the sick — again, propelled exclusively by volunteers. Perhaps every malade harbors the hope that he (or she) will be cured, but it is not reasonably expected; yet somehow it seems irrelevant as larger perspectives take hold. It is a part of the common faith that prayer can effect anything (“Remember, most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession, was left unaided“), but incantatory hyperbole is simply a ritualized form of docility. The sick who travel to Lourdes are there, yes, because of the undeniability of recorded miracles, but that isn’t what brings as many as fifty thousand people a day to Lourdes, the great majority of them healthy. The reason so many people come, many of them on their second or tenth visit, is that what is effected is a sense of reconciliation, if not well-being. Hardly miraculous, unless one chooses to use the word as most appropriate for that buoyancy experienced on viewing the great processions, sharing with almost 30,000 people an underground Mass, being lowered for three bracing seconds into one of the baths; suddenly noting the ambient serenity. These are Christians feeling impulses of their faith, and intimations of the lady in white.

They are in Lourdes because of this palpability of the emanations that gave birth to the shrine. The spiritual tonic is felt. If it were otherwise, the pilgrims would diminish in number, would, by now, have disappeared, as at Delphos, which one visits as a museum, not a shrine. What it is that fetches them is I think quite simply stated, namely a reinforced conviction that the Lord God loves His creatures, healthy or infirm; that they — we — must understand the nature of love, which is salvific in its powers; and that although we are free to attempt to divine God’s purpose, we will never succeed in doing so. The reason is that we cannot know (the manifest contradictions are too disturbing) what is the purpose behind particular phenomena and therefore must make do with only the grandest plan of God, which treats with eternal salvation. To keep the faith: To do this (the grammar of assent) requires the discipline of submission, some assurance that those who are stricken can, even so, be happy; and that the greatest tonic of all is divine love, which is nourished by human love, even as human love is nourished by divine love.

Waiting to board the airplane to Paris I found myself in the company of three malades. They could walk, else they’d have been on one of the trains, on stretchers. One young man had a face wretchedly distorted — it brought to mind one of the unpleasant pictures of Picasso. Around his neck the attendant placed a plastic folder, his ticket inside, his travel arrangements upon landing at Orly explained. With heavy use of a heavy cane he could, so to speak, walk. He was treated, by this company returning from Lourdes, as — a member of the family, which he was, as Lourdes manages to make plain.


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