A Few Lessons from the Life of St. Bernadette

The story of Saint Bernadette Soubirous is well known throughout the Church because of her remarkable connection to the Marian apparitions at Lourdes. St. Bernadette was a young, simple, and impoverished girl who was chosen by Our Lord and Our Lady to witness a miracle. Today marks the anniversary of her death. She died on April 16, 1879. She died devoting her personal suffering to Christ and with these words on her lips: “Blessed Mary, Mother of God, pray for me! A poor sinner, a poor sinner—“. She was canonized in 1933. Her rather recent canonization means that she is a great saint to learn from in our current era. There are many things to learn from the life of this great saint, but today we will focus on these examples: child-like wonder and obedience, trust, and perseverance.

Child-like Wonder and Obedience

St. Bernadette grew up in humble circumstances marred by poverty. In fact, at the time the apparitions of Our Lady began, she and her family dwelt in a one room basement residence that had previously been a jail. She spent much of her life suffering from chronic breathing problems and was never physically strong. She had great faith, however, and worked hard to receive her first Holy Communion when many did not take her desires seriously. Her dedication to her faith would prove invaluable when the extraordinary events that began on February 11, 1858 changed her life forever.

On that cold morning in 1858, Bernadette, along with her sister Toinette Marie and a family friend, Marie Abadie, were sent to the river to collect driftwood and branches to be used by the families for firewood. When they reached an area known as Massabeille, Toinette and Marie went to wade across the river while the weaker Bernadette stayed behind. It was as Bernadette stood alone by the river that she heard a noise that resembled a strong rush of wind. She began to move towards a grotto area in the rock and it was there that she saw a beautiful young girl who had placed herself in the niche of a rock. Bernadette watched the luminous girl in fear and wonder. She was dressed in white, wearing a girdle of blue, a long white veil with golden roses gleaming from her bare feet. When the young girl smiled at Bernadette her initial fear vanished and she sank to her knees in reverence.

Two things are striking about Bernadette’s response: she responds in wonder and reverence. In this initial meeting it was not entirely clear to Bernadette who this woman was and she referred to her as the Lady; however, her response is to give herself totally over to the Lady. Bernadette began to pray a Rosary in what can only be described as child-like faith and obedience.  Something deep inside of her compelled her to respond in this manner. Rather than leaving in fear or disbelief, she stayed with the beautiful Lady and prayed with her. There was no analyzing and insecurity that describes our own age so well. Bernadette knew that something amazing was happening and she entered into the wonder and beauty of it all completely.

This is how we should be living our own lives each day. It can be difficult in our busy schedules and with our obsession with smartphones, but God calls each one of us to wonder and be obedient to Him as a child would be to their own mother and father. It is to answer the deepest recesses of who we are created to be. Living our lives in wonder of God helps us to become more fully human. The closer we draw to God the more human we become in our conformation to the Blessed Trinity. When we focus on wonder, we are able to see God working in our lives through our loved ones, the Mass, and Creation.

Trust

Bernadette’s initial reaction to the first apparition was one of total trust. She knelt in prayer before the Lady with no fear and a total dependence that what was happening was good. After her initial experience she shared with her family what had transpired and was barred from returning. In fact, Bernadette was persecuted by family, friends, citizens, clergy, and religious. It did not matter to Bernadette and she trusted completely in her requirement to return to Massabeille to see the Lady. It was never her desire to disobey her parents, but she understood that she had a higher calling to respond to in her obedience. In total there were 18 apparitions that took place near Lourdes.

Throughout the span of the apparitions St. Bernadette put her total trust in Our Lady, even though she did not even know who the apparition was, and it was not until the 17th apparition that Our Lady revealed herself as the Immaculate Conception. She made this pronouncement four years after the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was promulgated by the Church. It was St. Bernadette’s trust that allowed her to push for a church to be built at the site and that a miraculous spring was revealed. She followed the instructions of Our Lady, even when others would not listen. This is a very valuable lesson for us today.

There will be times in our own lives when we will be reviled, hated, persecuted, and falsely accused. The Church, just like Our Lord, has always been under attack. In those moments we must trust in Christ and focus on our eschatological end, which is Heaven. We do not always understand how Christ is working in our own lives, but we must trust that it is for our good and sanctification. Look to the example of St. Bernadette in those moments of persecution.

Perseverance

St. Bernadette’s story is one of perseverance. She wanted a church built at the site of the apparitions because it had been commanded by the Lady. She fought until the authorities relinquished. She dug in the dirt when told to do so by Our Lady and revealed a miraculous spring even to the point of looking foolish or crazy. She continued to go to the site whenever Our Lady had told her to do so, even when many people tried to keep her from going. She fixed her eyes on truth and gave herself wholly over to the miraculous workings going on in her life.

The vast majority of us will not experience something as awe-inspiring as a Marian apparition. God predominately works through secondary causes and only uses miracles at times when He ordains to reveal Himself more clearly. We can, however, look to St. Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes as inspiration for persevering in our own lives. Perhaps someone is sick, lost a job, a child has fallen way from the faith, or is afflicted in some other way. St. Bernadette, who suffered as we do, can help each one of us to focus on Christ, to pray when we fall, and ask for the strength and grace to make it to the end. St. Bernadette, just as Our Lord had done, persevered until the job was finished.

St. Bernadette died on April 16th uttering the words of intercession to Our Lady and seeking the mercy of God. She persevered even in her final moments of suffering and death. This is what each one of us is called to do to the very end. So let us fix our eyes on Heaven, and in doing so, hope in our eternal reward. St. Bernadette, ora pro nobis.

image: Farragutful / Wikimedia Commons

By

Constance T. Hull is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and a graduate student theologian with an emphasis in philosophy.  Her desire is to live the wonder so passionately preached in the works of G.K. Chesterton and to share that with her daughter and others. While you can frequently find her head inside of a great work of theology or philosophy, she considers her husband and daughter to be her greatest teachers. She is passionate about beauty, working towards holiness, the Sacraments, and all things Catholic. She is also published at The Federalist, Public Discourse, and blogs frequently at Swimming the Depths (www.swimmingthedepths.com).

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  • PGMGN

    ,…St. Bernadette’s trust was not untried to my recollection. For while she grew to trust Our Lady, I believe, Bernadette also threw Holy Water at the “thing” initially to test the manifestation. I believe she used the term thing in her local language.

    http://www.marypages.com/bernadetteEng.htm

    So while trusting is a definite fruit, testing spirits before completely trusting is also advisable.

  • Constance

    That is quite possible; however, the sources that I researched gave no mention of her throwing holy water or calling the apparition a thing. It does happen that different sources tell the history from various angles. It is very common for biographical works to differ on details. Thank you very much for your comment. God bless.

  • PGMGN

    No doubt you didn’t happen across that aspect of the apparitions at Lourdes. Otherwise, I am certain you would have inserted them. For scripture advises us to test spirits and also to be wary of any who may preach a different gospel even though they be garbed as an angel of light. (Our Lady at Lourdes definitely didn’t do that.)

    My main concern in commenting was to point out that the angle of many “historians” focuses on the happenings themselves – quite spectacular – and not the surrounding “testing” of spirits that was conducted. (There were false seers at Lourdes, too.)

    But bypassing such necessary elements – using holy water to test a spirit as one example – can inadvertently mislead some well meaning folks to feel that they should believe visions, etc. or else they are being unfaithful or bad.

    As to St. Bernadette’s usage of “that thing”, some interpret her usage of the word “aquero”, the word she often used to describe the apparition as “that one.” This is still a term of apprehension.

    God bless you, too.

  • Constance

    I can understand your concern, but this is an apparition that is approved by the Church. We trust in Holy Mother Church to decide the validity of apparitions and in that sense we can learn trust from St. Bernadette. My example of trust is not about the discernment of spirits, but is about a young girl who persevered and trusted Our Lady, whether that came before or after the testing of spirits, is secondary. Given what transpired as a whole (we must take the whole context since this is an approved apparition), it is obvious that St. Bernadette trusted the apparition, as does the Church. We all must learn to trust where God is working in our lives and most of us will never experience a miracle, as I pointed out. God primarily works through secondary causes.

    I would not have written about an unapproved apparition since I leave such matters to Rome. Like I said, historians differ on many points (including translation), but it does not change that in the end St. Bernadette put her total trust in Our Lord and Our Lady. This piece is meant to be a meditation on trust, not a full biographical account. I would hope that readers do not think that I am proposing absolute trust in all reports of apparitions or other supernatural happenings. I was confident to write this piece precisely because of my love and trust of Holy Mother Church and her acceptance of this apparition.

    I would also encourage someone who was “discerning spirits” something that most of us do not know how to do, to go to their parish priest or Bishop. The theology behind the discerning of spirits is vast and differs from writer-to-writer, which is precisely why it should be left to the proper hierarchical channels should this ever become an issue for a reader. Thank you for sharing! Hopefully readers will be interested in St. Bernadette and read many accounts of her life.

  • Constance

    Thank you! I did in fact type it wrong. Thank you for catching that error.

  • PGMGN

    Where are you drawing the notion that I even suggested Lourdes is not an approved apparition, Constance? What I take issue with is your article’s open doors as it invites imitation of St. Bernadette’s trust in extraordinary experiences while leaving off the very necessary aspect of spiritual discernment that you admit most folks don’t even know how to do.

    Yes, of course we must take the whole into consideration, which is why I suggested your article should reflect a more accurate depiction of that whole which includes St. Bernadette’s apprehension. And her use of spiritual discernment and obedience to the Church authorities in so doing. (The initial invitation to pray the Rosary together is, in itself, a form of discernment. And yet Bernadette was not so trusting as to refuse to use the holy water upon her next visit to the grotto. She was exercising prudence.)

    You do understand that the Church’s hesitance in approving such things, something demonstrated by the Dean’s initial treatment of St. Bernadette, is part of that process. It is not being mean, but rather testing the spirit. It is prudence. That is is how Holy Mother Church determines the true from the false, Constance. Having said as much, testing a spirit is not secondary at all, but rather the opposite. Yielding to a spirit of any kind prior to testing is dangerous, especially when one is hoping to encourage meditation. (That is why your advice to rely on Church authority is wise and should be mentioned in your article.)

    And whereas you indicate that spiritual discernment is vast and varies from writer to writer, no, spiritual discernment in the Church is not that varied. (You may want to review/recommend The Rules for the Discernment of Spirits by St. Ignatius as a start.) This is why before “yielding” to any apparition in “trust”, one should engage in basic discernment. The use of holy water in Bernadette’s case was common practice for dispelling evil forces.

    This is also why your assertions that Bernadette “fought” until Our Lady’s wishes were realized is rather misleading as well. She did not fight. Bernadette consistently communicated Our Lady’s wishes and then submitted with fortitude to the rigors of the Church’s lawful discernment.

    I hope in future articles wherein you want to encourage readers to trust that you include a disclaimer wherein you advise seeking council of the proper authority before “fighting” and/or doing whatever they may be led to in meditation out of a sense of “trusting”, especially when many have no clear notion of what St. Bernadette actually did outside of a very brief outline.

  • Constance

    Your concern has been noted multiple times and is available for readers to consider, especially as they read different biographies of St. Bernadette. I thank you for sharing your research so that it is available for readers. This piece is not meant to be a full biography. The length would not allow for that kind of in-depth background on her life, which is precisely why I noted that I was sticking to a few points. It is a meditation on a few aspects of her life that we can apply to our own. It is a general piece that shows not only the apparitions, but that she persevered until the end. I really don’t want that to get lost.
    Ignatian spirituality is not de fide teaching, and actually, neither are any Marian apparitions for that matter, if I am going to get technical. I am glad that you enjoy the works of St. Ignatius and that he is helping strengthen you on your spiritual journey. We are welcome to enjoy those works, but they are not universal and required for all of the faithful. I personally am of a more Dominican spirituality and I greatly love the works of St Thomas Aquinas. It’s important that we remember that our personal preferences are only a small portion of the greatness that is the Mystical Body.
    I pray that God continues to strengthen you in your journey.

  • PGMGN

    Constance, a clear note of St. Bernadette’s using proper discernment and submitting to the Church, not fighting it, and/or “fighting” at all is no dissertation or biography. Rather it is a necessary element if one is desirous of conveying the reality of St. Bernadette instead of just using her as a vehicle to promote trusting in what one feels they are led to do and not giving up on something that may very well be not from God (in one’s own personal meditations). So while you chose a few points, being accurate in those points, is even more important.

    Many falsely paint St. Teresa of Avila as a women’s rights advocate, too.

    That said, your seeming attempt to restructure my comments as somehow echoing imagined de fide proclamations and/or an enforcing Ignatian spirituality is rather missing the issue – again. The idea is to proceed with caution when experiencing anything extraordinary and to seek spiritual guidance from an ecclesiastical professional when venturing into meditation. Ideally, before becoming attached to any idea/notion.

    Otherwise, folks will do precisely what you admonish we should not which is to seek after their own opinions. Opinions which often can be reinforced during meditations if one begins to “trust” in inspirations etc without proper controls/discernment. That’s all.

    God bless.

  • Desert Sun Art

    Alright already!

  • PGMGN

    Are you stomping your foot with that exclamation mark, Desert Sun Art? If so, you may want to find a shady place where you can relax and not take honest exchange for more than what it is rightfully intended to be.

    All right?

  • Macarons & Sakura Tea

    Thanks for brightlining this aspect. Diakrisis is specially essential at these times wherein pseudocharisms are rife.

    P.S. The thesis of Matthew MacDonald on this matter is quite comprehensive. The link is hereinbelow posted for those who would like to have a read.

    http://www.academia.edu/7497091/_Testing_the_Spirits_The_Principles_of_Discerning_Private_Revelations_found_in_the_Writings_of_Scripture_the_Teachings_of_the_Magisterium_and_the_Teachings_of_the_Carmelite_School_of_Spirituality

  • PGMGN

    Thanks for the link. Too many, albeit unwittingly and with good intentions, are led to believe whatever they “feel” after being encouraged by credentialed individuals perceived to be experts.

    Getting people down off trusting an emotional and/or seemingly supernatural occurrence after it has been ruled false and misleading is problematic, too.

    Glad to see this thesis in affiliation with St. Joseph’s Seminary.

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