Mary to the Poor and Simple
At Lourdes, France, Mary appeared to a fourteen-year-old who wasn’t very bright and wasn’t very big. Marie Bernadette Soubirous, called by the diminutive of her name because she was so tiny, was the oldest of six, born to a poor miller. She was weak and sickly as a child, suffering from asthma.
When her parents sent her to live for a time with her aunt, so she would be better off, her aunt gave up trying to teach her about the Catholic Faith, calling her thick-headed and impossible to teach.
Why, then, did Mary appear to her? Why didn’t she pick someone else on February 11, 1858? Why did she keep coming back to a poor, simple teenager?
Mary doesn’t care about our weaknesses, our hesitations, our hang-ups. She doesn’t care who we are…or who we aren’t. She will come to us regardless, if we will see her.
Mary in the Pigs’ Shelter
Mary appeared 18 different times to Bernadette in a filthy grotto, called “Old Rock” and “the pigs’ shelter” by the locals. It was a cave where pigs feeding in the area would take cover.
Imagine the contrast between the golden light and the beautiful lady and the dingy, dark surroundings. Picture Bernadette’s astonishment.
An obscure town, a dirty grotto, a simple seer – they all combined to bring us a message of God meeting us where we are, smack dab in the middle of our needs and our failings, through His Mother .
Praying through Doubt
No one believed Bernadette. Her mother forbade her to return to the cave after word of the first apparition slipped out during evening prayers.
Bernadette couldn’t believe she had been deceived: the lady had been carrying a rosary and praying the Gloria with Bernadette.
The Soubirous house must have been filled with tension for those first few days – teenage Bernadette wasn’t arguing, but she wasn’t agreeing; mother Louise saying it was all an illusion, a trick of the devil.
Can you hear Bernadette begging to return to Old Rock? It took two days before Bernadette couldn’t ignore the internal summons. Bernadette had her sister, Marie, try to persuade their mother. Failing, Marie went to their neighbor.
Louise, after three days of arguing with teenage girls and a day of neighborly nagging, finally allowed the visit, probably throwing up her hands and sighing heavily as she clutched her rosary and prayed for the best.
Doubt was everywhere. Louise was worried that her daughter was flirting with danger; Bernadette was between her parents’ worry and the call of the lady; the friends and family who knew about it shook their heads at the gentle hint that the Virgin Mary could be appearing to someone like little Bernadette.
They must have all prayed. What else could they have done? There was no understanding without the passage of time.
What’s in a Name?
Bernadette met with her beautiful lady 16 times before her request for a name was answered.
On March 25, 1858, the Feast of the Annunciation, Bernadette asked the lady’s name. By this point, it was habit – everyone else wanted to know, but Bernadette didn’t need a name to confirm whom she knew she was meeting.
After the third request that day, the lady bowed, joined her hands, and looked to heaven, replying, in the local dialect, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
How shocked was the local priest, hearing Bernadette say “Immaculate Conception,” mispronouncing it and not understanding it? She had to repeat it to herself all the way to the rectory. He later said that he was “so amazed by it that I felt myself stagger and I was on the verge of falling.”
Only a few years before, in December, 1854, Pope Pius IX had declared Mary as the Immaculate Conception, conceived without sin, a dogma of the Catholic Church. There was clearly significance in Mary’s using this more difficult name for herself – wouldn’t it have been easier to tell Bernadette she was the Mother of God or the Blessed Virgin?
The Ongoing Lesson of Lourdes
There are many well-documented miracles from Lourdes. There’s a spring that wasn’t there before Bernadette dug into a rock at Mary’s bidding.
What’s most amazing to me is the lesson of the imperfect being made perfect. I see, in the story of the events at Lourdes, that how I define “perfect” is, in itself, imperfect.
Here’s a Mary who can remind me that, even as I seek perfection, I often lose sight of what I should be seeking. How often, as I rush toward an “ideal” day, do I fail to enjoy the perfection God has sent me this day, covered in the mud of everyday life?
For Further Reading:
- Ineffabilis Deus (The Immaculate Conception), by Pope Pius IX
- The Lourdes Grotto
- Our Lady of Lourdes History at Catholic Online
- Our Lady of Lourdes Novena
- Prayer to Our Lady of Lourdes
image: © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / , via Wikimedia Commons