Away from the Light
part 2 of 3
The teenaged Bernadette Soubirous experienced religious visions of the Virgin Mary on eighteen separate occasions from February 7, 1858, to July 16, 1858. These visitations occurred in a small grotto near her home, the Grotto of Massabielle, about a mile outside the rustic village of Lourdes. After July 1858 she never had another vision nor did she ever return to the grotto for spiritual communion with Mary after her last visitation.
She did, however, pose for a photograph in 1862, kneeling before the newly erected shrine in the “rose niche”; the grotto is to her left in the picture. It is the only known image of her at the venerated site. This is obviously staged for promotional purposes; Bernadette herself had expressed no desire to return. Although the publicity shot was clearly not of her making, she complied.
Her visions brought her an unwelcome celebrity that destroyed the town’s peace. Once word passed around and newspaper accounts were published of her visions, the “little saint” had no privacy or reprieve from well-meaning but desperate pilgrims looking for miracle cures for their various ailments. In desperation Bernadette (with urging from her family) sought sanctuary in a local hospice in 1861. She moved in with the Children of Mary, novitiate proving grounds for the mother organization of the Sisters of Charity whose main location was in Nevers, France.
Bernadette’s fame was widespread. As a result of myriad requests for her image, several sessions in a photographic studio were approved and set up by her Lourdes protector, the curmudgeonly Father Peyramale.DaVinci’s Mona Lisa.
The Apparition of Lourdes (believed by everyone by this time to have been the Virgin Mary) had directed Bernadette to have a
Bernadette, however, did not attempt to capitalize on her fame nor did her family overtly attempt to exploit her celebrity. She did her best to live quietly with the Children of Mary. The continued influx of religious seekers, however, did not guarantee her privacy and it upset the routines of the hospice in which she worked. She could rarely go out in public without being accosted. Finally, after consulting with her parish priest, Father Peyramale, it was decided she should retire to a cloistered situation. Although Bernadette first thought of leaving in 1864 (for her sake and that of the hospice), she did not go until 1866 – it took her almost two years to select a convent where she thought she would be happy. She was feted by dozens of Orders who wanted “The Little Saint” in their fold (her diminutive title is because of her stature – Bernadette Soubirous’ illnesses earlier in life had left her small for her age). In the end she chose the parent organization of the Children of Mary, the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction in Nevers, France (a couple hundred miles north-northeast of Lourdes).
The less-than-sincere motives of some of these Orders can be illustrated in the thinking of the Sisters of Charity once they learned Bernadette would come and live with them. She was truly a prize, and they referred to her as the congregation's “Shining Jewel”. Their renown would increase and vocations would blossom because of the saintly star in their midst.
Nevers was a burgeoning metropolis. The idea was frightening for the Gascony peasant villager Bernadette. She’d never been more than a handful of miles from home (the photo studio where her pictures were taken was in Tarbes, roughly ten miles north of Lourdes as the crow flies). She was twenty-two years old, and had never seen a big city.
Just before her departure Bernadette sat for a family portrait. She is seated in the center of a large group of fifteen. On July 4, 1866, the day she was to depart from her family and home, she went to the grotto one lat time for reflection. She bid adieu to Father Peyramale, then to the Sisters with whom she had lived for five years. She said goodbye to the townspeople who loved her dearly and to her family. She left Lourdes later that day. Leaving was understandably difficult for the young woman. As her carriage drove off, she wept bitterly. She entered the Convent of Saint Gildard to become a nun under the Order of the Sisters of Charity in Nevers. She never saw Lourdes again.
The Mistress of Novices, 41-year-old Mother Marie-Therese Vauzou, had planned her first meeting with the aspirant with anticipation and excitement. Unfortunately, Bernadette was not always the most pleasant person. Her “impertinent” mien (while true) was not her biggest problem upon meeting the Mistress. Rather, it was her celebrity that ruined any hope she had of being happy at the convent from the start. Bernadette (much like any celebrity who deigns to come down from on high and live and work with the commoners) carried a bit of smugness in her demeanor. She was a star of the Catholic Church, she knew it, and although she did her best to downplay her pride, she did not acquit herself well with Mother Marie-Therese.
She engaged Bernadette in an orientation interview. Attempts at familiarity were rebuffed by Bernadette. She was cold and aloof. The Mother had presumed she would mentor Bernadette personally, but this could not happen. She had communed with The Blessed Virgin Mary – what could this Mother Marie-Therese possibly offer her? In partial defense of Bernadette’s boorish behavior, one must keep in mind she was an uncultured rustic with almost no sense of decorum. She could be rash and harsh; although perhaps not intentionally, Bernadette earned the jealous enmity of Mother Marie-Therese at the start, and she would be plagued by this woman for the rest of her time with the Sisters (ending at her death in 1879).
Mother Marie-Therese was insulted by Bernadette’s lack of interest in her tutelage. The affront was taken to heart, and from that day on, Mother Marie-Therese was openly distrustful and disdainful of the new member. Bernadette was a peasant; Mother Marie-Therese reminded her of this continually, telling her she lacked the valuable qualities of social distinction which Mother Marie-Therese felt that she, herself, had. So, the Mother, the “superior” of the two, constantly reminded the “lesser” of her insignificance, insubordination, and wickedness of pride.
One might say this sort of “taking down a peg” was appropriate in such an environment. To a degree that is true – Bernadette swept in as a saintly star. The convent had made it abundantly clear they had aggressively recruited her and made her imminent arrival known in Nevers well before she showed up. But Mother Marie-Therese’s dislike for Bernadette reached the level of pathological jealousy. [She also admitted to another nun, later in life, she felt a spiteful, obsessive need to torment and humiliate Bernadette. It became the woman's mission. To illustrate just how insanely self-centered and pathological was this woman’s envy, some time after Bernadette’s death when the Mother General announced that the Church was preparing the onset of Bernadette’s beatification process, Mother Marie-Therese forcefully suggested that they wait until she, herself, was dead!]
On July 29, 1866, three weeks after her arrival in Nevers, Bernadette received the habit of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers, and was given the name Sister Marie-Bernard. Letters from home brought the young woman to tears from homesickness. She was not happy with her chosen lot. Although she had learned to read and write “true” French well, she still felt inferior to the more learned sisters in the congregation, not the least of which was the intimidating Mother Marie-Therese. She was certainly not unintelligent, but she did question many times what she could do besides her bishop’s parting words from Lourdes: “You can help in the kitchen - cutting carrots.”
She was ordered at the start of her training not to draw any attention to herself in any way. To help in her anonymity, Bernadette began wearing her nun's veil out in public so she would not be recognized. Unfortunately this humble plan backfired – word spread that the veiled novice was The Little Saint, and she drew crowds every time she left the convent grounds. Contradicting the directive not to draw attention to herself, others in the convent’s chain-of-command felt no compunctions about exploiting her celebrity at all. She would often be called away from whatever she was doing to put in an appearance in the visitors parlor. She always obeyed. In the parlor, important guests were given a chance to meet her; she very much disliked being questioned about her past life. These visitors could then later crow to their friends of the visit. The hypocrisy is self-evident.
Five months after her entrance at Nevers Bernadette received word (in December 1866) that her mother Louise (worn out from childbearing, hard work, and hunger) died. She could not travel to Lourdes for funeral services. She agonized over the loss of her mother, and worried over the plight of her father having to raise her brothers and sister.
Another nun asked her to walk in the convent garden to take her mind off her mother’s death. Bernadette (perhaps very childlike though a physically mature woman) suddenly asked this nun if she had a jump rope. The other nun advised Bernadette they often jumped rope and played hide-and-seek as well for diversion. Bernadette commented, “I love holding the rope for others to skip.” [Her asthma probably prohibited more strenuous participation].
Bernadette’s health was never good and it grew worse in the convent. Many of her fellow students wondered if her decline was not partly from the tyrannical abuses and humiliations of Mother Marie-Therese. On more than one occasion, Bernadette overheard others, in the wake of one of the Mother’s vitriolic attacks: “Am I ever glad that I'm not her!”
Some of the other superiors took their cues from Mother Marie-Therese with respect to beating down Bernadette. Mother Imbert, upon returning from a trip to Rome, met the women in the convent’s courtyard. She greeted all the novices and gave each one a hug and a kind, personal salutation. The young nuns enjoyed the attention. When the superior met Bernadette, however, she silently embraced her and walked away. The happy atmosphere dissolved quickly in the wake of this overt unkindness.
In late October 1867, the Profession of Vows ceremony was held. During the recitation the congregation wondered if they would be able to even hear Bernadette because she was so weak and her lungs not at capacity. The sickly woman managed to make herself heard as she recited, and even nuns in the choir-loft heard her clearly:
“I, Sister Marie-Bernard, pledge myself and promise to my God that as long as I have happiness to be in the Congregation of Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction established at Nevers under the authority of His Excellency the Bishop, I will fulfill the promises of the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and charity, in the way whereby they are defined in the Rule of the Sisters. I pray our Savior Jesus Christ through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, our Holy Mother, to give me grace to perfect them and to fulfill them. Amen.”
Later, the Sisters met in the Great Hall of the Novitiate. This part of the ceremony was when each graduate would learn of her convent assignment, where she would go, what she would do. The bishop called each one of the newly professed and handed each a letter of obedience with her name on it. These contained the disclosure of where, and to which convent, they would be assigned. However, there was no envelope in the stack for Bernadette. The bishop (from Nevers, he of the “carrot grating” comment back in Bernadette’s days in Lourdes) of course knew Bernadette personally and questioned why there was no convent assignment for her. Another superior, in the same anti-Bernadette camp as Mother Marie-Therese, commented cruelly and in front of everyone present, “Monsignor, it was not possible to give her an assignment. She is a stupid little creature. She does not do anything well.” The bishop gestured for Bernadette to come before him, and he asked if this were true, that she could do nothing well. Bernadette replied diplomatically, “The Reverend Mother does not make mistakes, Monsignor, so it must be true.” The bishop then rhetorically asked what should be done with her. Bernadette reminded him, “I asked you this very question, Monsignor, before leaving home. I told you that I was good for nothing. You told me that this wasn’t exactly true. You said that I could grate carrots very nicely.”
The superior (not knowing of the familiarity between Bernadette and the bishop) thought Bernadette was being impertinent, and she snapped, “Monsignor, if you approve, we could keep her here at the Motherhouse out of charity, and find some sort of work for her at the infirmary. We could put her here to clean. Afterward, if we can find a way to teach her, she might be able to make bandages.” To Bernadette’s credit, she swallowed this bitterness without a word. She graciously went to each of her classmates and congratulated them, warmly and sincerely. It surely had to be a humiliating experience for her to be dressed down not only in front of her fellow nuns but in front of her bishop who also happened to be her friend.
Although it was clear in the convent that Bernadette was mother Marie-Therese’s punching bag no one stood up for her. One superior, when asked about the abuse, simply stated that it was not her place to question the policy of the Mother General. She added, however, that most of the sisters who saw Bernadette’s abuse hastened to console and comfort her afterward (as if that somehow made it acceptable).
Bernadette’s restrictions against making herself “known” were more of a “do as I say, and not as I do,” affair. Some of the sisters availed themselves of her “open communications line” with The Virgin Mary as they selfishly saw fit. One instance found a nun, Mother Alexandrine, with a sprained ankle. The convent’s doctor prescribed rest for two days. Alexandrine did not like this idea, so instead she sought out Bernadette. She said she was too busy to stay in bed for two days. “Will you ask your Friend, the Blessed Mother, to cure me? Hurry now, go ask her!” Bernadette hastened to the chapel and asked for the cure of Mother Alexandrine. The convent doctor later saw Alexandrine carrying on her work as if nothing had happened [Whether the nun was just biting the bullet and working with a painful sprain or was actually cured is neither known nor relevant. What is important is that she selfishly asked Bernadette to intercede on her behalf because of her celestial connections].
She was exploited on an “as needed” basis by others, too. Work progressed on the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Lourdes (the chapel the Virgin had commanded). Cash was
François, her father, died at age 61 in 1871. This was six years after the loss of her mother, and Bernadette was inconsolable. She was found leaning against the infirmary’s fireplace, sobbing. This death left her the technical head of the Soubirous family. Another nun tried to console her. Bernadette explained part of her grief’s origins: “My Sister, Saturday evening I prayed to Jesus in agony for all those who were to die at that moment. Yes, it was precisely at the same moment that my father entered eternity. What consolation for me to perhaps have helped.” Bernadette was ill for a long time after her father’s death.
Sometimes it was Bernadette’s job to be the disciplinarian. Considering she had now been in the convent for several years she was often charged with the care of younger postulants. Once, during a Liturgical procession, Sister Vincent (along with all the sisters) had lowered her veil while in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. However, she poked a large hole in it, so she could see what was happening. When she told Bernadette about it later, she retorted, “I'm horrified, Sister Vincent! You not only showed disrespect to the Blessed Sacrament, you also disedified your fellow nuns, and you've sinned against poverty.” This, though, was tendered with a bit of eye-winking – she was doing an impression of Mother Marie-Therese!
On another occasion this same Sister Vincent (apparently quite the mischief-maker and thorn in Bernadette’s side) was told to clean Mother Marie-Therese’s room. Bernadette asked if she had remembered to fill the holy water font in the room. The young nun ran out of the room, but returned a bit too quickly. Bernadette asked her how she’d filled the font so fast. The girl answered, “I spat in it.” Bernadette reprimanded her and made her go confess to the cantankerous Mother Marie-Therese.
The nuns were overly watchful for relic seekers. Anything Bernadette touched could be considered as a holy relic. Because Bernadette loved children, she often carried candies with her, so when she’d meet them she’d have something to offer. On one such occasion, she heard a group at play on the grounds and went out to see what they were about. She handed each child a candied almond and then turned to leave. As soon as her back was to the group another sister came by and made them given her back all the candy – this was done because the convent feared they would become relics.
Bernadette herself did not comprehend the desirability of relics relating to her. She was not a student of the human psyche, the part that wants a piece of something famous. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want a remembrance, a relic. Why would anyone want to be near her, to touch her, or own something that belonged to her? She just wished to be left alone. But even her peers in the convent participated in getting relics for her admirers.
Bernadette had mended a set of flannel underwear, and had left some small pieces and snippings on the floor when she was finished. Sister Bernard Dalias gathered them up to save as relics. Later that evening, Sister Dalias happened to pull out her handkerchief during recreation, and the small flannel pieces fell to the floor. When questioned she admitted she’d gathered them. The exasperated duty superior threw them into the fire.
Even higher members of the clergy were not above chicanery in obtaining such artifacts. Another bishop (not her friend from Nevers) once called on her when she was very ill and resting in the infirmary. Bernadette (perhaps with the exception of Father Peyramale and the Nevers bishop) had never been overly gracious to the clergy. She was suspicious of them actually, and she always suspected they expected special favors (which invariably they did). On this visit, this conniving bishop contrived to have his skullcap fall off so Bernadette would be forced to touch it as she handed it back to him. He repeatedly bowed his head so his cap would "accidentally" dislodge. Finally, it landed on Bernadette’s bed, and he innocently asked her to hand it to him. She didn’t fall for the ploy and actually let the man fumble around. Wise to his connivance, she snapped, “Monsignor, I did not ask for it. Couldn't you pick it up yourself?” The duty superior, horrified at Bernadette’s peckish response, intervened. “Come, now, Sister. Hand Monsignor his skull-cap.” Bernadette obeyed.
Mother Superior II
Bernadette had settled into a routine and tried to stay as invisible as possible. Mother Marie-Therese had not forgotten her, though. The Mistress of Novices was instructing new initiates one day. In her lecture she bizarrely included some dogmatic statements about Bernadette (who was not even venerated yet by the Church; such statements would have been of the “gossipy” type and not the religious type). Bernadette suddenly walked in on this – she did not know she was the topic of discussion. Mother Marie-Therese barked, “This is not the time for you to show yourself here. Your place is at the infirmary. Kiss the floor and go!” Bernadette obeyed; the novices sat in stunned silence, feeling her humiliation as well.
Bernadette (once while assisting a young sister to the infirmary) met the Mother Superior. She stopped long enough to berate Bernadette, and addressed both of the nuns as “useless members of the community”. The newer sister was so horrified that she burst into tears. Bernadette took it on the chin, though; she chuckled and told the younger woman, “Hush! You cry for so little? Prepare yourself! It'll happen many more times.”
Although continually browbeaten by a clique in the upper echelons of the convent, she still managed to express a wry and sad humor at times. Across the street from the convent was aprostitutes. When Bernadette was advised of their vocation she said, “I pity them, then, and keep them in prayer.” Later, one of the other sisters had dressed a doll for the doorkeeper’s daughter. Bernadette handled the shabby little doll and remarked, “Oh my poor little thing, you look almost like those poor, unfortunate girls in the park.”
Sometimes the convent’s stopgap measures to prevent religious relics from being “created” in Bernadette’s hands resulted in awkward moments for the sisters. A Nevers woman with an ill child had a blanket she wished completed. It is certain this woman hoped for Bernadette to work on the item, thinking her holy hands would help her child recover. The Mother General, who knew Bernadette was the best needle worker, instead took the coverlet to a group of sisters who were recreating together. She asked if any of them cared to work on it. There were no takers. Bernadette spoke up and offered to do the work (even though she knew how all the superiors felt about her handling outsider’s goods, making relics of them by her touch alone). To save face the Mother General handed over the blanket, Bernadette finished the sewing on it, and the local woman took it home. The sick child recovered, but more importantly, this was a small victory for Bernadette in the convent.
Sometimes Bernadette’s star power inadvertently caused her trouble. In a case of awestruck adulation a Jesuit (preaching a retreat to the Motherhouse sisters) became so flustered when he saw Bernadette enter the chapel, he lost track of his sermon. He instead immediately shifted his focus and decided to preach about her. Bernadette was not pleased with this turn of events; it was embarrassing for her to be fawned over; certainly Mother Marie-Therese would make her life more miserable for it. Although she was a fairly young woman, Bernadette had tuberculosis in the bones of her right knee (a condition caused by the same bacterium that causes the lung disease). She needed a cane to walk on most days, and this day was no exception. Once the sermon turned to her, even though she had just settled in, she got back to her feet, and hobbling with her cane left the chapel as quickly as she could.
She was ill more often than not. The degeneration of her right knee bones, in addition to other generalized joint problems, caused great pain. Many times she was confined to a bed in the infirmary where she was supposed to be working. She wrote of her bedridden state:
“What shall I tell you about myself? I am in my little white chapel all the time. [The infirmary beds were framed with white fabric curtains which afforded some patient privacy]. Decay of the bone has set in, and I have completely lost the use of my limbs and have to submit to being carried in an armchair. But the sisters do this so cheerfully that it really does not seem like much of a humiliation. They laugh. And say that they could carry four of me!”
Her condition degenerated by 1876 to the point she could no longer dress herself (she was but 32). Sister Alphonse was assigned to her for simple tasks. One morning Sister Alphonse went in to help Bernadette put on her habit. Bernadette’s long, dark hair was all gone, her head closely cropped. Bernadette explained she’d had it cut off and sold, the money going “to help free a Negress”.
Though ill and declining, Bernadette was still a favored target for bullying by Mother Marie-Therese and her cronies. The superiors could not seem to reconcile Bernadette’s simplistic form of contemplation and prayer, all of which she had developed at the Lourdes Grotto. Her meditations were not construed as worship. Some in the Order questioned her piety. Why couldn't this “saint” show a higher form of prayer? All she could do is recite her rosary. Another novice stuck up for her, though: “She passes hours in prayer, and is entirely lost in God!” Her simple devotions did not sit well with those more versed in public forms of worship and in more grandiose beseeching. Bernadette weathered their ridicule for her worship practices, and refused to let her spirits drop. Of the abusive Mother Marie-Therese, Bernadette wrote in a diary, “I resolve never to see the creature, but always to consider God in her. Creatures pass. God alone remains.” This is a very forgiving attitude.
The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was completed and consecrated in 1876. Bernadette, however, was too frail and sickly to attend the ceremony. The last three-and-a-half years of Bernadette’s life were spent as an invalid. She was wracked with pain in an era for which no effective pain relief was medically possible. Her condition was terminal (the same as cancer); the pain devoured her. But she never lost her sense of humor. On one particular day she was panting and her asthma rattled her lungs. It was believed she was as good as dead. About 4 AM, though, Bernadette shifted in her bed and told the nun sitting up with her, “God didn’t want me. I got to the door and He said, ‘Go away! It’s too soon!’”
Her death was slow. She was stripped of most of her dignity in her illness. She was emaciated and incontinent. On Wednesday, April 16, 1879, she felt she was dying and she asked to be propped up in a favored armchair in the infirmary. She received Extreme Unction (for the fourth time) and Holy Communion, which had a calming effect on her. She spied the Mother Superior tip-toeing into the room. Bernadette, severely weakened, said to this woman, “Dear Reverend Mother, please forgive me for all the sorrow I have caused you. I ask the forgiveness of all my sisters for any bad examples I may have given, especially through pride.”
She became agitated with pain and moaned more frequently, even apologizing for it. “Please forgive me for moaning like this”, she asked of her nursing sister. Pope Pius IX had given Bernadette a crucifix which was her most prized possession and she asked for it. She no longer had the dexterity or strength in her hands to grasp it, though. One of the sisters pinned it to her habit instead.
A convent friend, Sister Nathalie, recalled:
"Toward three o’clock in the afternoon she seemed in the grip of inexpressible interior anguish. The sisters in the infirmary were alarmed and fetched holy water which they sprinkled over her while suggesting pious invocations to her. She took hold of her crucifix, contemplated it with love, then slowly kissed Christ's wounds, one by one.” Bernadette Soubirous’ final words were, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me, poor sinner, poor sinner ...” Her nurse, Sister Gabriel, closed the dead woman’s eyes."
Bernadette was laid in state in the convent chapel. A wreath of white roses was placed on her veiled head, a rosary in her hands, and the Pope’s crucifix lay on her breast. A visitor to the chapel asked
Though it rained heavily crowds of pilgrims poured into the chapel to see Bernadette’s body. Always looking to get a religious relic of Bernadette most visitors handed items over to the sisters guarding the Little Saint’s body. They touched these articles to her corpse. Although many brought religious things, some brought ordinary household wares – scissors, hammers, even kitchen knives. Cries of “The Saint is Dead!” rang up and down the streets outside the chapel.
An accurate reading of Bernadette’s time at the Sisters of Charity is difficult to gauge. The jealous, jaundiced eye of Mother Marie-Therese ensured Bernadette never received a favorable written or oral review during her years in the convent. Mother Marie-Therese admitted (after Bernadette’s death) that there was not a single time she met the young nun where she did not say something unkind or sharp. She stated she actually “thrilled” in abusing the woman.
Most of the sisters in the convent were relieved Bernadette had died. They truly believed that the weakened nun could not have tolerated much more of Mother Marie-Therese, and she was on the verge of a breakdown. Bernadette, in a rare revelatory moment, had spoken of the unending humiliations. “They’re all building up inside, and they just don’t see,” pointing to her heart, “what’s happening in here.”
Her funeral was held on Saturday, April 19, 1879, at the Motherhouse. None of her relatives came. But uncountable devotees from over France came to pay their last respects. Crowd control, as with her days presiding at the Lourdes Grotto, became a problem and police had to be called in to keep the atmosphere reverent.
Bernadette Soubirous (Sister Marie-Bernard) was placed in an oak coffin. An account of her life, hand-scribed on parchment by a nun of her congregation, was put in it with her. Her body was taken to the small chapel of St. Joseph where it was placed at the lowest terrace of the cloister garden.
The words on her tombstone are written in Latin and French. Translated, they read:
In the Peace of the Lord
Favored at Lourdes in 1858
With Numerous Apparitions of the
Most Blessed Virgin:
Deceased at Nevers
In the Motherhouse
Of the Sisters of Charity
April 16th, 1879
In the 36th Year of Her Age
And the 12th of Her Religious Profession
“This is my rest forever and ever.
Here will I dwell, for I have chosen it.”
REST IN PEACE
[End of Part 2]