I picked up by chance “The Song of Bernadette” by Franz Werfel. It is our extraordinarily intelligent book, written by a Jewish writer who took refuge in Lourdes in June 1940. It encapsulates and analyses the central dilemma of these writings and my feelings.
I have for ten days been reading a little every day and these ten days can be covered by the question posed by this book.
A fourteen-year-old girl, asthmatic, uneducated, impoverished with a vivid imagination says she sees a beautiful “lady” in a niche of a grotto where people dump rubbish. Nobody else sees the “lady”. The Lady speaks in dialect. She calls for “penitence”, for a chapel to be built and for people to come in procession. Eventually, when asked, she says she is “The Immaculate Conception”.
Surely the best course of action in life is to call for the obvious rational explanation.
What is more likely: that a pubescent girl is deluded or that the Virgin Mary if she still exists, hangs around for two thousand years then stands on a well with a rose on her bare feet and carrying a rosary.
The poet Lafite in the book, and many others, the imperial prosecutor, prefect, chief of police, even at first the priest of Lourdes, Fr Peyramale, have no doubts.
The ecstasy is undoubtedly genuine. The Lady asks her to “go eat of the plants which you will find yonder”.
ANNAT MINGUIA AGUERO HIERBO QUE TROUBERET AQUIOU
And she says “Go to the spring yonder and wash yourself.”
ANNAT HEOUE EN A HOUN B’Y-LAOUA
The stream appears. First the boy Bouhouherts, on the point of death, then many others are cured.
Bernadette, despite numerous questionings, is obviously sincere. She leads a perfect life, full of humility. She dies at the age of 35 of an incurable disease.
I have been myself to Lourdes many times, like the poet Lafite I approach the grotto.
“The rhythmic murmur became a beneficent rustling. It was like a soft support against which one could lean one’s back. And with it came the feeling as though one were surrounded by a helpfulness, encircled taken into its core. The prayers of men took Hyacinthe de Lafite into their midst. Something like smiling irony came over him. Proud and without love? Yes! But am I really so deserted, so much more than others? Would it not suffice, seeing the vast incertitude of knowledge to be no vainer than these here? What’s the difference between myself and them?”