On the cold morning of February 11, 1858, there was no wood in the Soubirous home, and no fire to warm them. Bernadette set out with her younger sister Toinette, and a neighbor girl, Jean Abadie, to scrounge in the forest for kindling. Maybe they would get lucky and find a rag or a bone to sell.
Heading out of town, the girls neared the foot of Massabieille, a massive, cliff-top rock formation, within view of the ancient hilltop fortress that served as the traditional landmark of the town. To reach the woods, they had to ford the river Gave at the bottom of the cliff. Bernadette’s mother had warned her not to get her feet wet, for that would surely bring on the asthma, so while the other two girls scampered across the river, Bernadette reluctantly hung back.
According to her own accounts, as she lingered near the banks of the Gave, the girls calling after her as they hurried into the woods, she heard a sound like rushing wind. The sound seemed to be coming from a dark grotto in the rock wall under Massabielle. The noon Angelus bells were ringing from the town. As Bernadette turned to investigate the source of the wind, she saw what looked like a glowing young girl, tiny, white, and smiling brightly. She appeared to be standing above the eglantine, or wild rose, that draped the niche over the entrance to the grotto.
Bernadette rubbed her eyes and looked again. This time, the tiny demoiselle nodded, as if to greet her, and opened her arms, smiling all the while. Bernadette’s initial reaction was fear, but she couldn’t run away. She said she felt like she couldn’t move, but she did manage to instinctively put her hand in her pocket and draw out her rosary for protection. She tried to make the sign of the cross, but found that she couldn’t.
In response, the shining little maiden also produced a rosary, and crossed herself in a gesture of surprising beauty and grace. This time, Bernadette found she could respond, and after crossing herself, she began to feel calmer and a little less overwhelmed. Dropping to her knees, Bernadette began to pray her rosary. The little lady fingered her beads along with her. When they had finished, the tiny thing beckoned her to come closer, but Bernadette was too overawed to move. She then vanished, all smiles and delicate grace, leaving Bernadette to rejoin her companions.
Bernadette’s descriptions of the tiny, white maiden were consistent throughout the course of her visions. The apparition, whom she called aquero, or “that thing” in the local dialect, appeared youthful and girlish. There was nothing particularly matronly or maternal about her. Bernadette repeatedly said that aquero was about the same size as herself, if not a bit smaller. Bernadette was very small for her age. Although she had recently turned fourteen, the combined ravages of illness and malnutrition kept her about the size of an average 10- or 11-year-old. According to Bernadette’s earliest descriptions, aquero looked to be about 12 years old. This is an important distinction, and one that the well-meaning supporters of Lourdes apparently prefer to ignore.
This costume is quite significant, for in this particular area of the Pyrenees, the locals maintained a tradition of fairy lore that told of the petito damizela in white who still lingered in the forests and grottoes of the region. When Bernadette first called the apparition a petito damizela, which translates as a petite, unmarried young lady, she may have actually been referring to aquero as a Pyrenean fairy woman. These Pyrenean fairies were tiny, enchanting ladies in glowing, white robes. Charming, helpful, and better natured than most fairy folk, they were recognized by their gleaming garments and said to spend much time washing them to snowy whiteness in the fountains outside their grotto homes.
The roses on aquero’s feet were yet another aspect of local fairy lore, as was Bernadette’s reluctance to call her by any name other than “that thing.” According to the tradition, these delightful fairy women sometimes married mortal men, making good wives and housekeepers – for a time. Eventually, the husband would slip up and call his fairy wife by her name, at which point she would disappear back into the fairy world forever.
In the Basque population of the Pyrenees, we have a unique link into the mindset of our most distant ancestors. There is reason to believe the Basques have occupied the Pyrenees region from the remotest antiquity, possibly even to the time of the Cro-Magnon cave painters. The inaccessibility of their mountain fastness kept them relatively isolated from the Indo-European influences that swept the rest of the continent. Consequently, the Basques have retained a unique language and a culture that, while not entirely untainted by foreign contact, still reveals roots reaching down into our most shadowy origins.
Furthermore, the Basques, with their extensive folklore and mythology, are relative latecomers to Roman Catholicism. Religious writers of the 1400 and 1500s continue to speak of the Basques as “gentiles” or “pagans.” The widespread persistence of their ancient beliefs and practices provoked the full wrath of the Spanish Inquisition. The brutal repression of centuries of witch hunts has left its mark, and clearly, some of the tradition that remains is highly adulterated and Christianized, but we can still trace influences extending far back into the Neolithic, and perhaps beyond.
Basque beliefs are rooted in the landscape, in the rugged mountains, the waters, and the caves reaching deep into the earth. They held to that most primitive fundamentalism, the belief in the divinity of the masculine Sun and the feminine Moon. The terms Ost or Eguzki refer to the light of the sun and their god of the firmament. This masculine force, similar to Zeus or Thor, ruled the day and the world of light, but the night belonged to Ilargia, the Moon. Ilargia ruled the hidden, dark side of nature, the underworld of the dead. The Basques were forever fascinated with her mysterious phases and cycles.
However, the Basque people’s deepest and most widespread devotion, long before the arrival of Christianity in the Pyrenees, centered on their female deity, the great goddess who lived in the caves. Her name, perhaps the ultimate irony, was Mari. Devotion to Mari spanned the entire Basque territory, and any respectable hilltop boasted a shrine to Mari, and a statue as well, but the caves remained her favorite habitation.
Within the vast lore and ritual dedicated to her worship, the image of Mari emerges, complex and glorious. She moved like a fireball from mountaintop to mountaintop, trailing wild storms from the subterranean caverns in her wake. She demanded honor and charity from men, punishing those who failed to keep their word or refused to help others. Oddly enough, tradition holds that Mari must only be addressed in the familiar pronoun, putting a unique twist on Bernadette’s surprise at being addressed formally by her aquero. Mari commanded legions of fairy spirits, with varying titles in different locales: the Mairi, or Maide of the mountaintop cromlechs and stone circles, and the fey laminak, often spotted combing their hair in the caverns.
This great and very ancient goddess spawned a vast body of tales and traditions, and the rituals of her devotees in the caves of the Pyrenees kept the Spanish Inquisition busy for years. One of her most vicious persecutors was Juan de Zumarraga, who, in 1528, assisted in the biggest Basque witchhunt. Zumarraga eventually moved on to Mexico, where, as bishop, he persecuted and destroyed the native Aztec culture and religion just as vigorously as he had brutalized his Basque brethren.
One of Mari’s more popular minions is a creature known as Beigorri, a red-haired bull or calf. One of several cattle deities associated with her worship, Beigorri’s chief function is to serve as the guardian of the houses, or shrines, of Mari. Seen in that light, the tales of a magical bovine unearthing a long-lost statue of a female divinity, which then refuses to be worshipped in a Christian sanctuary but instead draws her devotees back to congregate at her wilderness origins, starts to make a certain kind of sense. Perhaps, in these unique Marian traditions, which continue to spring up so freely, even after centuries of repression, we can trace both the reemergence of the Basque Mari, and her conflation, in the aftermath of the Inquisition, into the all-encompassing image of the Christian Mary.
The traditional Catholic story of Saint Bernadette is as follows:
Bernadette was the daughter of François Soubirous, a miller, and his wife Louise, a laundress, and was the eldest of five children who survived infancy. Bernadette was born on 7 January 1844, and baptized at the local parish church, St. Pierre's, on 9 January, her parents' wedding anniversary. Bernadette's godmother was Bernarde Casterot, her mother's sister, a moderately well-off widow who owned a tavern. Hard times had fallen on France and the family lived in extreme poverty. Neighbours reported that the family lived in unusual harmony, apparently relying on their love and support for one another and their religious devotion. Bernadette contracted cholera as a toddler and suffered severe asthma for the rest of her life.
By the time Bernadette received her visions, her family's financial and social status had declined to the point where they lived in a one-room basement, called le cachot, "the dungeon," where they were housed for free by her mother's cousin, Andre Sajoux. On 11 February 1858, Bernadette, then aged 14, was out gathering firewood and bones with her sister and a friend at the grotto of Massabielle outside Lourdes, and had her first vision.
As she recounted later, while the other girls crossed the little stream in front of the grotto and walked on, Bernadette stayed behind, looking for a place to cross where she wouldn't get her stockings wet. She finally sat down in the grotto to take her shoes off in order to cross the water, and was lowering her first stocking when she heard the sound of rushing wind, but nothing moved. A wild rose in a natural niche in the grotto, however, did move; from the niche, or rather the dark alcove behind it, "came a dazzling light, and a white figure." This was the first of 18 visions of what she referred to as aquero, Gascon Occitan for "that." In later testimony, she called it "a small young lady" (uo petito damizelo). Her sister and her friend stated that they had seen nothing.
On 14 February, after Sunday mass, Bernadette, with her sister Toinette and some other girls, returned to the grotto. Bernadette knelt down immediately, saying she saw aquero again and falling into a trance. When one of the girls threw holy water at the niche, and another threw a rock from above that shattered on the ground, the apparition disappeared. Bernadette fell into a state of shock, and the girl who had thrown the rock actually thought she had killed her. On her next visit, 18 February, she said that "the vision" asked her to return to the grotto every day for a fortnight.
This period of almost daily visions came to be known as la Quinzaine sacrée, "holy fortnight." Initially, her parents, and especially her mother, were embarrassed and tried to forbid her to go; the local police commissioner called her into his office and threatened to arrest her, as did the district attorney, but since there was no evidence of fraud there was little they could do. The girl herself remained stubbornly calm and consistent during her interrogations, never changing her story or her attitude, and never claiming knowledge beyond what she said the vision told her.
The supposed apparition did not identify herself until the seventeenth vision, although the townspeople who believed she was telling the truth assumed she saw the Virgin Mary. Bernadette never claimed it to be Mary, consistently using the word aquero. She described the lady as wearing a white veil, a blue girdle, and with a yellow rose on each foot—compatible with "a description of any statue of the Virgin in a village church."
Bernadette's story caused a sensation with the townspeople, who were divided in their opinions on whether or not Bernadette was telling the truth. Some believed her to have a mental illness, and demanded she be put in an asylum. She soon had a large number of people following her on her daily journey, some out of curiosity and others who firmly believed that they were witnessing a miracle.
At the thirteenth of the alleged apparitions, on 2 March, Bernadette told her family that the lady had said "Please go to the priests and tell them that a chapel is to be built here. Let processions come hither."
Accompanied by two of her aunts, Bernadette duly went to parish priest Father Dominique Peyramale with the request. A brilliant but often rough spoken man with little belief in claims of visions and miracles, Peyramale told Bernadette that the lady must identify herself.
Bernadette said that on her next visitation she repeated the priest's words to the lady, but that the lady bowed a little, smiled and said nothing. Then Father Peyramale told Bernadette to prove that the lady was real by asking her to perform a miracle. He requested that she make the rose bush beneath the niche where she appeared to Bernadette bud and flower on the last week of February.
As Bernadette later reported to her family and to church and civil investigators, at the ninth visitation the lady told Bernadette to drink from the spring that flowed under the rock, and eat the plants that grew freely there. Although there was no known spring, and the ground was muddy, Bernadette saw the lady pointing with her finger to the spot, and said later she assumed the lady meant that the spring was underground.
She did as she was told by first digging a muddy patch with her bare hands and then attempting to drink the brackish drops. She tried three times, failing each time. On the fourth try, the droplets were clearer and she drank them. She then ate some of the plants. When finally she turned to the crowd, her face was smeared with mud and no spring had been revealed. Understandably, this caused much skepticism among onlookers who shouted, "She's a fraud!" or "She's insane!" while embarrassed relatives wiped the adolescent's face clean with a handkerchief.
In the next few days, however, a spring began to flow from the muddy patch first dug by Bernadette. Some devout people followed her example by drinking and washing in the water, which was soon reported to have healing properties.
Her 16th claimed vision, which she stated went on for over an hour, was on 25 March. During this vision, the second of two "miracles of the candle" is reported to have occurred. Bernadette was holding a lighted candle; during the vision it burned down, and the flame was said to be in direct contact with her skin for over fifteen minutes, but she apparently showed no sign of experiencing any pain or injury. This was said to be witnessed by many people present, including the town physician, Dr. Pierre Romaine Dozous, who timed and later documented it.
According to Bernadette's account, during that same visitation that she claimed, she again asked the woman her name but the lady just smiled back. She repeated the question three more times and finally heard the lady say, in Gascon Occitan, "I am the Immaculate Conception" (Qué soï era immaculado councepcioũ, a phonetic transcription of Que soi era immaculada concepcion).
Close to 5 million pilgrims visit Lourdes (population of about 15,000) every year, with individuals and groups coming from all over the world. Within France, only Paris has more hotels than Lourdes. In 2008, the 150th anniversary of the 1858 apparitions to Bernadette, it was expected that 8 million pilgrims would visit Lourdes during the year. Lourdes is now a major center where Catholic pilgrims from around the globe reaffirm their beliefs as they visit the sanctuary.
Some thoughts on the subject:
As we approach a tentative conclusion to this story, I propose that in following this course of events, we are actually tracing very ancient and indigenous religious habits, ones that embody such instinctive and deep-seated devotion that they are recycled from age to age and yet still remain vital and meaningful. The caves of the Pyrenees have hosted female deities and mother goddesses, in communion with their chosen visionaries, since long before the arrival of Christianity, and perhaps even before the beginning of history. Each generation experiences similar phenomena and exhibits similar responses. The differences lie in the meanings inferred; the definitions, context and interpretation.
At Lourdes, these larger historical parallels have been repressed, and important evidence was ignored to make the story fit within the limited, and distinctly non-catholic vision of the Roman Church. It remains for us, blessed with unprecedented freedom of thought and information, to retrace the lost threads and piece the puzzle back together.
While I’m certainly not fit to judge what aquero meant when she said she was the Immaculate Conception, one thing is for sure. If she wanted a chapel to be built, and wanted the people to come in processions, and to bathe in and drink the spring waters, she said the one thing that would most readily assure it would all come to pass. Whoever or whatever she was, aquero wasn’t stupid.
The belief in the healing powers of rushing spring waters seems to have been part of our spiritual heritage for so long that perhaps we can only hope to trace its origins back to somewhere deep within our own. We still come, in greater numbers than ever before, to worship and purify ourselves by the riverside, where a heavenly goddess returns to re-reveal an ancient source of salvation. In the older forms of devotion that reemerged at the apparition sites, the Roman Catholic Church tapped into the people’s unconscious longing to worship the feminine aspects of God, ensuring its own survival into the 20th century. How ironic, that the church that once prospered by destroying the pagan goddess cults should come, in time, to thrive on their remains.
The message of Lourdes is timeless, at once ancient and modern. It is a message of community, of miracles we can share. It is a message of hope, even against hope, when all else has failed, when the combined powers of materialism and science must part ways to clear a path for faith. It is also a testament, among the thronging crowds, to the power of one; one little girl, who couldn’t lie, and wouldn’t be swayed from her vision. It is that innocence, that honesty, that purity of purpose, springing from contact with genuine divinity, that still captivates the imagination and thrills the heart.
Sources: Wikipedia and Visions Of The Virgin Mary