Some thoughts for next Sunday:
1. One hundred and sixty years ago today there occurred the first of the eighteen apparitions of the Blessed Virgin to the fourteen-year old St Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes (1844-1879). In my childhood this French girl loomed large in our lives, as did her compatriot St Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), also known as St Thérèse of the Child Jesus, or The Little Flower.
Indeed the church of my childhood was in some ways a much more feminine place than the post-Vatican II church. The two French girls were quite recent figures. Bernadette was canonized by Pius XI only 16 years before I was born; Thérèse was canonized by the same pope eight years before that, and her elder sister Céline died in French convents as recently as 1959, sixty-two years after Thérèse.
I only recently discovered why statues of St Thérèse are found in all French churches: she is the secondary Patroness of France alongside St Jeanne d’Arc, with the Blessed Virgin herself as the primary patron of the country. France projects a gentle and femine image of the Church and we can be happy that France had such a big input into Vatican II. Behind Bernadette and Thérèse we can feel the great tradition of French spirituality (marked by many mystics and spiritual guides in the 16th and 17th centuries, notably the gentle Francis de Sales who spoke untiringly of the love of God), and in Thérèse’s case there is also the sterner stuff of Spanish Carmelite mysticism, as represented by her namesake Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross.
2. The Martins were a strange family, totally devoted to the task of becoming saints; all the girls gravitated to convent life. Today we may find it difficult to enter into that world of intense piety. Yet the impact of Thérèse’s writings go far beyond this family context. We read her Story of a Soul in a theology book club here in Tokyo some years back, and I brought along an Irishwoman steeped in Hinduism and remote from the Church. She instantly tuned in to Thérèse and said “this woman speaks from eternity.”
It’s amazing how Thérèse’s sayings resonate throughout the Catholic world. This is because of the unerring simplicity with which they point to the essential things, to treasures that we carry in our hearts.
One of these is love: “Then, overcome by joy, I cried, ‘Jesus, my love. At last I have found my vocation. My vocation is love. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and then I will be all things.” More than any other saint Thérèse manifested the centrality and the sole sufficiency of love.
Another hidden treasure is joy: “La joie réside au plus intime de l’âme; on peut aussi bien la posséder dans une obscure prison que dans un palais.” “Joy dwells in the depth of the soul; one can possess it just as well in a dark prison as in a palace.”
A foundational virtue of Thérèse is humility: “I beseech you, O Jesus, to send me some humiliation every time that I seek to put myself above others.” St Bernadette, too, cherished humility: “It takes many humiliations to create humility.”
3. Our Lady of Lourdes gave Bernadette the command to “drink at the spring and bathe in it”. In school we were told that though all sorts of people with skin diseases and so on bathed in the waters, no one had ever contracted any illness from this.
The great novelist Emile Zola wrote:
“And the water was not exactly inviting. The Grotto Fathers were afraid that the output of the spring would be insufficient, so in those days they had the water in the pools changed just twice a day. As some hundred patients passed through the same water, you can imagine what a horrible slop it was at the end. There was everything in it: threads of blood, sloughed-off skin, scabs, bits of cloth and bandage, an abominable soup of ills… the miracle was that anyone emerged alive from this human slime.”
Some people would drink this filthy water as an expression of their faith.
Nowadays however: “The water in each bath is constantly being topped up and refreshed via a pump. It is now constantly circulated and purified by irradiation.”
When I went to Lourdes in 1973 I bathed without fear, whereas now I might be more cautious.
Lourdes shows a loving, healing God bending over the mass of human filth and misery, like Christ at the pool of Bethdaida, or like Christ in today’s Gospel compassionately touching the unclean leper. The power of prayer, and perhaps mysterious gifts of healing that we carry within ourselves and rarely use, are attractively proclaimed at Lourdes, and celebrated there by five million pilgrims every year.
4. Jesus was not afraid of human beings, of their neediness, their squalor, their messiness, and even their wickedness. He brought his healing touch to bear on all situations. I’ve known one or two people gifted for ministry and able to respond compassionately to every person coming to them. They have been able to do an astonishing amount of good.
There’s a wider context to Jesus’s healing work. It’s perhaps indicated by a famous textual variant in today’s gospel reading, where instead of “moved by compassion” we read “moved by anger” in some manuscripts. Jesus is angry to see us paralyzed and blocked by hostile and oppressive forces that stand in the way of the Kingdom of God. So many people are locked in spiritual and psychological paralysis — and the physical paralysis that he cures could be a result of that spiritual paralysis; so many people are impoverished and marginalized and treated as lepers in our society; so many people are possessed or obsessed by demons of various kinds — by prejudice, hatred, fear, greed, enslaving attachments and addictions. The healing activity of Jesus is a blow to liberate us from all these forms of bondage. His message, “Your sins are forgiven you. Rise up and walk,” is a word of deliverance. After Pentecost we see the Apostles and their community continuing this healing, liberating work, in Christ’s name, and it continues to this day, whenever we pray for the sick, whenever we speak a word of forgiveness, whenever we embrace those whom society has cast out.