Lourdes / by Robert Hugh Benson


THE first sign of our approach to Lourdes was a vast wooden cross, crowning a pointed hill. We had been travelling all day, through the August sunlight, humming along the straight French roads beneath the endless avenues; now across a rich plain, with the road banked on either side to avert the spring torrents from the Pyrenees; now again mounting and descending a sudden shoulder of hill. A few minutes ago we had passed into Tarbes, the cathedral city of the diocese in which Lourdes lies; and there, owing to a little accident, we had been obliged to halt, while the wheels of the car were lifted, with incredible ingenuity, from the deep gutter into which the chauffeur had, with the best intentions, steered them. It was here, in the black eyes, the dominant profiles, the bright colours, the absorbed childish interest of the crowd, in their comments, their laughter, their seriousness, and their accent, that the South showed itself almost unmixed. It was market-day in Tarbes; and when once more we were on our way, we still went slowly; passing, almost all the way into Lourdes itself, a long-drawn procession -- carts and foot passengers, oxen, horses, dogs, and children -- drawing nearer every minute toward that ring of solemn blue hills that barred the view to Spain.

The Basilica. Front View.

It is difficult to describe with what sensations I came to Lourdes. As a Christian man, I did not dare to deny that miracles happened; as a reasonably humble man, I did not dare to deny that they happened at Lourdes; yet, I suppose, my attitude even up to now had been that of a reverent agnostic -- the attitude, in fact, of a majority of Christians on this particular point -- Christians, that is, who resemble the Apostle Thomas in his less agreeable aspect. I had heard and read a good deal about psychology, about the effect of mind on matter and of nerves on tissue; I had reflected upon the infection of an ardent crowd; I had read Zola's dishonest book;{1} and these things, coupled with the extreme difficulty which the imagination finds in realizing what it has never experienced -- since, after all, miracles are confessedly miraculous, and therefore unusual -- the effect of all this was to render my mental state a singularly detached one. I believed? Yes, I suppose so; but it was a halting act of faith pure and simple; it was not yet either sight or real conviction.

The cross, then, was the first glimpse of Lourdes' presence; and ten minutes later we were in the town itself.

Lourdes is not beautiful, though it must once have been. It was once a little Franco-Spanish town, set in the lap of the hills, with a swift, broad, shallow Stream, the Gave, flowing beneath it. It is now cosmopolitan, and therefore undistinguished. As we passed slowly through the crowded streets -- for the National Pilgrimage was but now arriving -- we saw endless rows of shops and booths sheltering beneath tall white blank houses, as correct and as expressionless as a brainless, well-bred man. Here and there we passed a great hotel. The crowd about our wheels was almost as cosmopolitan as a Roman crowd. It was largely French, as that is largely Italian; but the Spaniards were there, vivid-faced men and women, severe Britons, solemn Teutons; and, I have no doubt, Italians, Belgians, Flemish and Austrians as well. At least I heard during my three days' stay all the languages that I could recognize, and many that I could not. There were many motor-cars there besides our own, carriages, carts, bell-clanging trains, and the litters of the sick. Presently we dismounted in a side street, and set out to walk to the Grotto, through the hot evening sunshine.

The first sign of sanctity that we saw, as we came out at the end of a street, was the mass of churches built on the rising ground above the river. Imagine first a great oval of open ground, perhaps two hundred by three hundred yards in area, crowded now with groups as busy as ants, partly embraced by two long white curving arms of masonry rising steadily to their junction; at the point on this side where the ends should meet if they were prolonged, stands a white stone image of Our Lady upon a pedestal, crowned, and half surrounded from beneath by some kind of metallic garland arching upward. At the farther end the two curves of masonry of which I have spoken, rising all the way by steps, meet upon a terrace. This terrace is, so to speak, the centre of gravity of the whole.

For just above it stands the flattened dome of the Rosary Church, of which the doors are beneath the terrace, placed upon broad flights of steps. Immediately above the dome is the entrance to the crypt of the basilica; and, above that again, reached by further flights of steps, are the doors of the basilica; and, above it, the roof of the church itself, with its soaring white spire high over all.

Let me be frank. These buildings are not really beautiful. They are enormous, but they are not impressive; they are elaborate and fine and white, but they are not graceful. I am not sure what is the matter with them; but I think it is that they appear to be turned out of a machine. They are too trim; they are like a well-dressed man who is not quite a gentleman; they are like a wedding guest; they are haute-bourgeoise, they are not the nobility. It is a terrible pity, but I suppose it could not be helped, since they were allowed so little time to grow. There is no sense of reflectiveness about them, no patient growth of character, as in those glorious cathedrals, Amiens, Chartres, Beauvais, which I had so lately seen. There is nothing in reserve; they say everything, they suggest nothing. They have no imaginative vista.

We said not one word to one another. We threaded our way across the ground, diagonally, seeing as we went the Bureau de Constatations (or the office where the doctors sit), contrived near the left arm of the terraced steps; and passed out under the archway, to find ourselves with the churches on our left, and on our right the flowing Gave, confined on this side by a terraced walk, with broad fields beyond the stream.

The first thing I noticed were the three roofs of the piscines, on the left side of the road, built under the cliff on which the churches stand. I shall have more to say of them presently, but now it is enough to remark that they resemble three little chapels, joined in one, each with its own doorway; an open paved space lies across the entrances, where the doctors and the priests attend upon the sick. This open space is fenced in all about, to keep out the crowd that perpetually seethes there. We went a few steps farther, worked our way in among the people, and fell on our knees.

Overhead, the cliff towered up, bare hanging rock beneath, grass and soaring trees above; and at the foot of the cliff a tall, irregular cave. There are two openings of this cave; the one, the larger, is like a cage of railings, with the gleam of an altar in the gloom beyond, a hundred burning candles, and sheaves and stacks of crutches clinging to the broken roofs of rock; the other, and smaller, and that farther from us, is an opening in the cliff, shaped somewhat like a vesica. The grass still grows there, with ferns and the famous climbing shrub; and within the entrance, framed in it, stands Mary, in white and blue, as she stood fifty years ago, raised perhaps twenty feet above the ground.

Ah, that image! . . . I said, "As she stood there!" Yet it could not have been so; for surely even simple Bernadette would not have fallen on her knees. It is too white, it is too blue; it is, like the three churches, placed magnificently, yet not impressive; fine and slender, yet not graceful.

But we knelt there without unreality, with the river running swift behind us; for we knelt where a holy child had once knelt before a radiant vision, and with even more reason; for even if the one, as some say, had been an hallucination, were those sick folk an hallucination? Was Pierre de Rudder's mended leg an hallucination, or the healed wounds of Marie Borel? Or were those hundreds upon hundreds of disused crutches an illusion? Did subjectivity create all these? If so, what greater miracle can be demanded?

And there was more than that. For when later, at Argelès, I looked over the day, I was able to formulate for the first time the extraordinary impressions that Lourdes had given me. There was everything hostile to my peace -- an incalculable crowd, an oppressive heat, dust, noise, weariness; there was the disappointment of the churches and the image; there was the sour unfamiliarity of the place and the experience; and yet I was neither troubled nor depressed nor irritated nor disappointed. It appeared to me as if some great benign influence were abroad, soothing and satisfying; lying like a great summer air over all, to quiet and to stimulate. I cannot describe this further; I can only say that it never really left me during those three days, I saw sights that would have saddened me elsewhere -- apparent injustices, certain disappointments, dashed hopes that would almost have broken my heart; and yet that great Power was over all, to reconcile, to quiet and to reassure. To leave Lourdes at the end was like leaving home.

After a few minutes before the Grotto, we climbed the hill behind, made an appointment for my Mass on the morrow; and, taking the car again, moved slowly through the crowded streets, and swiftly along the country roads, up to Argelès, nearly a dozen miles away.

{1} The epithet is deliberate. He relates in his book, "Lourdes," the story of an imaginary case of a girl, suffering from tuberculosis, who goes to Lourdes as a pilgrim, and is, apparently, cured of her disease. It breaks out, however, again during her return home; and the case would appear therefore to be one of those in which, owing to fierce excitement and the mere power of suggestion, there is a temporary amelioration, but no permanent, or supernatural, cure. Will it be believed that the details of this story, all of which are related with great particularity, and observed by Zola himself, were taken from an actual case that occurred during one of his visits -- all the details except the relapse? There was no relapse: the cure was complete and permanent. When Dr. Boissarie later questioned the author as to the honesty of this literary device, saying that he had understood him to have stated that he had come to Lourdes for the purpose of art impartial investigation, Zola answered that the characters in the book were his own, and that he could make them do what he liked. It is on these principles that the book is constructed. It must be added that Zola followed up the case, and had communications with the miraculée long after her cure had been shown to be permanent, and before his book appeared.

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