Lourdes / by Robert Hugh Benson


Now, it is at the close of the afternoon procession that the sick more usually are healed. I crossed the Bureau to the other window that looks on to what I will call the square, and began to watch for the reappearance of the procession on that side. In front of me was a dense crowd of heads, growing more dense every step up to the barriers that enclose the open space in the midst. It was beyond those barriers, as I knew, that the sick were laid ready for the passing by of Jesus of Nazareth. On the right rose the wide sweep of steps and terraces leading up to the basilica, and every line of stone was crowned with heads. Even on the cliffs beyond, I could see figures coming and going and watching. In all, about eighty thousand persons were present.

Presently the singing grew loud again; the procession had turned the corner and entered the square; and I could see the canopy moving quickly down the middle toward the Rosary Church, for its work was done. The Blessed Sacrament was now to be carried round the lines of the sick, beneath an ombrellino.

I shall describe all this later, and more in detail; it is enough just now to say that the Blessed Sacrament went round, that It was carried at last to the steps of the Rosary Church, and that, after the singing of the Tantum Ergo by that enormous crowd, Benediction was given. Then the Bureau began to fill, and I turned round for the scientific aspect of the affair.

The first thing that I saw was a little girl, seeming eight or nine years old, who walked in and stood at the other side of the table, to be examined. Her name was Marguerite Vandenabeele -- so I read on the certificate -- and she had suffered since birth from infantile paralysis, with such a result that she was unable to put her heels to the ground. That morning in the piscine she had found herself able to walk properly though her heels were tender from disuse. We looked at her -- the doctors who had begun again to fill the room, and myself, with three or four more amateurs. There she stood, very quiet and unexcited, with a slightly flushed face. Some elder person in charge of her gave in the certificate and answered the questions. Then she went away.{1}

Now, I must premise that the cures that took place while I was at Lourdes that August cannot yet be regarded as finally established, since not sufficient time has elapsed for their test and verification.{2} Occasionally there is a relapse soon after the apparent cure, in the case of certain diseases that may be more or less affected by a nervous condition; occasionally claimants are found not to be cured at all. For scientific certainty, therefore it is better to rely upon cures that have taken place a year, or at least some months previously, in which the restored health is preserved. There are, of course a large number of such cases; I shall come to them presently.{3}

The next patient to enter the room was one Mlle. Bardou. I learned later from her lips that she was a secularized Carmelite nun, expelled from her convent by the French Government. There was the further pathos in her case in the fact that her cure, when I left Lourdes, was believed to be at least doubtful. But now she took her seat, with a radiantly happy face, to hand in her certificate and answer the questions. She had suffered from renal tuberculosis; her certificate proved that. She was here herself, without pain or discomfort, to prove that she no longer suffered. Relief had come during the procession. A question or two was put to her; an arrangement was made for her return after examination. and she went out.

The room was rapidly filling now; there were forty or fifty persons present. There was a sudden stir; those who sat rose up; and there came into the room three bishops in purple -- from St. Paul in Brazil, the Bishop of Beauvais, and the famous orator, Monseigneur Touchet, of Orléans -- all of whom had taken part in the procession. These sat down, and the examination went on.

The next to enter was Juliette Gosset, aged twenty-five, from Paris. She had a darkish plain face, and was of middle size. She answered the questions quietly enough, though there was evident suppressed excitement beneath. She had been cured during the procession, she said; she had stood up and walked. And her illness? She showed a certificate, dated in the previous March, asserting that she suffered gravely from tuberculosis, especially in the right lung; she added herself that hip disease had developed since that time, that one leg had become seven centimetres shorter than the other, and that she had been for some months unable to sit or kneel. Yet here she walked and sat without the smallest apparent discomfort. When she had finished her tale, a doctor pointed out that the certificate said nothing of any hip disease. She assented, explaining again the reason; but added that the hospital where she lodged in Lourdes would corroborate what she said. Then she disappeared into the little private room to be examined.

There followed a nun, pale and black-eyed, who made gestures as she stood by Dr. Boissarie and told her story. She spoke very rapidly. I learned that she had been suffering from a severe internal malady, and that she had been cured instantaneously in the piscine. She handed in her certificate, and then she, too, vanished.

After a few minutes there returned the doctor who had examined Juliette Gosset. Now, I think it should impress the incredulous that this case was pronounced unsatisfactory, and will not, probably, appear upon the registers. It was perfectly true, that the girl had had tuberculosis, and that now nothing was to be detected except the very faintest symptom -- so faint as to be negligible -- in the right lung. It appeared to be true also that she had had hip disease, since there were upon her body certain marks of treatment by burning; and that her legs were now of an exactly equal length. But, firstly, the certificate was five months old, secondly, it made no mention of hip disease; thirdly, seven centimetres was almost too large a measure to be believed. The case then was referred back for further investigation; and there it stood when I left Lourdes. The doctors shook their heads considerably over the seven centimetres.

There followed next one of the most curious instances of all. It was an old miraculée who came back to report; her case is reported at length in Dr. Boissarie's OEuvre de Lourdes, on pages 299- 308.{4} Her name was Marie Cools, and she came from Anvers, suffering apparently from mal de Pott, and paralysis and anaesthesia of the legs. This state had lasted for about three years. The doctors consulted differed as to her case: two diagnosing it as mentioned above, two as hysteria. For ten months she had suffered, moreover, from constant feverishness; she was continually sick, and the work of digestion was painful and difficult. There was a marked lateral deviation of the spinal column, with atrophy of the leg muscles, At the second bath she began to improve, and the pains in the back ceased; at the fourth bath the paralysis vanished, her appetite came steadily back, and the sickness ceased. Now she came in to announce her continued good health.

There are a number of interesting facts as to this case; and the first is the witness of the infidel doctor who sent her to Lourdes, since it seemed to him that "religious suggestion," was the only hope left. He, by the way, had diagnosed her case as one of hysteria. "It had a result," he writes, "which I, though an unbeliever, can characterize only as marvellous. Marie Cools returned completely, absolutely cured. No trace of paralysis or anaesthesia. She is actually on her feet; and, two hospital servants having been stricken by typhoid, she is taking the place of one of them. Another interesting fact is that a positive storm raged at Anvers over her cure, and that Dr. Van de Vorst was at the ensuing election dismissed from the hospital, with at least a suspicion that the cause of his dismissal lay in his having advised the girl to go to Lourdes at all.

Bureau des Constatations

Dr. Boissarie makes an interesting comment or two on the case, allowing that it may perhaps have been hysteria, though this is not at all certain. "When we have to do with nervous maladies, we must always remember the rules of Benedict XIV.: `The miracle cannot consist in the cessation of the crises, but in the cessation of the nervous state which produces them.'" It is this that has been accomplished in the case of Marie Cools. And again: "Either Marie Cools is not cured, or there is in her cure something other than suggestion, even religious. It is high time to leave that tale alone, and to cease to class under the title of religious suggestion two orders of facts completely distinct -- superficial and momentary modifications, and constitutional modifications so profound that science cannot explain them. I repeat: to make of an hysterical patient one whose equilibrium is perfect . . . is a thing more difficult than the cure of a wound."

So he wrote at the time of her apparent cure, hesitating still as to its permanence. And here, my eyes and his, she stood again, healthy and well.

And so at last I went back to dinner. A very different scene followed. For a couple of hours we had been materialists, concerning ourselves not with what Mary had done by grace -- at least not in that aspect -- but with what nature showed to have been done, by whatever agency, in itself. Now once more we turned to Mary.

It was dark when we arrived at the square, but the whole place was alive with earthly lights. High up to our left hung the church, outlined in fire -- tawdry, I dare say, with its fairy lights of electricity, yet speaking to three-quarters of this crowd in the highest language they knew. Light, after all, is the most heavenly thing we possess. Does it matter so very much if it is decked out and arranged in what to superior persons appears a finikin fashion?

The crowd itself had become a serpent of fire, writhing here below in endlessly intricate coils; up there along the steps and parapets, a long-drawn, slow-moving line; and from the whole incalculable number came gusts and roars of singing, for each carried a burning torch and sang with his group. The music was of all kinds. Now and again came the Laudate Mariam from one company, following to some degree the general movement of the procession, and singing from little paper-books which each read by the light of his wind-blown lantern; now the Gloria Patri, as a band came past reciting the Rosary; but above all pealed the ballad of Bernadette, describing how the little child went one day by the banks of the Gave, how she heard the thunderous sound, and, turning, saw the Lady, with all the rest of the sweet story, each stanza ending with that

Ave, Ave, Ave Maria!

that I think will ring in my ears till I die.

It was an astounding sight to see that crowd and to hear that. singing, and to watch each group as it came past -- now girls, now boys, now stalwart young men, now old veteran pilgrims, now a bent old woman; each face illumined by the soft paper-shrouded candle, and each mouth singing to Mary. Hardly one in a thousand of those came to be cured of any sickness; perhaps not one in five hundred had any friend among the patients; yet here they were, drawn across miles of hot France, to give, not to get. Can France, then, be so rotten?

As I dropped off to sleep that night, the last sound of which I was conscious was still that cannon-like chorus, coming from the direction of the square:

Ave, Ave, Ave Maria!
Ave, Ave, Ave Maria!

{1} La Voix de Lourdes, a semi-official paper, gives the following account of her, in its issue of the 23rd: "Marguerite Vandenabeele, 10 ans, de Nieurlet, hameau de Hedezeele, (Nord), est arrivée avec un des trains de Paris, portant un certificat du Docteur Dantois, daté de St. Momeleu (Nord) le 25 mai, 1908, la déclarant atteinte d'atrophie de la jambe gauche avec pied-bot équin. Elle ne marchait que très difficilement et très péniblement. A la sortie de la piscine, vendredi soir, elle a pu marcher facilement. Amenée au Bureau Médical, on l'a débarrassée de l'appareil dans lequel était enfermé son pied. Depths, elle marche bien, et parait guérie."

{2} This was written in the autumn of the year 1908, in which this visit of mine took place.

{3} Since 1888 the registered cures are estimated as follows: '88, 57; '89, 44; '90, 80; '91, 53; '92, 99; '93, 91; '94, 127; '95, 163; '96, 145; '97, 163; '98, 243; '99, 174; 1900, 160; '01, 171; '92, 164; '03, 161; '04, 140; '05, 157; '06, 148; '07, 109.

{4} My notes are rather illegible at this point, but I make no doubt that this was Marie Cools.

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