Lourdes / by Robert Hugh Benson


IN the afternoon we went down to meet a priest who had promised a place to one of our party in the window of which I have spoken before. But the crowd was so great that we could not find him, so presently we dispersed as best we could. Two other priests and myself went completely round the outside of the churches, in order, if possible, to join in the procession, since to cross the square was a simple impossibility. In the terrible crush near the Bureau, I became separated from the others, and fought my way back, and into the Bureau, as the best place open to me now for seeing the Blessing of the Sick.

It was now at last that I had my supreme wish. Within a minute or two of my coming to look through the window, the Blessed Sacrament entered the reserved space among the countless litters. The crowd between me and the open space was simply one pack of heads; but I could observe the movements of what was going forward by the white top of the ombrellino as it passed slowly down the farther side of the square.

The crowd was very still, answering as before the passionate voice in the midst; but watching, watching, as I watched. Beside me sat Dr. Cox, and our Rosaries were in our hands. The white spot moved on and on, and all else was motionless. I knew that beyond it lay the sick. "Lord, if it be possible -- if it be possible! Nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done." It had reached now the end of the first line.

"Seigneur, guérissez nos malades!" cried the priest.

"Seigneur, guérissez nos malades!" answered the people.

"Vous êtes mon Seigneur et mon Dieu!"

The Blessing of the Sick

And then on a sudden it came.

Overhead lay the quiet summer air, charged with the Supernatural as a cloud with thunder -- electric, vibrating with power. Here beneath lay souls thirsting for its touch of fire -- patient, desirous, infinitely pathetic; and in the midst that Power, incarnate for us men and our salvation. Then it descended, swift and mighty.

I saw a sudden swirl in the crowd of heads beneath the church steps, and then a great shaking ran through the crowd; but there for a few instants it boiled like a pot. A sudden cry had broken out, and it ran through the whole space; waxing in volume as it ran, till the heads beneath my window shook with it also; hands clapped, voices shouted: "Un miracle! Un miracle!"

I was on my feet, staring and crying out. Then quietly the shaking ceased, and the shouting died to a murmur; and the ombrellino moved on; and again the voice of the priest thrilled thin and clear, with a touch of triumphant thankfulness: "Vous êtes la Résrrection et la Vie!" And again, with entreaty once more -- since there still were two thousand sick untouched by that Power, and time pressed -- that infinitely moving plea: "Seigneur, celui qui vous aime est malade! And: "Seigneur, faites que je marche! Seigneur, laites que j'entende!"

And then again the finger of God flashed down, and again and again; and each time a sick and broken body sprang from its bed of pain and stood upright; and the crowd smiled and roared and sobbed. Five times I saw that swirl and rush; the last when the Te Deum pealed out from the church steps as Jesus in His Sacrament came home again. And there were two that I did not see. There were seven in all that afternoon.

Now, is it of any use to comment on all this? I am not sure; and yet, for my own satisfaction if for no one else's, I wish to set down some of the thoughts that came to me both then and after I had sat at the window and seen God's loving-kindness with my own eyes.

The first overwhelming impression that remained with me is this -- that I had been present, in my own body, in the twentieth century, and seen Jesus pass along by the sick folk, as He passed two thousand years before. That, in a word, is the supreme fact of Lourdes. More than once as I sat there that afternoon I contrasted the manner in which I was spending it with that in which the average believing Christian spends Sunday afternoon. As a child, I used to walk with my father, and he used to read and talk on religious subjects; on our return we used to have a short Bible-class in his study. As an Anglican clergyman, I used to teach in Sunday schools or preach to children. As a Catholic priest, I used occasionally to attend at catechism. At all these times the miraculous seemed singularly far away; we looked at it across twenty centuries; it was something from which lessons might be drawn, upon which the imagination might feed, but it was a state of affairs as remote as the life of prehistoric man; one assented to it, and that was all. And here at Lourdes it was a present, vivid event. I sat at an ordinary glass window, in a soutane made by an English tailor, with another Englishman beside me, and saw the miraculous happen. Time and space disappeared; the centuries shrank and vanished; and behold we saw that which "prophets and kings have desired to see and have not seen!"

Of course "scientific" arguments, of the sort which I have related, can be brought forward in an attempt to explain Lourdes; but they are the same arguments that can be, and are, brought forward against the miracles of Jesus Christ Himself. I say, nothing to those here; I leave that to scientists such as Dr. Boissarie; but what I cannot understand is that professing Christians are able to bring a priori arguments against the fact that Our Lord is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever -- the same in Galilee and in France. "These signs shall follow them that believe," He said Himself; and the history of the Catholic Church is an exact fulfilment of the words. It was so, St. Augustine tells us, at the tombs of the martyrs; five hundred miracles were reported at Canterbury within a few years of St. Thomas' martyrdom. And now here is Lourdes, as it has been for fifty years, in this little corner of poor France!

I have been asked since my return: "Why cannot miracles be done in England?" My answer is, firstly, that they are done in England, in Liverpool, and at Holywell, for example; secondly, I answer by another question as to why Jesus Christ was not born in Rome; and if He had been born in Rome, why not in Nineveh and Jerusalem? Thirdly, I answer that perhaps more would be done in England, if there were more faith there. It is surely a little unreasonable to ask that, in a country which three hundred and fifty years ago deliberately repudiated Christ's Revelation of Himself, banished the Blessed Sacrament and tore down. Mary's shrines, Christ and His Mother should cooperate supernaturally in marvels that are rather the rewards of the faithful. "It is not meet to take the children's bread and to cast it to the dogs" -- these are the words of our Lord Himself. If London is not yet tolerant enough to allow an Eucharistic Procession in her streets, she is scarcely justified in demanding that our Eucharistic Lord should manifest His power. "He could do no mighty work there," says the Evangelist, of Capharnaum, "because of their unbelief."

This, then, is the supreme fact of Lourdes: that Jesus Christ in His Sacrament passes along that open square, with the sick laid in beds on either side; and that at His word the lame walk and lepers are cleansed and deaf hear -- that they are seen leaping and dancing for joy.

Even now, writing within ten days of my return, all seems like a dream; and yet I know that I saw it. For over thirty years I had been accustomed to repeat the silly formula that "the age of miracles is past"; that they were necessary for the establishment of Christianity, but that they are no longer necessary now, except on extremely rare occasions perhaps; and in my heart I knew my foolishness. Why, for those thirty years Lourdes had been in existence! And if I spoke of it at all, I spoke only, of hysteria and auto-suggestion and French imaginativeness, and the rest of the nonsense. It is impossible for a Christian who has been at Lourdes to speak like that again.

And as for the unreality, that does not trouble me. I have no doubt that those who saw the bandages torn from the leper's limbs and the sound flesh shown beneath, or the once blind man, his eyes now dripping with water of Siloe, looking on Him who had made him whole, or heard the marvellous talk of "men like trees walking," and the rest -- I have no doubt that ten days later they sat themselves with unseeing eyes, and wondered whether it was indeed they who had witnessed those things. Human nature, like a Leyden jar, cannot hold beyond a fixed quantity; and this human nature, with experience, instincts, education, common talk, public opinion, and all the rest of it, echoing round it; the assumption that miracles do not happen; that laws are laws; in other words, that Deism is the best that can be hoped -- well, it is little wonder that the visible contradiction of all this conventionalism finds but little room in the soul.

Then there is another point that I should like to make in the presence of "Evangelical" Christians who shake their heads over Mary's part in the matter. It is this -- that for every miracle that takes place in the piscines, I should guess that a dozen take place while That which we believe to be Jesus Christ goes by. Catholics, naturally, need no such reassurance; they know well enough from interior experience that when Mary comes forward Jesus does not retire! But for those who think as some Christians do, it is necessary to point out the facts. And again. I have before me as I write the little card of ejaculations that are used in the procession. There are twenty-four in all. Of these, twenty-one are addressed to Jesus Christ; in two more we ask the "Mother of the Saviour "and the "Health of the Sick" to pray for us; in the last we ask her to "show herself a Mother." If people will talk of "proportion" in a matter in which there is no such thing -- since there can be no comparison, without grave irreverence, between the Creator and a creature -- I would ask, Is there "disproportion" here?

In fact, Lourdes, as a whole, is an excellent little compendium of Catholic theology and Gospel-truth. There was once a marriage feast, and the Mother of Jesus was there with her Son. There was no wine. She told her Son what He already knew; He seemed to deprecate her words; but He obeyed them, and the water became wine.

There is at Lourdes not a marriage feast, but something very like a deathbed. The Mother of Jesus is there with her Son. It is she again who takes the initiative. "Here is water," she seems to say; "dig, Bernadette, and you will find it." But it is no more than water. Then she turns to her Son. "They have water," she says, "but no more." And then He comes forth in His power.

Draw out now from all the sick beds of the world and bear them to the Governor of the Feast. Use the commonest things in the world -- physical pain and common water. Bring them together, and wait until I pass by." Then Jesus of Nazareth passes by; and the sick leap from their beds, and the blind see, and the lepers are cleansed, and devils are cast out.

Oh, yes! the parallel halts; but is it not near enough?

Seigneur, guérissez nos malades! Salut des Infirmes, priez pour nous!

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