"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.
In 1923, Dr Sutherland visited Lourdes. He wrote about it in A Time to Keep 1934:
In July 1923, of my way to a spa in the Pyrenees, I stopped at Lourdes, a magnet that attracts millions. Are the Lourdes cures genuine, or examples of hysteria, self-deception or fraud, and if genuine are such cures unknown in ordinary medical experience?
Since 1858 strange things have happened near the little town through which the cold green Gave rushes on its way to Pau. Thursday, the 11th February 1858, was a very cold day, and in the forenoon, Bernadette Soubirous, was gathering firewood in a meadow on the left bank of the Gave. Her sister, Marie, aged eleven and a half, and a friend, Jeanne Abadie, aged twelve, were also there. To the left of the meadow rose the large crag of Massabielle, and between the meadow and the crag was a shallow canal. On the ground-level of the rock opposite the canal was the mouth of grotto, thirty-none feet wide. The roof was twenty feet high on the right and fell rapidly to the left. Here the cave was shallow, and on the floor was a pool of stagnant water. In the centre the grotto was twenty-six feet deep, and from the back wall a narrow tunnel went upwards to the right, and then forward so that it opened to the right of the grotto. In 1858 the niche was filled by a block of white granite, overhung by bramble bushes and by a wild rose, which in summer flowered white.
In the grotto the children say some bones, and also dead branches carried here by the canal when in flood. The two younger children waded across the canal, and so cold was the water that once across they wrapped their feet in their petticoats and cried. Bernadette feared to cross, and threw some large stones into the canal to make crossing stones, but the water covered them.
All these details are of psychological value in view of what followed.
“Shall I come and carry you across on my back?” asked Marie.
“No,” said Bernadette, “you would fall in , and so would I. Let Jeanne come for me.”
“Pét de Periclé” said Jeanne. “If you want to cross, cross. Else, stay where you are.”
The younger children went off to search for wood and bones on the bank of the Gave, and Bernadette then decided to wade the canal. She had taken off a stocking when she heard “a sound of wind like a storm.”
“I turned towards the meadow, and I saw that the tress were not moving at all, I had half noticed, but without attending to it, that some branches were waving somewhere near the grotto. I went on taking my shoes off, and I was putting one foot in the water, when I heard the same sound in front of me. I lifted my eyes, and I saw a mass of branches and brambles tossed and waving this way and that, under the higher opening in the grotto, though nothing stirred all round. Behind these branches, in the opening, I saw, immediately afterwards, a white girl, not bigger than I, who made me a little bow with her head. At the same time she put her hands out a little from beside her body — like the (pictures of) Our Lady. A rosary was hanging on her right arm. I was frightened. I stepped back. I wanted to call to the two little ones, but I dared not. I rubbed my eyes again and again: I though I must be mistaken. Looking up, I saw the girl smiling at me very sweetly. She seemed to be inviting me to approach, but I was still frightened. All the same it was not a fear like what I have felt at other times because I would always have stayed to look at that (aquero), but when one if frightened one goes away quick. Then I thought of saying my prayers: I put my hand in my pocket and took out the rosary that I always carry in it.; I knelt down and meant to make the sign of the Cross; but I could not put my hand to my forehead — it fell back. Meanwhile the girl put herself sideways and turned to me: this time she was holding the big rosary in her hand. She crossed herself, as though to pray. My hand was trembling; I tried again to make the sign of the Cross, and this time I could. After this, I was no more frightened. I said my rosary. The girl made the beads of hers slip (through her fingers), but she did not move her lips.”
“While saying my rosary, I was looking as hard as I could. It was wearing a white dress, hanging down to the feet, of which only the tips appeared. The dress was fastened quite high, round the neck, by a fold from which a white cord was hanging. A white veil, covering the head, went down over the shoulders and the arms, almost to the bottom of the dress. On each foot, I saw a yellow rose. The sash of the dress was blue, with its ends hanging down to the feet. The chain of the rosary was yellow; the beads white, large and widely separated. The girl was alive, very young, and surrounded with light. When I had finished my rosary, she bowed to me, smiling, retired into the niche, and disappeared all of a sudden.*
Marie and Jeanne returned in about a quarter of an hour and saw Bernadette kneeling. Marie threw a couple of pebbles but her sister did not move. “Can she be dead?” asked Marie?
“If she were dead, she would be lying down,” said Jeanne, and to warm themselves they began to jump about outside the grotto. At that, Bernadette rose and told them to stop.
“Little silly,” cried Marie, “to go praying there on these stones.”
“Prayers are good everywhere,” said Bernadette, and as she waded across the canal, “What story-tellers you are! The water is as warm as one uses for washing up. Did you see anything?”
“No, did you? What was it?” they asked.
“Oh, well; nothing,” said Bernadette.
“If you were going to do nothing but pray and not pick up wood, you might as well have stayed at home,” said Jeanne, and departed with the bones.
“You were frightened,” said Marie. “What did you see?” As a great secret Bernadette told her.
“I was sure you were seeing something,” said Marie. The two sisters returned to the poorest home in Lourdes, a cell, in what had once been the local gaol in the Rue des Petits Fossés. The window overlooked a manure heap and a cesspool in a courtyard ten feet by twelve. The cell was furnished with two beds, two chairs, a box, and some red crockery. Here lived, rent free, François and Louise Soubirous with their four children, of whom Bernadette was the oldest. So poor were they that one of the children, Jean-Marie, used to eat the wax that had fallen from funeral tapers in the streets. When Bernadette had asthma her parents used to put a drop of wine in her bowl of water, and sometimes gave her white bread in place of the maize on which the rest of the family subsisted. Her parents earned a scanty livelihood by doing odd jobs for the neighbours, and Bernadette led the younger children on expeditions to collect bones, rags, and old iron, which were sold to a rag merchant. She was a little mother, but the younger children bullied her and ate her white bread.
François Soubirous, once a journeyman miller, and his wife Louise, the daughter of a prosperous miller, had sunk to poverty. On their marriage François had taken over the management of the mill, but he had no head for business, and his wife was extravagant in entertaining. In fourteen years they reached the foot of the financial hill. At one time Louise had taken to drink, and in 1857 François had been arrested for stealing two bags of flour. His defence was that he had not stolen the flour, but a beam of wood, the property of a Lourdes doctor! Despite their weakness these two held to the Faith, and every night in their miserable home there was family worship.
When the sister got home Marie forgot her promise, and their mother got the story from Bernadette.
“You were mistaken… you saw a white stone.”
“No, she had a pretty face.”
“We must pray, perhaps it was a soul from purgatory,” said her mother, and forbade Bernadette to return to the grotto. Her father so mistook the attraction of the grotto, which had a bad reputation for assignations, that he remarked: “Are you going to misbehave?” The night at prayer, “O Mary conceived without sin,” Bernadette wept.
* Translated from Cros’ Histoire de Notre Dame de Lourdes d’apres les Documents et les Témoins in three volumes, by C.C. Martindale, S.J., in “Bernadette of Lourdes” (Catholic Truth Society), from which all quotations given here have been copied. His monograph is the first authentic account in English of the history of Ste Bernadette, and to this readers are referred for further details.From A Time to Keep (1934) by Dr Halliday Sutherland