Halliday Sutherland

"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.

At Lourdes 2

In this second installment of Dr. Sutherland’s visit to Lourdes in 1923, he continues the story of Bernadette Soubirous and her visions in the grotto at Massabielle (for Part 1, click here).

On the following Sunday some children asked Bernadette to come to the grotto, and eventually her father consented. Her mother gave the a bottle of holy water. If the apparition was the Devil in disguise it would disappear when the holy water was sprinkled. All the children knelt at the grotto and began to say the rosary. To Bernadette “the same white girl showed herself in the same place as before,” but the others say nothing unusual. Bernadette threw some holy water, and the “white girl” bowed, and made the sign of the Cross. Just then Jeanne Abadie appeared on the top of the crag and shouted: “Ask her if she comes from God or the Devil! Wait, wait, I’ll do for your white girl for you!” With that she hurled a big stone which fell near the Bernadette. “Instantly,” said Bernadette, “it disappeared like lightning,” then “it reappeared,” and Bernadette knew no more until she “woke up” at a neighbouring mill. The children were terrified, including Jeanne. “She looked like an angel, but we thought she was dead. We looked at her, all the ten or twelve of us, and we all cried.” Some of us ran for help, and eventually Bernadette was dragged away by a miller and his mother. “Tears were running from both her eyes, she was smiling, and her face was beautiful, more beautiful than anything I have ever seen. It hurt me, and it made me happy… One had to be strong to drag her. Though I am very vigorous, I would have found it hard work alone… At the top I was sweating.”

On Thursday, 18th February, the Soubirous allowed a Mme. Millet to take Bernadette to the grotto, when she was given a pen and ink. “Go and ask the lady what she wants, and to write it down.” This the child did. “Please have the goodness to put me in your name, and what you want in writing.” For the first time the Vision spoke: “There is no need to write what I have to say. Will you do me the kindness of coming here for a fortnight. I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the other.”

Bernadette began to make daily visits to the grotto, and all who say the child transfigured in ecstasy testified that “it was no more the same Bernadette.” On Sunday 21st, the Chief of Police from Tarbes was present and left orders that a policeman was to watch “the notorious grotto.”

That afternoon the Imperial Procurator sent for Bernadette. Her “white girl” was a dream or illusion! Had not the Sisters at school told her to forget about it? Many people were saying that her parents wished to exploit these visions. Did she intend to continue visiting the grotto? “I feel myself dragged there by a force I cannot resist.” He warned that any falsehood would lead to her arrest, but did not forbid her visits to the grotto. In a memoir of that interview, he writes that he was impressed by the child’s sincerity and by her clean, ill-fitting dress.

In the evening the Commissioner of Police sent for the child, and began his interrogation with good humour. “Is the lady beautiful?”

“Oh, yes, very beautiful!”

“As beautiful as Mme. ―――― or Mme. ――――?”

“More than that. They wouldn’t have a chance.”

“Your imagination played a trick on you: the lady you thought you saw does not really exist at all.”

“But, monsieur, I saw her several times. I can’t always have made a mistake.”

“I ought to let you know that I knew all about your so called visions before. The story is a fake, and I know who taught it to you.”

“I don’t understand you.”

“This farce must cease. Promise not to go any more to Massabielle.”

“I have promised to for a fortnight.”

This angered him and he threatened the police.

Her father now arrived, and was bound over to keep the child at home. After his interview the Commissioner concluded that the story hung too well together, and that Bernadette had been coached.

On Monday afternoon Bernadette played truant. She got as far as the door of her school, and then walked off towards the grotto. In a few minutes she was joined by two grumbling policemen. “Are we really to believe in this sort of superstition in the nineteenth century?” A crowd followed her to the grotto where she knelt but saw nothing. “The Inspector of Police is here; I can’t see anything.”

The Inspector patted her shoulder. “Well, if I look like a devil, I’m quite a kind old devil. If you weren’t a silly little girl, you would know that the Blessed Virgin is not afraid of policemen, since she is faultless, but can it be that you feel a tiny falsehood on your conscience?” Bernadette departed. That night her confessor, the Abbé Pomian, decided she might go to the grotto because the Imperial Procurator had not vetoed her visits.

At the back of the grotto was a small spring which flowed when the river was in flood, but on Tuesday, 25th February 1858, there was only a little pool of muddy water under a heap of rubbish. On that day the Vision said: “Go, drink at the source, and wash in it.” Bernadette was inside the grotto, and turned to go to the canal. The Vision in the tunnel said that was not what she meant. “She pointed with her finger, showing me the source. I went there. I only saw a little water; I put my hand in, but could not take any. I scratched, and the water came, but muddy. Three times I threw it away, but the fourth time I could drink it.” Bernadette was seen to eat some blades of grass in the grotto. Someone wiped her face, she returned to her place outside the grotto, knelt for a moment, and walked back to Lourdes. There was no ecstasy. The crowd was disillusioned. The child was mad, and they laughed at their own credulity. “‘Will you do me the kindness of coming here for a fortnight?’ Well, well, Our Lady is to come from heaven to invite Mademoiselle Soubirous to be so good as to visit Massabielle!” Yet that afternoon they noticed that in place of a trickle of water the spring was running freely down to the river. Ever since it has been running, and now delivers 27,000 gallons a day.

That evening Bernadette was taken by an aunt to see M. le Curé, whose stern and forbidding appearance hid, so they say in obituary notices, a kind heart.

Neither he nor his clergy believed in the vision. “Carnival apparition,” he called it.

“I’m told your are eating grass in the grotto. So you are behaving like an animal!” And he threatened the child with prison. She was terrified, and no wonder, for this curé made policemen look like milksops.

On Sunday, 2nd March, after an ecstasy witnesses by a thousand people, she defied a magistrate and the Commissioner of Police. The magistrate said she should be put in prison.

“Put me in. I’m ready. And let it be solid and well shut, and I will escape.”

“You must not go to the grotto.”

“I shall not deprive myself of going there.”

“There you are!” said the magistrate to the Commissioner. “Let us dismiss her. We have no grounds for quarrel.”

On this Sunday the vision told Bernadette to give two messages to the curé. In fear and trembling she went, accompanied by her mother and aunt. “The lady wants a procession to the grotto to be made on Thursday.” This so angered the curé that Bernadette left in tears. Outside she remembered the second undelivered message, and went back alone, for nothing could induce her mother or aunt to return. “The lady in white whom I see at the grotto tole me to tell the priests to build a chapel there―even quite a little one.”

“Tell the lady to make the rose-bush flower. Do you know her name?”


“If she tells her name, she’ll have a chapel. Go, it will be quite big.” Little did the curé know that three large churches would be built eventually in Massabielle.

Early next morning there were four thousand people at the grotto, but Bernadette looked in vain for the apparition. At nine o’clock she returned and the lady appeared. “You did not see me this morning because there were persons there who had come to see what your face was like in my presence and who are unworthy of that, for they passed the night in the grotto and dishonoured it.” The police knew this to be true, and the grotto was searched as 11 p.m. that night, and again at 4 a.m. on instructions from the Prefect of Tarbes. He had come to control the crowd next day, when people expected the rose-bush to flower and the lady to appear to all. At dawn soldiers lined the road to Massabielle, and three brigades of police, mounted and on foot, patrolled the route. Twenty thousand people arrived, and left disillusioned. The rose-bush did not flower nor did they see the lady. The Prefect of Tarbes reported to the Ministry of Public Worship that the people were no longer interested. They had been duped by Bernadette, who in good faith had suffered from a hallucination. He paid a tribute to the clergy who, without exception, had refused to have anything to do with the grotto. Yet on 19th March the Commissioner of Police had to inform the Prefect that crowds of visitors were coming to the grotto, lighting candles, drinking water of the miraculous spring, which, so some claimed, cured diseases. By the 24th a statue of Our Lady had been set up in the grotto, and that day Bernadette asked the vision three times: “Madame, will you have the goodness to tell me who you are?” At first the lady only smiled, but then replied: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” On 16th July Bernadette saw the vision for the eighteenth and last time.

From A Time to Keep (1934)

Click here for Part 3

Photo by Yevhen Liashchevskyi from Pexels

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This entry was posted on 1 November 2020 by in A Time to Keep, Lourdes.

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