"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.
This is the fourth excerpt from Dr. Sutherland’s account of his visit to Lourdes in 1923.
On going to Lourdes I went in a sceptical mood. Most doctors are sceptical of miraculous cures. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between functional and organic disease, or to exclude the ordinary process of recovery. Some people have a morbid desire to be regarded as the favoured subjects of heavenly intervention, and will exaggerate, consciously or unconsciously, the facts of their illness. In addition to this medical bias I retained the inherent coldness of the Protestant towards the Lady whom the rest of Christendom delight to honour as the Mother of God.
At Lourdes station the pilgrim trains are met by brancardiers who take to sick on stretchers or in wheeled chairs to the hospitals, and next day to the grotto, the bathing places, and to the Blessing of the Sick in the great oval Place of New Lourdes. Brancacardiers have no uniform except a shoulder harness from which hang leather straps with loops for poles of the stretchers. These men are not paid. They come some from all over the world from April to September, or for as long as they have the time to spare. They come year after year until they are too old to come. They also manage the crowds of from 20,000 to 120,000 people who assemble around the grotto. There are no police in New Lourdes and there is no disorder.
Old Lourdes is a straggling town of narrow cobbled streets and dusty roads. The resident population is under 10,000, but in the season pilgrims average 40,000 a week. Many are so poor that they cannot afford any accommodation. They bring their own provisions, and in dry weather sleep under the chestnut trees around the Place, of if it be wet in one of the three churches built on the top of Massabielle. Yet there has never been an epidemic at Lourdes.
The narrow street leading to New Lourdes is crowded with pedestrians, and the warning hoot of passing trams drowns for a moment the hymn — “Ave, Ave, Ave Maria”–which many of the pilgrims are singing. The shops on either side of Our Lady, pious jewellery, and picture post cards. Some of these shops are owned by Christians, who emphasise the fact by displaying above their shops such phrases as, “At the sign of the Immaculate Conception.” Outside the iron gates of New Lourdes old women are selling candles and torches, also empty bottles to be filled with water at the grotto. Inside these gates nothing may be either bought or sold.
To the left of the grotto are the bathing places, six for women and children and three for men, each entered through a curtained arched door. In each bathing place are three cemented sloping paths below ground level, into which the sick are immersed naked on webbed stretchers.
Brancardiers immerse the men, and women voluntary workers immerse the women and children. It is not pleasant work. Many of the pilgrims are verminous, and the bandages covering open ulcers and sores have to be removed and reapplied.
As for the sick they must have great faith before they allow themselves to be submerged in water at a temperature of 14 C. Moreover this water must be septic beyond description. It is changed, but not often. Yet there is no record of anyone contract any disease through submersion. As a rationalist at heart, I assume that the low temperature of the water prevents the growth of bacteria. Would I risk that myself? No; would you? Yet some who do are cured of mortal disease, and none are the worse for it.
At the Medical Bureau where the sick who claim to have been cured report themselves, I found over twenty doctors of all nationalities and shades of belief – Catholics, Protestants, Agnostics, and a Hindoo. All of us were invited to examine who could be cured. I remember my Hindoo colleague because we both objected to the dismissal of the first case. A French peasant woman claimed (note that the word “claimed”; the spirit of the redoubtable curé haunts Massabielle to this day) to have been miraculously cured three years previously of Pott’s Disease (tuberculosis of the spine). She could produce no evidence that she ever had Pott’s Disease, or that she had ever been to Lourdes previously. The President did not think the case worth investigation. The Hindoo and I objected. If she not showed healed tuberculosis of the spine, would it not be worth while eliciting her previous medical history?
“Please yourself, gentlemen; examining her spine if you want to do so.” We did so and found nothing abnormal. All that day, no miracle appeared. I missed lunch. Then we were told that the Procession of the Blessed Sacrament was about to enter the Place, around which hundreds of sick people were lying inside the ropes, their friends kneeling outside. It was a French pilgrimage, and so the prayers were in French. For half an hour beforehand two priests had been kneeling in the great Place, calling out prayers echoed by thousands. Their invocations sounded more like orders than prayers.
“Faites que je vois.”
“Faites que je marche.”
Orders echoed by thousands.
Every doctor, Catholic or Agnostic, is invited to follow the Blessed Sacrament in the golden monstrance round the Place, lest the doctor should witness a miracle. I went and can never forget what I saw — the eyes of suffering humanity appealing to God. I saw them, the halt, the maimed, the blind, the hectic flush of tubercle, the sallow pallor of cancer, and the bronzed skin of pernicious anæmia. Above all I saw the eyes of suffering humanity in their last appeal. It is not blasphemy if I say that I felt like a victim dragged behind a Roman triumph.
None of the people whom I saw gazing at the Blessed Sacrament had any use for me or any of my colleagues. Medicine and its practitioners had failed to cure them, and now as a last resort they were appealing to God Himself against sentence of death. In a very few cases the appeal is allowed, but, and this is a queer fact, none leave without renewed courage to face the inevitable, and the inevitable is death.
That night at 8:30 p.m. I returned to see the torchlight procession of 20,000 people who marched, ten deep , from the grotto round the grounds to the Rosary Church. As they marched they sang the “Ave, Ave, Ave, Maria,” and at the end of every “Maria” they raised their torches on high. So great a procession could not sing in unison, and the torches resembled a river of fire swept by waves. Twenty thousand people under the stars were singing a hymn to the Star of the Sea.
On the steps of the Rosary Church a priest recites the rosary. Twenty thousand people echo, and all the lights go out. I was glad the lights were out, because in the darkness I was crying. In the dim light an old French priest saw me. “My son, I have watched this for years, and I am very old. To-night, you have seen the greatest miracle of Lourdes. I come every night to see it.”
“Your blessing, Father,” and I knelt.
Never in this world shall I see that old man again, but he spoke the truth, and perchance he may remember.
Emotion? Well, go and risk for once in your lives being overcome by a decent emotion.From “A Time to Keep” by Halliday Sutherland (1934)
To be continued…