The Sixth Apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes
From the dawn of this first Sunday in Lent (February 21th, 1858), the number of sightseers who had come by night to the appointed rendezvous was so great along the banks of the Gave that at six o’clock the little Soubirous had difficulty in making her way amid greetings that waxed ever more enthusiastic. Over 100 people were present and from now onwards, those numbers would grow into thousands.
Now, among the spectators, a doctor, notorious for his skepticism no less than for his skill, was convinced that the visions were simply the result of imagination or illusion due to a nervous or mental disorder. He resolved to come in person, in the secret hope of demolishing by a word, in the name of Science, all this childish display of pathological mysticism. But at the mere sight of the ecstatic child, lost in her wonderful vision, he soon recognized a case without a parallel, which doubtless it would not be easy to explain on medical grounds. So he returned to the Grotto several times in succession, always more attentive and more nonplussed. Everyone knows that, as the grace of God is never wanting to a man of good-will, Doctor Dozous (for it was he) ended by seeing everything in its true light. Recognizing, with a fairness and an independence not often met with, that the facts at Massabielle were supernatural, he was publicly converted. He was thus the first man of science won over by Bernadette he would certainly not be the last. When, then, the doctor had stated that the child, in the midst of her heavenly ecstasy, did not lose her self-possession, remaining ever calm and tranquil, and handing her candle, blown out by the wind, two or three times to her neighbor to be relit, her pulse remaining calm the whole time, her breathing normal, her circulation regular, and showing no signs of nervous excitement, his conscience forced him to confess that the finger of God was there.
During this fifth apparition, the doctor saw two large tears roll down her cheeks. Soon they learnt the meaning of this: the vision. Our Lady, after being happy and smiling, suddenly wore a sorrowful and pained look, when she gazed into the far distance, she discerned sights that saddened her. What Our Lady saw, as she explained at once to the alarmed Bernadette, were the sins of the world, already far too great, which came to dim accidentally the essential happiness of the Queen of Heaven, and imprint an unutterable sadness on Mary's glorious face.
The conclusion of this tearful episode was that it was necessary to pray much for poor sinners. Whenever we might go to Lourdes, it should be in a spirit of Reparation and Atonement, this should be the chief idea (too little insisted upon of hitherto) of our pilgrimages. God grant that the hoards of pilgrims may be more and more filled with this idea, in proportion as the evils of the present time grow even greater! But the divine joy did not long remain absent from the heart and face of the Lady, who, smiling graciously and happily as before, disappeared in the reflection of her own brightness.
As for Bernadette, the same evening of this memorable day, when she had witnessed the tears of the Mother of Christ, a terrible trial was about to befall her. Hardly had she returned to her wretched dwelling, when she found herself led off between two policemen to the police-station, there to hear herself bitterly reproached, and even threatened, by the local chief of police, and distinctly forbidden to go near the too-famous rocks any more. This scene is wonderfully like that of the Pretorium, at which, nineteen centuries ago, the holiest of Victims had to appear. The new Caiphas, the police-chief Mr. Dutour, employed his wiliest tricks to no purpose, in the hope of shaking her firm resolve, alleging by turns that the public order was imperiled, the majesty of the law disregarded nay, the sanctity of religion compromised. Quite as uselessly the police magistrate, Jacomet, of unhappy memory, added his persuasions, at first harsh, then mild and insinuating.
The witness of Our Lady found answers to every question; answers as natural as they were to the point without being frightened by brutality or won over by fake niceties ('hard-cop' and 'soft-cop' approach), or ever losing her self-possession, despite the deliberate falsification and twisting of her previous replies, and every kind of false testimony.
Mr. Estrade, a tax-collector, who was an intelligent and thoughtful man, was present either by chance or by the will of Providence at her examination. He became so indignant by the manner of it, that he was inclined to take Bernadette's side, rightly judging that such an attitude on the part of an ignorant young child before this display of civil authority was decidedly supernatural. The sudden arrival of her father, who was immediately intimidated and frightened in the face of this severity of the law, sided with them; but this could not shake the heart of the shepherdess in her firm resolve to revisit Massabielle, whither she felt irresistibly drawn in spite of herself, as soon as circumstances would allow her.
How sad this cold Sunday evening must have been under the roof of the Soubirous family room, especially to the heart of the little child! For it is needless to say that mental anguish was from this time added to external trials. On the one hand the Apparition invited her, yet she saw herself restrained from going there by filial reverence. What was she to do? Was she going to the enchanting Vision, so good and sweet, at the sacrifice of duty, a duty to obey parents and legitimate authorities, which was required by the solemn authority of the Ten Commandments? It was indeed a cruel dilemma!
Whilst waiting till it should please the shining Lady itself to settle this conflict of conscience, Bernadette, like a good Christian, went early next day, Monday February 22nd, not to the Grotto, as she had longed to do hitherto, but to the school.
In the evening, when she had to return to the Sisters, a strange thing happened. Arriving, with her little basket on her arm, at the two paths leading to the hospice, she feels, as it were, an invisible but real barrier, which holds her back. Several times she tries, indeed, to go along the path where obedience calls her, but in vain! Then, thinking she knows, in her childish conscience, that Heaven is calling her towards the Gave river, she walks as though moved automatically by an irresistible force.
The police were also soon on her track. Let us give the gendarme this credit, who was somewhat perplexed: he had, at least, the good sense not to interrupt the long prayer of the holy child. But a new trial was in store for her; this time there was no vision or transfiguration! What could such a disappointment mean? Did Heaven intend, by this sudden and unexpected refusal, to punish a fault more physical than moral, or had the Lady of glory already forgotten her solemn engagements? Lamma sabacthani? My God, My God! Why has Thou abandoned me?
For us, who, in the light of later events, can grasp the true significance of this absence of the Lady, how can we fail to admire in this the extreme delicacy of the Blessed Virgin, anxious to respect paternal authority by staying away that day, though very reluctantly, even to the point in which it was in open conflict with her own heavenly wishes?
On the other hand, because it is the rule of Providence to draw good from evil, it came to pass that the grievous anxiety of the child arose from the involuntary severity and human respect of Francois Soubirous, who had sided with the police against his daughter, and Providence finally made everything easy for her, as the father henceforth gave permission to his unhappy child to go to Massabielle as often as she liked.
Meanwhile the free-thinkers of the town did not see it in this light; and already they were carelessly scoffing, observing to their friends, with a hearty laugh, that the Lady was afraid of gendarmes, adding that because that fox Jacomet had made a few inquiries into the matter, she had decided to change her residence.