I remember the first time (and only time) that I arrived at Lourdes. It was getting towards evening, and the procession had just started. So I started walking around the path which leads around and up to the middle chapel so that I could see the grotto on the other side. As I passed each statue, I looked for Dominican saints—and I wasn’t disappointed. There was St. Louis Marie de Montfort, author of True Devotion to Mary, a priest who was a Dominican tertiary. I even found St. Hyacinth, renowned for saving a statue of the Blessed Virgin when barbarians invaded his church. But where was St. Dominic?
The next morning, as I met another Dominican friar who knew the grotto far better than myself, I asked him where Dominic was. He smiled and pointed right at the center of the mosaic in front of the basilica—hidden in plain sight, St. Dominic receiving the rosary from the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Since visiting Lourdes, I’ve enjoyed learning about the visionary who helped to make the place so famous, St. Bernadette, who was far from a plaster-cast saint. She’s quickly become one of my favorites.
She was uneducated and only spoke a local dialect (indeed, she didn’t know French, and it was in this dialect, not French, that she received Mary’s self-identification: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”) Shortly after the apparitions began, the local police commissioner brought her in to interrogate her. She was so uneducated that she couldn’t even remember whether she was thirteen- or fourteen-years-old. Despite this, every time he tried to trip her up or intimidate her, she responded with an effortless simplicity.
Jacomet: Well, ok, my girl—you dreamed.
Bernadette: No, I was well awake.
J: You thought you saw.
B: No, I rubbed my eyes hard.
J: A reflection deceived you!
B: But I saw her many times, and it was dark. I couldn’t always be mistaken.
J: And the others? They—they too—have eyes. Why didn’t they see?
B: I don’t know, but I’m sure that I saw. (R. Laurentin, Vie de Bernadette, p. 59)
The apparitions at Lourdes began with the poor Bernadette going out to collect some wood nearby the local trash heap. As her companions went on ahead of her, she hesitated to jump in the river because she was sickly and asthmatic. (Her father was a poor day-laborer, and on account of their poverty they lived in the “cachot,” a dungeon-like former prison, which aggravated her health.) After her companions went ahead of her, Bernadette was seized by the apparition of a very beautiful young woman. She fell to her knees and was drawn to pull out her rosary and pray before the lady, who disappeared after she finished praying. Over the next several days Bernadette felt drawn to return to the grotto two times, at which point the young woman asked her to promise to come back for fifteen days. Her practice, each time, was to come and pray the rosary.
Apparitions of the Blessed Virgin are extraordinary, and perhaps what is most striking in the story of St. Bernadette is the image of this extraordinary apparition before this ordinary little girl. Less striking, though also noteworthy, is that Bernadette had already become accustomed to speaking to the Blessed Virgin through praying the rosary and that this prayer continued even throughout the apparition itself. In my own devotion to Bernadette, I had overlooked in many ways the place of the rosary in her life. Like the statue of St. Dominic, it was hidden in plain sight.
In popular devotion, of course, the rosary is the prayer of Lourdes, and everyone knows that. It is incredibly fitting that the rosary was the prayer of this poor girl at Lourdes. As Dominican friars, we see the core of the rosary encapsulated in the mission of St. Dominic, who simultaneously preached the mysteries of Christ’s life to the wayward heretics in southern France and exhorted them to penitence. Thus, the rosary is at once a prayer of contemplation and a prayer of penance. For a poor, unlettered girl, it was a compendium in which she could read the Gospel and gaze on the face of Christ in Mary–quite literally, at Lourdes. It is also a prayer of penitence: pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen–a petition that corresponds to Our Lady’s call at Lourdes for penance. It was providential that the rosary was already Bernadette’s companion, even before she first saw the Virgin.
Just before St. Bernadette’s death, as she lay in her sickbed, she confided to another sister a worry: “My dear Sister, I’m afraid. I’ve received so many graces and done so little with them!” So she asked this sister to pray with her and help her “to thank the Virgin until the end.” As a Dominican, I too pray the rosary, although I find that it can be a treasure hidden in plain sight because of its great familiarity. I’m thankful that Bernadette has helped me to see more deeply the value of the rosary. And I pray that she may help me, and all of us, in persevering in this prayer, in “thanking the Virgin until the end.”
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., St Dominic in Lourdes (used with permission)