Bernadette Soubirous was born in France on January 7, 1844. She was the oldest of nine children, most of whom passed away either at birth or very early on in life.
When she was a toddler she herself contracted Cholera, the repercussions of which, impacted the rest of her life.
The Soubirous family suffered extreme poverty. They lived in a basement known as “the dungeon,” which used to be an old prison. Her mother was a laundress and her father was a miller. France was going through tough times, and even they experienced the repercussions. As a child, the Saint went to a charity school run by nuns, but because she was often sick, her attendance was poor and she could barely read or write.
One day, while out collecting firewood with her sister and their friend, she separated from the group and saw a vision at a grotto – of a “dazzling light and a white figure.” But when Bernadette first told of this encounter, she referred to it as aquero, which in Occitan (her native language), simply meant “that.”
She returned to the spot a few days later, again with her sister and friend, and this time she fell into a trance. One of the girls threw a rock to snap her out of it, while the other threw Holy Water on her. I gotta admit, this part cracked me up.
Three girls go off into the woods, and I’m not saying they didn’t also have a bear knife, since we have no way of knowing, but I love that these kids travelled with Holy Water as well. I might have to start packing some of that in my kid’s lunches.
Anyway, the apparitions kept happening, and word was getting around their tiny village fast. Bernadette was able to describe the dress of the “small young lady” she saw, and her neighbors decided it was the Virgin Mary, but the young girl simply kept calling her “that.”
Something about this part really humanized Bernadette for me and invited my agnostic self into her story. I call my higher power “Mr. Miyagi” which to many may seem blasphemous, but to me it is a loving pet name for a spirit I’ve become familiar with – an energy that pulls me to do thing I don’t want to do, but when I’m obedient and do them, they end up serving me well later on down the road.
They’re usually small things like, “help this woman” or “sit next to that guy,” and every. single. time. something bigger is born out of my willingness to “wax on, wax off” or “sand the fence.” The connections I make, the skills I learn, or the doors it opens end up being just the thing I needed at crucial moments later on down the road when I suddenly need to know proverbial karate to get something big done.
I don’t know who God is.
Do any of us, really?
To me, agnosticism is the most intellectually honest way to say I believe in something … I just can’t say with absolute certainty what “that” is.
But because Bernadette would only call these visions “that,” some townspeople called for her to be committed, while others wrote her off as just being simple-minded. And we can’t forget rocks were also thrown and she was doused with Holy Water for it as well.
She went on to see this vision a total of 18 times, and around the halfway point, after she was told by the woman to drink from the muddy water surrounding the grotto as a penance, the next day the water turned clear. On the 16th appearance, she spoke with the woman for well over an hour. She asked her name, to which she claims the woman only smiled back at first, then finally she said she was “The Immaculate Conception.”
Bernadette told her family that a chapel should be built there, as well as a procession formed. And in the coming years nearly 70 different confirmed healings took place from the water near the grotto.
The Saint went on to become a nun, but because she was also suffering from illness, it prevented her from entering her first choice orders. She eventually died of tuberculosis at 35.
There’s a beautiful quote from her where she said, “The Virgin used me as a broom to remove the dust. When the work is done, the broom is put behind the door again.”
As much as I hate cleaning, this sentiment is powerful. Makes me hope that my own time on this earth, no matter how short or long, could help others declutter their own lives in order to see things more clearly. This is an calling we should all take to heart.
And while this is where her story should’ve ended, it does not. Her body was exhumed multiple times over the years. Parts had decayed, but other parts were astonishingly preserved. Like her liver. A doctor who examined her goes on and on about her liver.
And look, I’m just as into binging morbid docs (usually about murder) as the rest of you, but y’all Catholics get suuuuuper dark sometimes. Jus’ sayin’. At one point her body was exhumed so that pieces of her ribs could be taken out as relics, and there was even some debate about whether they should grab her heart while they were in there.
What ever happened to REST IN PEACE, you guys? If I was a saint that got tomb raided by y’all, I’d be haunting your asses for doing me dirty like that… smh.
Destiny Herndon De La Rosa is the founder of the secular pro-life New Wave Feminists organization. She is a frequent op/ed contributor to the Dallas Morning News and a sought-after speaker.
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