Over 150 years ago today the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, a 14 year old peasant girl, in front of the Grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes, France. We are still inspired and growing spiritually from Mary's message and Bernadette's experience. Benadette, her sister and a friend went looking for wood by the River Gave. Toinette and Jeanne crossed the icy water, crying out with the cold; Bernadette hesitated to do this because of her chronic asthma. She heard "a noise like a gust of wind", but "none of the trees were moving". "Raising her head, she saw, in a hollow of the rock a small young lady, who looked at her and who smiled at her. This was the first of eighteen apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. During many of the apparitions Mary did not share messages with Bernadette. They prayed the Rosary together and Bernadette was in a trance-like state and spiritually moved by the Lady’s beauty and magnificent light.
As I meditate on that apparition I can think of 7 lessons that can help our spiritual growth:
Hope. The virtue of Hope is a gift from God. It helps us focus like a laser beam and direct all our attention to the future realization of the reign of God. “I saw a lady dressed in white, wearing a white dress, a blue girdle and a yellow rose on each foot, the same color as the chain of her rosary; the beads of the rosary were white....From the niche, or rather the dark alcove behind it came a dazzling light.” Bernadette said she was of incomparable beauty. We do not need any more proof that there is a Heaven where our Trinitarian God, Mary, Joseph, and the saints lovingly await our arrival. Oh, but it is so sweet and reassuring when through miracles from Jesus, messages from angels, intersessions of saints, and appearances of the Virgin Mary we are reminded that there is a wonderful Heaven; we are given a tiny glimpse that leaves us in awe and strengthens our hope. Mary’s dazzling light is a manifestation of God’s active presence. In Scripture light many times represents God’s self-revealing presence. Mary and Joseph, as well as the shepherds experienced that light right after Jesus’ birth, “Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”(Luke 2:9-10).
Holiness. The climax of the apparitions at Lourdes occurred when after asking her many times her name the Blessed Virgin Mary finally answered: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” This was a term that Bernadette and many in her town had never heard or understood. It was a heavenly nod of approval to the Church, which only two years before had declared the Immaculate Conception as a dogma. From the moment of her conception to the end of her earthly life Mary was free from the stain of sin. Besides Jesus, she became the ultimate model of purity and holiness. Her every awaken moment was dedicated to knowing and loving God and others, without a drop of selfishness.
Poverty. God always lovingly reaches out to the poor and meets us in our own poverty. The Son of God was born in a cave and rested in a manger. Mary chose to appear to Bernadette, a very poor, sick, and uneducated girl, but also a happy and deeply devoted girl. Mary appeared in a cold, damp, dirty, grotto that pigs often used as a shelter. Jesus challenges us to have a preferential option for the poor. To act with compassion and help directly (care) and indirectly (justice) the most vulnerable members of society.
Humility. It is not easy for anyone to deal with the attention and fame that that would come from having a personal and direct dialog with the Blessed Virgin Mary. 1,000s of people came to the grotto every time Bernadette went. Bernadette always behaved with humility, faith, and courage. In a visually symbolic move Mary asked her to kiss the ground as a humble sacrifice for the conversion of sinners. Mary also showed humility on how she treated this poor girl. Bernadette said that she had never been addressed with such kindness and dignity. Spiritually, humility grounds us in reality, it makes us aware of our shortcomings and total dependency on God, and it fuels our desire to do God’s will.
Fortitude. The virtue of fortitude involves standing firm against all pressures, even death. Bernadette showed great fortitude in dealing with the suffering, pain, and ridicule she had to endure. She was firm in speaking the truth even though priests, bishops, police, lawyers, and others in authority were pushing for her to change her story. She held steadfastly to the truth.
Prayer. Every time Bernadette saw Mary they prayed the Rosary together. Mary always had a rosary in her hands. In several of the apparitions Mary asked Bernadette to pray for sinners. Mary showed deep sorrow when she talked about how much sin offends God and asked that we pray for sinners and do penance. In every other Marian apparition, Mary pleads that we dedicate more time to pray with fervor. Jesus also emphasized prayer not only by his words and teaching, but by his actions. He often went on his own to pray. Pray, pray, pray!
Penance. There is a lot of meaning packed into this word. It is considered a virtue that motivates us to resist sin and to undo the harm of sin. Over time this word has also acquired the meaning of “conversion.” It basically implies sorrow for our sins and the effort to atone for our sins. It involves self-purification and sacrifice or mortification for the forgiveness of our sins and the sins of others. This is not very popular in our pleasure-filled world, but in most Marian apparitions Mary urges us to do penance. In Lourdes she asked Bernadette to pray for sinners and exclaimed three times: “Penance, Penance, Penance!” She asked Bernadette to go up and down the grotto on her knees and to eat bitter grass. We need to do penance always, not just during lent, to atone for our sins and the sins of the world. Mary said to Bernadette "I promise to make you happy, not in this world, but in the next."