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Who was Bernadette Soubirous and what exactly were her visions about?

Updated on April 13, 2012
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She was born on January the 7th 1844 in Lourdes, France, into a loving and devoted family. She died in 1879, aged 35.

Her family were wealthy, due to her fathre being a miller and her mother a laudress. However, some time after her birth they fell into a series of misfortunes which lead them to a life of poverty. They lived in a single room that was previously a prison cell, and it was so horrible that it was deemed 'unsanitary' even for prisoners. Due to this, she missed the chance for proper schooling, so at the age of 14 she was studying the basic Catechism with 7 year old children. Consequently, she was intellectually ignorant of concepts such as the Immaculate Conception (relevant! keep reading!).

Despite all of this, the family were loving and devoted to each other, and lived in a somewhat unusual, or at least unexpected harmony, believed to be aided by their religious devotion. Bernatte was baptised at a local parish church, and the children were brought up to be grateful for everything they had. Bernadette was well liked and showed a high level of manners and kindness to others. Unfortunately she suffered from ill health, especially sever asthma which weakened her lungs and made them susceptible to diseases that eventually killed her.

What were the key features of this person’s religious experience? At the age of 14 she started having visions, and these lasted occurred between the 11th of February and the 16th of July 1858. In total, she was said to have had 18 visions, taking place in a grotto on the outskirts of Lourdes.

The beautiful lady she encountered apparently asked for a chapel to be built in the grotto in Massabielle.

On February the 11th 1858 she had her first vision. During a trip out to collect firewood, Bernadette stumbled across a grotto that at the time was filled with rubbish washed up from the river. As her friends went on to collect the firewood, she was left in the grotto.

This is how she described the vision: "I came back towards the grotto and started taking off my stockings. I had hardly taken off the first stocking when I heard a sound like a gust of wind. Then I turned my head towards the meadow. I saw the trees quite still: I went on taking off my stockings. I heard the same sound again. As I raised my head to look at the grotto, I saw a Lady dressed in white, wearing a white dress, a blue girdle and a yellow rose on each foot, the same colour as the chain of her rosary; the beads of the rosary were white."

The second time she saw the lady; she took holy water to the grotto and knelt down to say her rosaries. Then the lady appeared again. She started to throw holy water in her direction, and at the same time told her that if she came from God she was to stay but if not, she must go. She started to smile and bowed, and the more Bernadette sprinkled her with holy water, the more she smiled and bowed her head and the more Bernadette saw her make signs. When she had finished saying her rosary the lady disappeared.

Then the third time the lady only spoke to her. She asked Bernadette to come for a fortnight, and told her that she did not promise to make her happy in this world, but in the next.

Bernadette said the lady she saw was “so lovely that, when you have seen her once, you would willingly die to see her again!” Bernadette was unsatisfied with following attempts to recreate her beauty through statues… she was even unsatisfied with the statue built for the grotto in which she had first encountered the lady.

Bernadette was already religious before this experience, however this made her even more religious, and she went to join a convent. There, she learnt to read and write, and was often asked to retell her stories. However, she refused to share the “secrets of the lady”.

How far does the experience fit in with Rudolf Otto’s description of religious experience? -Rudolf Otto, a German thinker (1869-1937) argues that there is one common factor to all religious experiences, independent of the cultural background, and that is the numinous. The numinous experience has two aspects: mysterium tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling; and mysterium fascinas, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel. It also has a personal quality to it, in that the person feels to be in communion with a holy other.Bernadette’s experience fits partly with Rudolf Otto’s description. It didn’t seem to make her feel fearful at all, it simply makes her want to return and see the lady again. However, it had the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel. Bernadette was fascinated from the first time she saw the lady, which is why she returned; she was curious as to whom she was, and clearly her faith already took a leading role in her life as her immediate reaction was to throw holy water on her. Bernadette also managed to attract others into coming to see the lady. There was a sense of personal quality to it because Bernadette claimed to know “secrets of the lady” which she would not reveal, and she had many encounters with her, not just a few.

Does the experience pass William James’ ‘test’ of having a lasting value? William James, who was a psychologist and philosopher, described four characteristics of religious/mystical experience. He claimed that such an experience is Transient, Ineffable, Noetic, and Passive –

Bernadette’s experience fits with a few of William James’ test, however we are not told how long the visions last, only that there were 18 visions of this woman, so it is hard to tell whether this accounts as transient. As for ineffable, Bernadette makes no indication of how she was feeling, however she seemed perfectly capable of describing the vision of the woman and her desire to see her again, so maybe not that ineffable an experience, as well as this she claimed to talk to the vision and once threw holy water on her, so she was not taken over by her experience, as such. As for noetic, Bernadette was given the knowledge of something practical to do, build a chapel, as well as a deeper belief to repent their sins. In another vision she was told to dig into the mud by the stream and drink from the spring water, although at first she drank mud, a spring had appeared by the next day, now identified to provide 67 cures described as “inexplicable”. As for passivity, Bernadette never seemed to induce a vision; however she did actively go down to the grotto, sometimes with followers, seeking the visions, suggesting she was partially involved in when it happened.

How might a sceptic interpret the experience? The town elders and police brought Bernadette in several times for questioning as they were both critical and suspicious. She even had to undergo medical testing to prove she wasn’t fit for a mental asylum. She was placed under great pressure to avoid going back to the grotto. Under cross examination she retained a childlike innocence and also an implacable faith in the veracity of the experiences she had witnessed. Despite frequent and intense examination they were unable to find flaws in her tales. She did not seek to exaggerate or materially profit from her experiences. However she very easily got ill, due to her asthma, and her health wasn’t in a perfect condition, and in some of her visions she ate mud from beside the grotto, which could not have been very sanitary. As well as her denial in the woman being the Virgin Mary, the image she described of a white dress, a blue girdle and a yellow rose on each foot, could be described as many of the statues of the Virgin Mary in any of the village churches. Bernadette could have been subconsciously linking what she thought she saw to her memories of the Virgin Mary which, as a devout Christian, she would have seen many times in the church. Although the 67 cures found in the spring that Bernadette dug up, may be seen by some as a miracle, considering tests have proven that it is just ordinary water, even Bernadette said that it was faith and prayer that cured the sick. There could be some sort of a placebo effect as it has said to come from a holy place.

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    • profile image

      Charlotte 16 months ago

      I love Bernadette

    • profile image

      emily 4 years ago

      what is this ui want the impacts of her life the catlioc church

    • Chris Neal profile image

      Chris Neal 5 years ago from Fishers, IN

      Very interesting. Voted up. I'm always interested in religious experiences even though I'm not Catholic. Thank you!