In the Grotto of Massabieille
Reading the actual transcripts one discovers the honesty, simplicity, and persistence that would later impress her supporters. "Stalwart," Ruth Harris calls her. When the police commissioner took notes, he slyly changed the record, and read it back to her. "The virgin smiles at me," he said.
"I didn't say the virgin," said Bernadette, correcting him.
For me, this is one of the most compelling aspects of Bernadette Soubirous. She is uninterested in impressing anyone. She avoids saying, until almost the final apparition, that she is seeing the Virgin Mary (though others in the town claim this almost from the beginning). She is, despite her family's poverty, unwilling to profit in any way from her experiences, refusing any and all gifts. In all of her testimonies, Bernadette simply tells what she saw and what she didn't see, what she heard and what she didn't hear. In this way she reminds me of Joan of Arc who said, in essence, this is my experience, believe me if you like.
On February 25, after two intervening apparitions, Bernadette returned to the Grotto. The assembled crowd saw Bernadette not in an ecstatic state, as in previous visits, but suddenly clawing at the ground in the grotto, drinking some muddy water that she had uncovered, and stuffing her mouth with weeds. Bernadette explained her actions: "She told me to drink of the spring and wash yourself in it. Not seeing any water, I went to the Gave. But she indicated with her finger that I should go under the rock . . ." The eating of the weeds was an act of penance, said Bernadette, for sinners.
But to onlookers Bernadette was merely scratching at the dirt and eating weeds. They were, predictably, horrified. "She's nuts!" someone shouted out. Her aunts, who had accompanied her gave her a sharp smack as they left the grotto.
In the movie The Song of Bernadette, Bernadette's humiliation leads to the film's dramatic highpoint. After the protagonist and the rest of the crowd leave the grotto, a townsman sits down to rest at the site. As the camera focuses on his hand resting on the dry ground, a few drops, then a trickle, and then a little stream, flows past. "Look, water!" he shouts to swelling music. In reality, as René Laurentin describes it in Bernadette of Lourdes, a small group of townspeople stayed behind to examine the hole Bernadette had begun, and the more they dug, the more pure water gushed forth. But even the movie's account underlines the significance of the day: Bernadette had uncovered the fountain that would become the focus of later pilgrimages and hope for healings.
Again Bernadette was questioned, and annoyed officials redoubled their efforts to frighten her into recanting. Again, she stuck to her story. Two days later, Bernadette returned to the grotto and drank from the spring. On March 1, a local woman whose fall from a tree had left her with a permanently crippled arm, went to the spring and plunged her arm in the water. In a few moments her bent fingers straightened and the arm was healed. It would be the first of the many miracles attributed to the spring at Lourdes.
Interest over Bernadette's vision continued to mount, and by the time of the 13th apparition, Bernadette was accompanied by over 1,500 people. After this apparition she raced to Abbé Peyramale, to tell him what the vision had said to her: "Go, tell the priests to come her in procession and build a chapel here." As René Laurentin notes in Bernadette of Lourdes, the alarmed priest was appalled, imagining the opprobrium that would descend on him if he were to authorize a ridiculous request from a poor young girl. So the practical Peyramale demanded some answers from the vision. Ask her for a name, he said bluntly. And, as an added test, ask her to make the wild rose bush in the grotto to flower.