“Go to Her”: Our Lady of Lourdes and the Power of Marian Apparitions

Go to her, you who are crushed by material misery, defenseless against the hardships of life and the indifference of men. Go to her, you who are assailed by sorrows and moral trials. Go to her, beloved invalids and infirm, you who are sincerely welcomed and honored at Lourdes as the suffering members of our Lord. Go to her and receive peace of heart, strength for your daily duties, joy for the sacrifice you offer. ~ La Pelerinage de Lourdes, Pius XII
On this Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, I’m thinking about Marian apparitions. In a way, it’s a natural segue from wandering wombs. Both are expressions of the power of the feminine. Hysteria is female sexuality breaking out of social control. Marian apparitions are female divinity breaking into human experience.

Of course I am not making the mistake of deifying Mary, whom we Catholics hold to be fully–if uniquely–human. But it’s no coincidence, I think, that so many Marian apparitions, even (or especially) those that have received official Church approval, occur at sites long dedicated to honoring the divine feminine. These sites are rich in topographical features associated with the feminine in nature–caves, grottoes, sheltering trees, underground springs. It’s common for the visionaries to identify the supernatural being they encounter simply as “a lady,” with Marian doctrinal titles not emerging until quite late in the series of revelations, and the name of Mary often not mentioned at all.

Bernadette Soubirous, in fact–the visionary of Lourdes–referred at first to the figure she saw and heard at the grotto of Massabielle as aquero, “that,” in the Gascon-Occitan dialect of the Pyrenees. She later described the apparition as “a small young lady” (ou petito damozel), veiled and dressed in white with a blue sash and with golden roses on her feet. When pressed by local religious authorities, Bernadette asked the lady three times for her name, to which the lady only shook her head and smiled. Finally, Bernadette reported, the lady said in Gascon-Occitan, Que soi era immaculado councepciou  (“I am the Immaculate Conception”)–the doctrine, defined by Pope Pius XI just four years earlier, that Mary was preserved from the consequences of original sin from the moment of her conception.

It wasn’t doctrinal formulation, however, but healing power that drew the first believers to Lourdes. The lady asked Bernadette to drink from the spring below the grotto. There was no spring, only a muddy bog, but Bernadette–just 14 years old–obediently dug with her fingers and pressed her face to the ground until a small, clear trickle began to flow. The trickle became a spring, and has flowed ever since, its waters sought by millions as a source of physical and, more often, emotional and spiritual healing.

Lourdes itself has an intriguing back story, deriving its name from a Moorish warlord who held the fortress that crowned the town in the 8th century. Originally named Mirat, the warlord was defeated by Charlemagne. He dreamed, as a consequence, that an eagle dropped a large, smelly fish at his feet, which Mirat took as a sign that he should dedicate his life to the Queen of the Sky. A local bishop sent him off to the shrine of the Black Virgin of Le Puy-en-Velay, where he was baptized and took the name Lorda, or Lourdes. A Black Virgin, by the way, is an image of Mary with darkened, but not purposely African, features. These were popular objects of devotion at many European shrines, and often considered acheiropoieta–images made without human hands. Velay, where this particular ebony statue of Mary was venerated, means “old woman,” and was a site of ancient goddess worship.

I have no problem believing that Bernadette’s little lady is indeed the Immaculate Conception, and that real and lasting healing flows in the waters of that spring by God’s grace. It’s not just the fact that I grew up in the days when The Song of Bernadette–with an ecstatic (and who ever looked more ecstatic on screen?) Jennifer Jones as the visionary and an uncredited Linda Darnell (a pin-up starlet later notorious for roles in “adultery movies” like Forever Amber and A Letter to Three Wives) as the lady–was de rigeur viewing for Catholic school kids. I read the Abbe Francois Trochu’s wonderful biography of Bernadette, with real photographs of the saint and her incorrupt body (admittedly the original draw), and fell for her simple stubbornness. I’ve even nicknamed my current vehicle Bernadette Subaru. But I believe in Our Lady of Lourdes, even though the Church does not compel belief in any private revelation, because rather than in spite of the blurry line between mother goddess and Mother of God that surrounds the events at Massabielle. The Old Woman. The Black Virgin. The Queen of the Sky. Ou petito damozel. The Immaculate Conception. Moors and pagans and peasants, oh my!

I have the same unshakable belief–only more so, because I’ve been to Tepeyac–in Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. There are many similarities between Lourdes and the centuries-earlier apparitions to Juan Diego in colonial Mexico. The first appearance occurred as Juan Diego, a convert to Christianity, was on his way home from Mass in honor of Mary’s Immaculate Conception–a doctrine not formally defined until Bernadette’s time, but long promoted by the Spanish Franciscan missionaries. The lady appeared on a hillside once sacred to Tonatzin, the mother goddess of the Aztecs. She spoke to Juan Diego in Nahuatl, his own dialect. As proof of her reality, the lady sent the local bishop her image made without hands, miraculously imprinted on the rough cactus fiber of Juan Diego’s tilma, or cloak. The image showed a dark-featured Aztec woman, robed in a star-spangled cloak and surrounded by rays of light. Above her waist is the black sash traditionally worn by Aztec women during pregnancy, and pictograms on her robe read “the Mother of God.” Wrapped in the tilma, and spilling to the floor as it unfurled, were the deep red Castilian roses Juan Diego found blooming, out of season and far from home, in the December desert, sent to the bishop with the lady’s compliments.

The roses and even the image might not have been enough, but the bishop was sold when he asked Juan Diego the lady’s name. Guadalupe, he said–or at least that’s what the bishop heard. (Juan Diego probably said what the lady had told him, that her name, in Nahuatl, was Coatlaxopeuh, “the one who crushes the serpent.”) But the name Guadalupe, combined with the image of a dark-featured lady in a star-spangled robe, combined with the red roses of Spain, set off a powerful chain of associations in the bishop. A Black Virgin honored as Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe de Extramadura had marked the banners of Spain’s reconquest, the battle to drive the conquering Moors off the Iberian peninsula and back to North Africa. The original image, supposedly carved by St Luke with the Virgin Mary as a live model, was discovered in the 14th century by a shepherd in a underground cavern in southern Spain. The name Guadalupe itself is Arabic, the tongue of Spain’s defeated Moorish conquerors. It means–get this!–“hidden river.” Mother of God. Crusher of Serpents. Black Virgin. Hidden River. Moors and Aztecs and Spaniards, oh my!

For the people of Mexico, the Lady of Guadalupe has been as much a healer as the Lady of Lourdes has been, but in different ways. She spoke (in Nahuatl) words of infinite comfort to a people conquered.

Am I not here, who is your Mother? Are you not under my protection? Am I not your health? . . . Do not grieve nor ever be disturbed by anything.

Her image, in turn, led the banners of Mexico’s independence from Spain. The poor and the oppressed flock to her shrine, climbing the Tepeyac hill on their knees. I have been there, and the comfort is real. I think that’s why, by God’s grace, Mary breaks into our reality by so many different names, in so many places where people have always gone for a mother’s comfort. When the Church and the world tilt too far in the archetypical masculine directions of rationality, order, and conquest, the Lady appears beyond all reason with a message of compassion and healing, with the power of the holy feminine that runs like a hidden river through human experience. She comes trailing the attributes of old goddesses and local dialects and physical creation, yet she is truly and fully Mary, the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven.

Of course not all Marian apparitions are as comforting, or as healing, as Lourdes and Guadalupe. Among approved visitations, I have the most trouble with Our Lady of Fatima. The messages of Fatima always seemed to me too specifically political, too harsh, too “masculine.” That may very well be due to my having grown up under the twin specter of godless Russian communism and nuclear annihilation, with weekly drop drills. Then there are those three secrets entrusted to the visionaries, speculation about the apocalyptic contents of the third of which terrified me. It was originally announced that the third secret of Fatima would be unsealed (with a drum roll like the thunder of the opening of the Seventh Seal of Revelation) on May 13, 1960. My friend Mary Dean, whose parents led the local John Birch Society, lived in fear that that day, her tenth birthday, would be her last, and the world’s. We were torn between relief and disappointed curiosity when the unsealing was postponed.

But maybe I would yield to the influence of Fatima, too, if I had a chance to visit the site–a possibility, as Archbishop Schnurr is leading a pilgrimage there, and to Lourdes as well, this fall. After all, many of the other elements I love are present: the Moorish connection (Fatima bears the name of the prophet Muhammad’s daughter, herself an object of veneration among Muslims), the topography (Cova da Iria, the field where the apparitions occurred, is named for an underground cavern), the pagan history (the lady appeared hovering over an old oak, the tree considered sacred by Iberian Celtic tribes). And surely it is time, and past time, to learn to hear again the real thread of the message spoken to the three children by the “little lady . . . brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light”: Pray for the conversion of those who seem lost. Pray, and work, for real and lasting peace.

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