Ruth Harris’s Lourdes

by Jul 10, 2020Lourdes, Reviews

Lourdes is referenced on numerous occasions by Marina Warner in Alone Of All Her Sex. One gets the impression that Warner and Harris have together discussed Our Lady and Lourdes in considerable depth. Whist each book takes a very different approach to the phenomenon that is the Virgin Mary they compliment each other and are both valuable resources for Lourdes pilgrims.

Harris’s book is a study of Lourdes – described by Warner as the most phenomenal sacred site of modern Christendom – from its beginnings as a sacred shrine to the end of the First World War. Harris is a secular, non-Catholic scholar and this gives her a certain objectivity and authority in her description and history of Lourdes. She is incisive in her analysis of the interplay between the secular and sacred worlds, and her descriptions of the conflicts between and within the secular authorities, the church authorities, the Lourdais and the revolutionaries are penetrating and deeply researched.

It is this deep and troubled history, possibly, which inspires Harris to write Lourdes in order to ‘understand without judgment’. It certainly makes the book exceptionally readable and shines magnificent lights from history on Lourdes today.

A story of struggle

The first part of Harris’s book is dedicated to the emergence of Lourdes and to the struggles and tensions that arose out of Bernadette’s apparitions. Lourdes as it is today seems to have put much of this behind it. However, these stories and histories were formative in the birth of Lourdes and its later establishment as a place of pilgrimage and healing. In spite of everything (and there was a lot), Lourdes came through and emerged from a difficult period of French history. Harris tells of these struggles through the eyes of the cast of thousands who became involved in Lourdes. This is not a detached, impersonal history. It is more the story of the story that brought Lourdes into being.

The power and influence of Lourdes is brought up by Harris on many occasions, not least in her chapter on ‘The Battle of the Books’ and the fight between the secular positivists and pious believers. The struggle to be the authoritative author of the history of Lourdes at the turn of the century drew in the Pope and the President as well as apologists and detractors from across France. If the pen be mightier than the sword, then this chapter alone shows how determined the different factions were to use Bernadette’s visions for their own ends.

Lourdes emerged into France at the time of the French defeat by Prussia, the 1870-71 Civil War and the campaign to restore the Catholic Bourbon monarchy to France. Harris demonstrates how the story of Lourdes is inextricably bound up in the politics of France and and the ideological battle between the republicans defending positivism and scientific method and the monarchists defending faith and the supernatural.

A place of pilgrimage and healing

In the second half of the book, Harris describes with compassion and insight the rise of Lourdes as a place of pilgrimage and healing. We learn from history about the emergence of so much that is familiar to us in Lourdes today: the Hospitalité, the rituals of the piscines and processions, the Medical Bureau and the Accueils, the voitures, the forgons, the brancardiers (the stretcher bearers to the poor) and even the close relationship between Lourdes and the French railways.

Harris covers the miracles in depth and sets these in the context of the arguments over whether the miracles are explained by faith and the supernatural or by science and medicine. In particular, she deals at length with the phenomena of auto-suggestion and crowd psychology. The story of Emile Zola’s novel, Lourdes, is of course covered here, and Harris highlights the many parts of the book that were derived from and deliberately misconstrued by Zola to support his arguments for positivism over faith.

Although sceptical of some of the cures, especially the early and poorly documented cases, Harris points to other cures ‘in which the Virgin’s grace seemed limitless.’ She provides, for example, the case of Pierre de Rudder, a Belgian labourer and ‘swinger’ with a three inch gap in his leg as a result of an accident. After setbacks and trials, de Rudder makes it to Lourdes (a true pilgrimage). Unable to circumambulate the Grotto three times as he had planned for his penance, he simply pleads with Notre-Dame de Lourdes to work again. At which point he rises, walks to the statue of the Virgin and kneels to give thanks. This case is important for a number of reasons, not least because it is extremely well documented, both pre- and post-cure, and the disability is purely physical, denying the sceptics the opportunity to argue hysteria cured by auto-suggestion.

Like Warner, Harris writes in depth of the impact of the Marian culture on women. Whilst Warner argues that the Virgin’s perfection sets an unattainable standard for women, which leaves them vulnerable when not achieved, Harris argues that the Virgin’s instruction to Bernadette to exhort the faithful to process and bathe, the origin of the Lourdes pilgrimage movement, released women from the shackles of both Church and State. The pilgrimage movement gave women new and important roles as organisers, carers and fundraisers carrying out the vast amount of work needed to arrange the National Pilgrimage and, as the movement grew, the many other pilgrimages that emerged.

The miracle of Lourdes

Harris’s book is deeply researched and well written, even if it is a little difficult at times to keep track of the cast of thousands involved in the Lourdes story. It certainly explains why Warner is able to describe Lourdes as ‘the most phenomenal sacred site of modern Christendom’. Does the book provide the ‘understanding without judgement’ that Harris seeks? I think the answer is in the affirmative. Unlike Warner’s book, which contains judgements that could grate with some, Harris is true to her aim of seeking understanding without judgement. In order to do so, she explores the historic, cultural, scientific and religious elements of the Lourdes story in gratifying depth.

As I finish the book, however, I cannot help but feel that Lourdes itself is the miracle. The shrine has survived so much in its 162 year history it is a miracle that it remains in all its glory. As pilgrims, we get a potted history of Lourdes which denies us the knowledge of how difficult was the birth and survival of this extraordinary place of pilgrimage, peace and healing. Even today the shrine is not free from tensions, albeit minor compared to what it has been through in the past. Whilst many of us rely on faith alone as our motivation for our regular journeys to Lourdes, the story that Harris tells of Lourdes will do much to deepen our faith and understanding of why we are drawn back time and time again to this miracle.

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