Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age
Ruth Harris
New York: Viking

Ruth Harris. Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. New York: Viking, 1999.

Fifteen years ago, as she completed a book on medicine in France in the nineteenth century, Ruth Harris, who identifies herself as a Jewish agnostic, became interested in Lourdes. "As I examined Parisian physicians' confident assertions that a new scientific age had dawned and that religious belief was to be swept away like cobwebs from a musty closet, I wondered how it was that Lourdes was living through its 'golden age' at the very same moment." Lourdes, which, from a secular scientific viewpoint, should have been consigned to the dustbin of history, continued "vibrant and assertive in it own way" as the secular empire which it challenged.

Lourdes touches the deep convictions and traditions of both its advocates and detractors, and its story cannot be related in a unidimensional way: it is a mixture of religion, history, anthropology, geography, medicine, politics, psychology all of which the author brings to the subject with consummate sensitivity and skill.

The Pyrenean region of southern France contained other chapels which reported the apparition of the Virgin to young shepherds and shepherdesses, but these chapels never attained the fame and notoriety of Lourdes. A major difference was the character and witness of Bernadette, who, despite investigations and persecutions, remained steadfast and persistent in relating what she had seen and heard, refusing to allow the story to be changed to fit current religious ideas. Her utter disregard for any type of approval or public acceptance of the occurrences, and her self-effacement as she left Lourdes in 1866, never to return, contributed to the impact of the shrine on modern consciousness. The presence of crowds who early came for healing--of all types--testified that medicine and psychology did not provide all the answers to the heart's quest.

Lourdes was and continues to be a symbol of many opposing tendencies: of simple folk religion and belief against the reservations of theologians and the ecclesiastical hierarchy, of the restorationist forces in France against the Third Republic, of faith in miraculous healing against a skeptical medical establishment. It also became, as its later history testified, a point of union between simple, suffering masses and the urban educated women who cared for them.

In 1872, Bishop d'Alzon and the Assumptionists began the national pilgrimages, which, among other things, were a "great manifestation of Catholic piety in the face of secular godlessness." The two organizations which made the national pilgrimages possible were the Notre Dame de Salut, laywomen who volunteered their time and service, and the religious sisters, the Petites Soeurs de l'Assomption. To transport hundreds of thousands of the desperately sick seeking cures on the long, and frequently hot, train rides was possible only because thousands of women came forth. At times, simply removing the invalids from a train took as much as three hours. All these individuals were fed, assisted in the baths, aligned for the evening services.

Throughout the work, Harris alludes to the indispensable role of women in the development of Lourdes and also in nineteenth-century religious history (giving a new interpretation to "the feminization of religion"). With consummate sensitivity, she handles the letters of spiritual direction between clerics and well-educated urban women whose support they enlisted for pilgrimage and other activities. She attributes "the calls of feminism" going unheeded in nineteenth-century France not to the Church's blocking women's aspirations, but because the Church was "so effective at channeling them in spiritual and practical directions outside the republican mainstream." Although the Church may have assigned them a subordinate role, it offered them a "world of opportunity and found a means of cultivating their loyalty and energies."

Finally, Harris touches the miracles. Lourdes, she notes, was the "only major sanctuary in Christendom to possess a medical bureau of international renown, an institution founded in the belief that medicine might strengthen rather than undermine faith in miracles." Though modern medicine might not accept the notion of miracles, neither could it dismiss Lourdes as fraud. Harris' judgments are always well-nuanced and refined. "Even if divine intervention is rejected as a possibility, reducing such occurrences to the pejorative notion of suggestion is to misconceive the process of healing, and to stay with the analytical trap that Zola and his fellow fin-de-siècle protagonists created. Understanding what took place requires an imaginative sympathy for the psychic and physical world that pilgrimage generated, for the way intense prayer, unabating pain, and extreme humility were bolstered by the support of helpers and believers convinced of the ubiquity of miracles at Lourdes." She concludes, "Instead of Lourdes being weakened by the attacks of positivism, the example of the inexplicable that it proferred led to the ultimate discrediting and abandonment in some scientific circles of much of the posivitist ethos itself."

--Thomas A. Thompson, S.M.

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