Updated: Jul 7, 2020
St. Bernadette Soubirous, the teenage visionary to whom Our Lady appeared in 1858, in what was then the garbage heap for the remote mountain village of Lourdes, France, was a sickly, asthmatic woman her entire life.
She defied her parents’ wishes and even endured beatings in order to visit Our Lady in the grotto, because the Blessed Mother had requested that Bernadette come again. She suffered public ridicule and humiliation during and after Our Lady’s appearances. She explained them through one hostile interrogation after another by civil and church authorities.
As word of the apparition spread -- and especially as miraculous healings started happening -- the tide turned. Simple Bernadette was recognized for the figure of piety and humility that she truly was.
She was also, I repeat, a sickly asthmatic woman her entire life. With her own hands, at Our Lady’s request, she uncovered a spring in the muddy earth that brought miracles and restoration to many other people around her.
But not to her, never to her.
The Miracle of Not Being Healed
I never knew this fact about St. Bernadette -- that she was never healed by the healing spring she uncovered -- until I was standing in her childhood home in Lourdes, on a pilgrimage to heal my son of his incurable genetic anomalies, his intractable seizures, his increasingly profound developmental delays.
What does it mean when we pray for healing that does not come?
As St. Bernadette’s life shows us, even if God withholds the power of miraculous medical healing, He may still have amazing plans for the lives of those who suffer with illness or disability. Inscrutable, far-reaching, world-shaking plans. He is still calling us to great acts of faith and great holiness. Our Lady of Lourdes, with her special care for the sick, is the best possible saint for accompanying us along the path to get there.
The Lourdes Grotto
My husband and I visited the Lourdes grotto with our son, Oscar, during that 2017 pilgrimage. At that time, Oscar was 18 months old but functionally at a three- to six-month developmental level. He lived a lot in his own personal bubble and went everywhere complacently, even blankly. His therapy focused on encouraging him to communicate in any way at all, which he did very subtly, with a glance or a small arm movement.
We had already bathed Oscar in the spring’s waters. He did not immediately stand up and begin babbling and toddling around. I was beginning to make my peace with that, or trying to. But as we entered the grotto, Oscar began to hoot and babble and wave his arms excitedly, in a way totally out of character (and ability) for him. Every time he touched the wall of the cave, he became utterly still, as if listening to a voice only he could hear. Throughout our slow walk, it felt like time had frozen and the crowds receded. It was hushed, cool, dim. The sense of being surrounded with motherly love and perfect care was so thick it was palpable.
When it was time to leave, Oscar shocked us. He arched his back and threw his arms and screamed with all his might. He communicated, all right. He was despondent. He had received the holiness of that place so freely and abundantly, without the mental and emotional barricades I had carted along for myself, that he could not bear to leave it.
He wanted us to take him back to His Mother.
The Courage to Endure
Our son was not fully and instantly healed, but he was -- and we were -- changed forever by that encounter. The Blessed Mother called us to her grotto, enveloped us there in her profound and tangible love, and sent us forth to live out the rest of our lives secure in the knowledge that we are all of us loved completely, with a love beyond all measure, whether our bodies are broken or whole.
I believe she entrusted us with this story, at least in part, so I could tell it to you.
The universal church commemorates both the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and World Day of the Sick on February 11. So often, we pray for the sick in only one particular way: we pray for them to be healed. But what Lourdes taught me is that the sick have another, far more powerful, role to play in the world around us, a role that is an echo of St. Bernadette’s own sickness and obscurity. We can pray instead for the courage to be instruments of active love and to help ease (not escape) what suffering may come. We can pray for the sick to be encouraged and strengthened in their apostolate of holy and redemptive suffering.
The Courage to Be Vulnerable
Those who suffer, those who need help, those who are sick: they have learned, over time and by necessity, to receive love better than most of us. We who are able-bodied and neurotypical rely on our own strength and ourselves; they cannot.
But their very vulnerability and weakness is their greatest strength. They are the living icons of Christ carrying the cross, calling us to reach out and wipe His face. And their receptivity to earthly love makes them powerful conduits for the heavenly kind.
As my son showed me that day in Lourdes, the Lord and his saints are very, very close to those who suffer. So close, sometimes they may just reach out and say hello. When they do, even the dense-headed parents standing nearby might take notice, and ponder these things in their hearts. Oscar has shown us how to receive love more fully -- from God, each other, and our community.
Oscar’s weakness is our family’s greatest gift, and Our Lady of Lourdes was God’s instrument in revealing that truth to us. As her feast draws near, I beg Our Lady of Lourdes to pray and intercede for all of you and your children, that you may be strengthened and encouraged in whatever God wills for your lives... healing or no.