My traveling companions for the Lenten journey

My monthly column for The Catholic Free Press and

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I decided this Lent that I would not travel alone. I asked St. Bernadette, the visionary of Our Lady of Lourdes, if she would accompany me.

In the course of our walk together I am rediscovering someone I had long forgotten but who has not forgotten me.

A classic movie

It began on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes with a suggestion from a friend to watch “The Song of Bernadette,” a critically-acclaimed 1943 movie based on the book by Franz Werfel. It was available on YouTube so I could watch it at my leisure. The movie is long so I viewed it on my tablet over the course of three nights.

Unexpected emotions

That was a good decision. I did not expect to be so moved by the film and was glad I could cry in private. Each time “The Lady” appeared to Bernadette, the tears would flow. I did not know why. Was it the beautiful music? Was it the way Bernadette (played by Oscar winner Jennifer Jones) looked at “The Lady” with such love?

Maybe it was because of Mary herself. Perhaps my heart was telling me how much I missed her in my life.

More, more …

saint bernadette soubirous by francis trochuWhen the movie ended I wanted more. From the bookshelf I pulled out a work by Abbe Francis Trochu entitled Saint Bernadette Soubirous. I was doubtful that a book written over sixty years ago could speak to me today but those fears were soon put to rest.

My “go-to” person

I skipped over the apparitions to my true interest–the life of this saint in the aftermath, as a religious. What I found was a quiet yet powerful holiness based upon the smallest of details. Bernadette would soon become my “go-to” saint for lessons on fidelity, patience, charity, composure and self-control.

A counter-cultural saint

St. Bernadette sought to be hidden and forgotten, a difficult task for someone whose fame was widespread. To desire such things today is counter-cultural, even laughable; recognition and fame are hotly pursued by so many who believe it will supply the love they crave. It is an empty promise. Having experienced it herself, Bernadette knew where the true source lay.

I. Want. This.


Abbé Trochu writes, ” This triumph of Our Lady of Lourdes rested on [Bernadette’s] own testimony … It would have been enough to turn the head of a conceited youngster. But, forgetful of herself, the unique visionary was thinking solely of the Apparition’s glory, and was lost in her radiance. And so along she went, paying no heed to the crowds, wholly absorbed in her own interior happiness.” (pg. 244)

I want that; to be so attracted to God as to be single-minded, losing myself in heavenly thoughts in the middle of a noisy world. It is that submission to God’s grace, that total immersion into holiness that unleashes the power of transformation.

If I seek to become like Bernadette: faithful, patient, composed and in control of my emotions; if I desire to confront my weaknesses, then I must learn her way of holy absorption.

Starting with Mary

mary and jesusThinking on Mary as Bernadette did is a good start. Mary is the epitome of faithfulness, patience and composure, fueled by love of her Son. Mary longs to mother me and I need mothering. The many tears I shed while watching the movie revealed that longing; it’s time I listened to her call.

The little things

With my two companions I can begin to learn this art of holy absorption by continuing my reading on St. Bernadette, asking for her intercession, and cementing the habit of praying the rosary each day. When I take communion to my homebound friend each week, I can pause for a few moments to hold the Eucharist in my hand as Mary held Jesus as a baby, and together, we can adore the Lord of Hosts. I could also meditate on the Eucharist as St. Bernadette did: “I think to myself that that the Blessed Virgin is giving me the Infant Jesus, I welcome Him, I speak to Him and He speaks to me.”

All little things. All done in secret but never done alone.

Copyright 2015 Susan W. Bailey

Artwork: all photos by Susan W. Bailey

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Is it really all in the details? Wisdom from the story of St. Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes

Do those pesky little details really matter?

Ask an engineer. A manufacturer. And a surgeon.

Salim Fadhley Surgeons at work
Salim Fadhley Surgeons at work Flickr Creative Commons

One detail can make all the difference.  A slip of the knife, a screw in the wrong place can spell danger and disaster.

However, surgery performed well and products  built precisely to specs can and do enhance and save lives.

A mother know the importance of details . . .

. . . remembering each child’s birthday year after year with a specially planned party  . . . or creating the perfect Halloween costume . . . cooking up that favorite dish to perfection just because . . . saving all those little masterpieces made and then given to her with such love.

Later the grown children will find these artifacts and be reminded of how cherished they are.

Sarah Bedsheets
Sarah Bedsheets Flickr Creative Commons

I remember my mother changing the sheets on our beds faithfully once a week. My bed felt so inviting to sleep in as I turned back the covers and climbed between the crisp, cool sheets. The smell, the feel  . . . these little details remain to this day a tangible reminder of my mother’s love for me.

Yes, details do indeed matter. In our lives out in the world, and in the world inside of ourselves.

How we live our interior spiritual lives matters a great deal, right down to the last detail.

song of bernadetteI have taken on as my Lenten journey the study of St. Bernadette Soubirious. This journey was inspired by a Facebook post back on February 11 by Father James Martin, SJ. In honor of the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes he recommended the viewing of “The Song of Bernadette,” a critically acclaimed 1943 movie starring Jennifer Jones. He wrote, “The film, based on the book by Franz Werfel actually corresponds very closely to the real-life story of St. Bernadette Soubirous, with only a few exceptions.” You can find the movie on YouTube – just search for “The Song of Bernadette.”

Moved by the film

I have always enjoyed this film and so happily watched it again over the course of three nights (the film is over two hours in length). I surprised at how moved I was as I watched, crying whenever Bernadette saw “The Lady” and crying too over the poverty of her home life and the humiliations she faced over and over again.

Attraction to the life of Bernadette

saint bernadette soubirous by francis trochuI wished to know more about Bernadette as I was particularly drawn to her interior life and how she bore with what she suffered. I had an old book, written in the 1950’s by Abbé Francis Trochu who had written many spiritual biographies.

Details, details …

As I read, I see how the smallest of details meant a great deal to Bernadette. She was always very particular in the way she told her story of the apparitions; it was important to her that she report as accurately as possible so as to honor The Lady’s wishes. Her consistent telling of the story was a crucial part of the process whereby Church determined the authenticity of the apparitions.

This attention to detail carried over into her religious life as Sister Marie-Bernard;
she practiced a life of fidelity.

I was struck in particular by this passage; it’s a little long but without reading it all, you cannot feel the power of the point that was made:

Postulants or novices were often sent to the infirmary, chiefly for cleaning the wards, and thus came under the more or less direct control of Sister Marie-Bernard. She managed these young people with understanding and tact, but she also found means of helping their religious training in her own individual way. There was, for example, the story of the copper knobs that went the rounds of the noviceship several times. Sister Marie-Bernard had been in office for only a short while, as the incident occurred in 1868.

I was still a postulant [related Sister Justine in her old age], and I had been given a job in the infirmary. Well, one day when we were giving the place a thorough cleaning, I had spent the whole morning dusting, rubbing and polishing. Then the bell rang and I was getting ready to leave when Bernadette said: ‘The work is not finished. There’s still this and that, but you haven’t time now. It will do some other day.’ Then I foolishly said with a certain satisfaction: ‘I’ve rubbed the copper knobs with polishing powder.’ This referred to the knobs on the iron bedsteads. Bernadette replied: ‘Yes, they are shining brightly. You’ve polished them well and thoroughly. You have taken great pains with this work because it catches the eye.’

She delivered me this reprimand so nicely that I wasn’t hurt, but I felt the little pinprick to my vanity all the same and I carried the lesson away with me, saying to myself: ‘You understand? You have taken great pains over the knobs because they show, but the work that doesn’t show, the work that remains hidden and which God alone sees, did you do that so carefully?’
I have always remembered those copper knobs.

pages 293-294, Saint Bernadette Soubirous by Francis Trochu; bold is my emphasis

I felt that “pinprick to my vanity” too.

How faithful was I to those little tasks that no one sees? How much fidelity do I apply to what I do, especially if I don’t want to do it? And, does it really matter?

If I profess to love God, it matters a great deal.

How can I claim to love him if I care more about what others think of what I do rather than what he thinks?

How shallow it is, really, to perform tasks only so that I can earn a compliment from my boss or a “thank you” from my family. Shouldn’t it be just enough to do the task well, without currying favor?

God sees all. Isn’t his favor enough for me?

Just how much am I willing to do in secret for my Beloved?

Am I even willing to do good in secret even though it might be misunderstood,
even criticized by people I care for?

I don’t have answers yet to these questions but it gives me much to ponder this Lent.

You never know what you can learn from a movie. Or a book. God uses every opportunity to teach us. I look forward to learning more from Saint Bernadette Soubirous.

I would appreciate hearing from you if you have pondered these questions. Are the details important to you?

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