- Bernadette of Lourdes: Her Life, Death and Visions
Thérèse Taylor sets herself the task of writing a "scholarly biography" of Bernadette of Lourdes, "to put her within the context of her time, to describe the social forces and specific events which were important, and to trace her individual life" (p. 1). In treating Bernadette as a historical figure rather than a saint, Taylor continues along the lines established by Ruth Harris, in Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age (New York: Viking, 1999), but concentrates her focus more exclusively on the visionary rather than the town and the pilgrimage. Taylor engages Bernadette with great empathy, and while some of the material she reviews is familiar, her discussion of her years at the convent of the Sisters of Nevers substantially enriches our understanding of Bernadette, but also of Catholic culture and female religious congregations more generally.
The outlines of Bernadette's life are familiar. A totally unremarkable childhood in a family on the social margins because of poverty and alcohol was broken by a series of apparitions when she was fourteen, in 1858. In the face of an aggressively hostile state bureaucracy and (at first) a distant clergy Bernadette mobilized a community of believers who established at the famous grotto a shrine that the Church subsequently embraced. Taylor's account of Bernadette's early years debunks the mythology that grew up within devout circles, which leaves her little to go on, given the silence of the sources. But her appreciation of Pyrenean culture, and her emphasis on Bernadette's rights and responsibilities as the eldest in the family do suggest a basis for the self-assurance that Bernadette displayed at times throughout the investigations and her life as a religious. Taylor's narrative of the visions and the turmoil they produced within both the state and ecclesiastical establishments is crisply done, but there is nothing particularly new in her presentation of Bernadette as a determined messenger and a persuasive witness, who displayed both innocence and a shrewd intelligence in telling her story. Taylor wisely withholds any definitive judgment about the veracity of the apparitions, but is convinced (as were most observers of the time) of her sincerity.
In 1860 Bernadette moved into the local hospice and boarding school run by the Sisters of Nevers, a community she joined formally as a novice in 1866, when she moved to the motherhouse of St. Gildard, far from her family and the now famous grotto. Taylor's account of Bernadette's years as a sister, based on a close reading of her own words and on numerous accounts from the sisters who lived and worked with her is sympathetic and persuasive. Bernadette was in a peculiar situation, for despite the stated intention of her superiors to allow her to withdraw, she was constantly on display for bishops, clergy, notable laypeople, and her fellow sisters. But Taylor shows Bernadette nonetheless as integrated into her community, charged for a time with the infirmary, and a key figure in reassuring homesick postulants and wavering novices. The convent of St. Gildard was unusual [End Page 558] in that it housed a visionary whom many already assumed would someday be a saint. Taylor's fine-grained view of the sisters who lived there provides a unique view into the history of female congregations, which combined rigid hierarchy and frequent pettiness with an authentic commitment to spiritual ideals.
Despite the harassment of some superiors, particularly the Mistress of Novices, Mère Marie-Thérèse Vauzou, Bernadette was clearly a star player for the Sisters of Nevers, a role that would have been as clear to her as it was to her superiors. Taylor is probably right to take Bernadette at her word when she writes of her desire "to destroy my self-love and self-indulgence" (p. 270). But in admitting her pride Bernadette seems to me also to have been reminding herself of the elevated position that she occupied. Taylor comments astutely that "Sr...