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The Catholic Historical Review 87.2 (2001) 337-339
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Body and Spirit in the Secular Age
Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. By Ruth Harris. (New York: Viking. 1999. Pp. xxii, 474. $34.95.)
With the publication of Ruth Harris' Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age, the famous shrine in the French Pyrenees has a book worthy of its remarkable history. Many people, including non-Catholics, have some sense of Lourdes, derived for the most part from pious and journalistic accounts. Harris' work, however, is the first large-scale treatment of Lourdes by a professional historian, a lack of attention she attributes to a general suspicion among scholars "of the sustained attraction of religious mystery and adherence" in the modern world. In place of this Harris calls on historians to develop "a more sympathetic approach to the sustained appeal of the miraculous in religion" (p. 12). Harris' book enters sympathetically and imaginatively into the world of nineteenth-century Catholics, starting with Bernadette Soubirous, the Lourdes visionary. But she also brings into play the rich historiography on nineteenth-century France, placing the stories of miraculous apparitions and cures within their particular social and political contexts. This combination of religious sensitivity and historical rigor makes her work an essential starting point for anyone interested in Lourdes.
Harris divides her work, which covers the shrine from its origins in 1858 to World War I, into two main sections, each with five chapters. Part One deals with Lourdes at the time of the apparitions and the first investigations by civil and ecclesiastical authorities. She begins by placing us firmly in the department of the Hautes-Pyrénées of southern France, a world of rural poverty racked by population growth and the gradual disappearance of common lands. Harris links this social context to the miraculous, for the grotto where Bernadette had her apparitions was on common land, and Mary's presence there could be interpreted as sanctifying the idea of collective ownership (p. 31).But as is the case throughout her study, Harris avoids a reductionist account in favor of a multi-layered analysis in which religious beliefs, sincerely held and acted on, are given a central place. Harris draws on local histories and ethnographic descriptions to depict a world in which Marian shrines were common, some of them founded on the basis of a miraculous apparition. But Harris is as careful with religious traditions as she is with social contexts; these are not deterministic structures, but rich backgrounds for people whose choices matter.
The 1858 apparitions at Lourdes that were the basis for the shrine were first of all a local affair. Harris provides a well-paced narrative of the events during and immediately following the apparitions, which took place between February and July, 1858. Here we learn of the confusion and anxiety of civil and ecclesiastical officials, concerned with crowd control, but also of growing devotion as people flocked to the shrine. The local event turned into a national cause when Louis Veuillot, a newspaper publisher and writer, saw the conflict over the shrine, which the state tried to shut down, as related to the larger battles between the Catholic Church and the Second Empire. But Harris concludes [End Page 337] the first part of her book not with the actions of Prefect Massy or Bishop Laurence, but with a moving account of Bernadette, who left Lourdes in 1866, and died as a sister in a convent in Nevers in 1879.
In Part Two Harris traces the growth of the shrine during the Third Republic, paying special attention to Henri Lasserre's best-selling work on the shrine, to the annual "National Pilgrimage" sponsored by the Assumptionist fathers and their female collaborators, and to the place of Lourdes in contemporary debates about the relationship between science and religion. All of these are fascinating and well-told stories, but I was particularly struck by Harris' analysis of the "feminization of religion," which has become something of a commonplace among historians of religion...