When I was quite young I saw the exquisite little movie The Song of Bernadette (for which the lead actress Jennifer Jones won an Academy Award as Best Actress). I have never forgotten the experience of seeing this film. As time has gone by I realize more acutely how this story affected my forming psyche and my spirituality. At my confirmation, a ritual that Catholics offer to adolescents, I took the name of Bernadette and with all my heart it felt like such a blessing to receive that name.
Later in life, during my second pregnancy there were complications. The doctor ordered me to stay in bed for the last two months lest the baby come early. Having a full-time job and a 4-year-old, I remember thinking that I should have been thrilled to be given permission to just rest. But instead I felt sentenced to absent a life I loved and sit in a room by myself. I could hardly bear it. Somehow I acquired the biography St. Bernadette Soubirous: 1844-1879 by Francois Trochu. It is an enormous volume, and I lapped up every page of it, thirstily taking in each word, idea, image, tale. I read it once, then read it again. I lost time. Those months disappeared.
Sometime later, having two very young daughters, my former husband and I received an invitation to join some friends to travel to France and to Italy. My life felt so full of responsibilities I couldn’t quite imagine taking off for a European vacation; it didn’t make sense to me at all. But suddenly I felt struck by a thought that jolted me – I could go to Lourdes, to where the apparitions of Mary actually took place! I could be there, I could see it! I could go to Nevers in France, where she lived her later years and where her incorrupt body can be visited. I could go to Lisieux, the birthplace of St. Therese whose writings I had also lapped up, every page like water in a desert. These two saints were and are patrons to my spirit, the effect of which I can never adequately describe.
Pilgrimage is a practice that I knew nothing about, I had barely heard of it and naively didn’t even know that people in any great number went to visit these places, besides Lourdes of course. I had curiosity and thought we could go just to see what we might find. To my great delight I learned that thousands of people make these trips, the maps are all laid out, the sites are prepared and readily open to tell the stories and allow for visitors to satiate their curiosity and enter the spaces where these lives had unfolded.
And so we went, many more stories of this might be told in another writing. At the time of this trip, 1989, there were young visionaries in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, to whom it was said that Mary was appearing at dusk in the local chapel on a daily basis. We went to Medjugorje, and visited that chapel on several of those evenings. I remember on our first night there the restlessness in the people as locals and pilgrims assembled, with the visionary children at the front near the altar. Nothing was particularly silent, there was lots of milling about, when suddenly I felt a feeling go through my body similar to when I once put a plug into a faulty electrical socket. My body felt like it slammed against the wall behind me. Soon after this everyone fell silent and the visionaries listened, looking upward, focused together on something unseen to the rest of us. I later inquired and others with me had not felt what I did; the quieting had happened when someone from the front notified the people to be still. But my notification came bodily, fiercely. I will never forget the feeling. After about 15 minutes, you could see the children raise their heads together as if to watch the vision ascend. And then everyone in the chapel said the rosary and left.
The very next year my husband and I visited Fatima, in Portugual, another famous site of apparitions of Mary to children, and alsowent to Garabandal, a tiny village in Spain where Mary had appeared to several small children on a regular basis from 1961-1965. We stayed there for several days, met the visionaries who still lived there, prayed with the pilgrims, immersed ourselves in the stories and pondered the mysteries.
I am not going to try to explicate messages from the visions, as to me the message is simply that she came, she shows up, she offers a mystery to scientists and believers alike. Even the most skeptical cannot seem to explain away the phenomenon surrounding these events.
After my travels, life went on busily. These stories stayed with me of course but other matters preoccupied my days. Then a dream arrived, seemingly out of nowhere. In it I was walking on the #2 Freeway that I drove to work every day. All traffic was on foot. Suddenly I saw Mary, Mother of Jesus, walking upstream, against the flow of the traffic, and I knew she was looking all about for me. I went to her, and she pulled me over to the side of the Freeway to talk with me. She told me many things, all of them very distinct and clear to me in the dream. When I woke up what she had said was right there and then, whoosh, everything was gone. Only the feelings remained. She had told me something horrible, nearly unbearable. I was horrified and devastated by the information. That is all I knew, no other sense or detail remained.
Not too long after that, my ex-husband and I resigned from the ministry we had been devoted to. The decision was excruciating, and the aftermath worse, but it was a choice that became inevitable for us. We were growing in ways the organization could not support and there was nothing to do about it. I remember thinking, this must be the devastating news Mary told me. Then not long after that, my youngest daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. This was crushingly sad to all of us, even though Arlene was and has always been unbelievably brave and good with the management of it. I thought, Mary must have also told me about this. Then very soon after this my ex embarked on a journey that ended up destroying the foundations of our marriage and family, and the shock of it, upon my discovery, almost ended me too. I thought, surely this must be part of what Mary had told me.
Today is April 15, the anniversary of the day that I received that shock (in 1999) and life as I knew it ended. I am not writing this tale today because of that fact, it is merely coincidental and interesting. I am writing because of Mary, because all of these previously almost dormant memories of my avid explorations of the apparitions of Mary have suddenly become inexplicably inflamed in my being again.
Mary told Bernadette during her first vision to her that she should visit that grotto where she appeared every day for a fortnight. And so recently I searched and found my own little grotto in nature here in Asheville. I had had a few such sacred places on the mountain, but had not found one here yet. Today I began a commitment to make pilgrimage to my new local grotto every day for a fortnight to pray and find out why this flame has come back to life in me. What does it want? What does She want? What can we do?
This does not feel ominous to me. Her prophecies to the visionaries have contained ominous things, which she said men could avert if they committed to do so. Her prophecy to me in the dream was certainly ominous, and the nature of its unfolding was of that quality. But I do not feel this now. I do not feel worry or fear. I do feel an urgency.
Why does She come? What does She have for us? And how do we sufficiently respond?