The Song of Bernadette ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
The Song of Bernadette, by the Austrian writer Franz Werfel, is a fictional account of the true story of a simple peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, who experienced visions of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, France, in 1858. The novel was first published in 1941 in German and was made in 1943 into what is today considered a classic movie that is usually shown on TV around Christmastime.
At almost six hundred pages, The Song of Bernadette is not an easy book to read. The English translation is filled with oddly arranged and wordy sentences that often require re-reading to understand. You are going to have to be a dedicated reader to get through this book. The story is minutely and scrupulously detailed or, to put it another way, it’s a very slow-moving reading experience. It could have been told in half the number of pages. However, those readers who stick with the book through to the end will be glad they did. It’s a fascinating story of simple faith in a cruel, cynical and unbelieving world. The life of a saint is not an easy path.
Bernadette, following examples set in the Bible, was the least likely person to be singled out for a divine visitation. She was a sickly girl from a poor family that lived in what was known as the “Cachot,” a former prison converted into a poor dwelling place. She suffered from asthma from birth and was not a particularly well-liked or well-disposed child, or a bright student in school. There was nothing remarkable about her; she was, in fact, one of hundreds just like her.
One day when she was gathering firewood with her sister and another girl in an ugly, repellant place near her home, she experienced a vision of what she described as a beautiful lady in a niche in a rock formation. She thereafter referred to the vision as “The Lady,” while it is assumed to have been the Virgin Mary. Bernadette tried to keep the vision a secret but, of course, news of it broke out and everyone wanted to know what it was all about and what it meant.
The Lady instructed Bernadette to come to the place where she first saw her every day for fifteen days. On one of these daily visitations, the Lady instructed Bernadette to get on her hands and knees and dig in the dirt. When Bernadette obeyed this directive, a spring gushed forth beneath her fingers, a spring that was found to have curative powers. Among the first to be “healed” from their afflictions were a blind man whose sight was restored and a two-year-old boy, near death, who suffered from paralysis and convulsions. When word of these miraculous cures spread, the spring and Bernadette became famous. People from all over the world came to Lourdes to be healed of whatever ailed them. Enough genuine healings occurred to convince many that it was real.
With all her notoriety, Bernadette’s troubles were just beginning. For every person who believed she was genuine, there was an equal number who believed she was a charlatan and an instrument of the devil. Local officials and even some members of the clergy took it upon themselves to discredit Bernadette and to find plausible reasons to prove she was a fake.
With all that happened to Bernadette and her family, she never lost her simplicity and her faith in her visions of the Lady. What it meant was for others to figure out. She remained humble throughout her life and wasn’t interested in the ways of the world. She entered a religious order, where she performed menial kitchen duties, and died twenty years after her visions at the age of thirty-four from a painful affliction known as tuberculosis of the bones. When a fellow nun suggested during her illness that she partake of the curative waters of the spring at Lourdes, she stated simply that the cure was not meant for her.
Fifty-four years after her death, in 1931, Bernadette was sanctified as a saint in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, with fifty thousand people in attendance. Her body, during the investigative process for sainthood, was found to have not decomposed in all the decades since her death. Her detractors had a logical explanation even for that, saying that she had been expertly embalmed and was merely a “mummy.”
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp