These days I am in Lourdes, praying for the sick with the Knights of Malta. I am truly grateful to be a part of this wonderful groups of thousands of pilgrims from throughout the world. Here are some reflections I offered during the morning of recollection yesterday.
There were two kinds of people in this town in 1858: the children and the skeptics.
By the children I mean not just Saint Bernadette, but all who made the trek with her out into the woods. By the children I mean all the pilgrims who put aside everything else in order to walk to the grotto and kneel before the Beautiful Lady and listen. By the children I mean the thousands who have come to these waters seeking mercy and healing and been filled with a superabundance of both. By the children, I mean all who look to Mary in a world overwhelmed by confusion and despair. By the children, I mean us.
And then there were the skeptics. France in the 1850’s was a hotbed of skepticism. Scriptural commentaries by Strauss and Bauer, one denying the divinity of Christ and the second denying that Jesus ever existed, were popular among scholars; while villages like Lourdes were rife with superstition about ghosts and spirits of the dead wandering the woods. Indeed, when they first heard of Bernadette’s report of a beautiful lady, many of the townsfolk were convinced that the little girl had literally seen a ghost in the woods, a revenant (just like the movie last year), silently returning from the dead to prowl the stony woods of the grotto.
Even the Priest told Bernadette not to go back to the Grotto. For skepticism is always our first reaction when God reaches unexpectedly into the predictable pattern of our lives and upsets the apple cart. Easier to say its a revenant appearing to a confused child than that God is about to turn my life upside down.
And even after the indisputable revelations and cures, skeptics remained and remain. Four years after the apparition here Darwin published his Origin of the Species, and a mighty struggle for the hearts and minds of humanity set off in earnest. Now Science is good, Darwin was substantially right and sometimes even skepticism is commendable, but the deep down struggle was for those who saw man’s Reason as displacing God; replacing God with the mind of man.
Which was precisely what God was doing in Lourdes. He was speaking to a skeptical world so full of itself, so caught up in its own petty struggles and incomplete answers, so set on stuffing itself with the pleasures and insights of a new age that it failed the most essential test of what it means to be a human being: the ability to so empty myself that God might fill me up, to bow very low before the one who made me in adoration, praise and obedient love.
So skeptics found it hard to believe.
Hard to believe that God chose a virgin from an out of the way backwater to be the mother of his Son.
Hard to believe that God chose a little girl in a forgotten hamlet in the Pyrenees to bring forth healing waters from beneath the feet of the Mother of his Son.
Hard to believe a message of repentance in a world wracked with violence and despair, brought by the Beautiful Lady who was full of grace.
FULL OF GRACE
Full of Grace! The motto for our pilgrimage this years calls we children to reflect on that curious phrase Full of Grace. What does it mean? We’ve been repeating that angelic greeting since we were little kids: Hail Mary, full of grace….Je vous salue, Marie, pleine de gráce….Ave Maria, piena di grazia…Dios te salve, María, llena eres de gracia…Ave Maria, gratia plena.
What does it mean to be full of grace? What did the angel mean when greeting the Virgin Mary? I believe the answer to that question lies in the waters which have flowed from beneath the ground here at Lourdes since Bernadette first scratched at the dirt beneath the rock at the behest of the Virgin.
Scratched at the dirt. Do you remember how the waters our malades will soon bathe in first started to flow? Bernadette was told to drink the water and wash in it. So she went for the puddle, but no, the Virgin Mother told her, look further down, beneath the ledge and dig in the muddy water. Four times Bernadette tried to drink that muddy water, before she could get it down. And only after digging in the mud and pulling up the grass did the waters flow….waters which have continued to heal for 159 years.
But did you hear it? The secret for what it takes to be full of the gracious presence of God? This little girl in the middle of the woods is told by the Beautiful Lady to get down on her hands and knees and dig in the ground. And it is only when she is willing to get down in the dirt, to let go of of all the things big-people cling to and lower herself so completely that she is prostrate in the mud, that God makes the waters flow with a superabundance of his grace.
The reason that Mary is called full of grace is that she made room for God. She so completely emptied herself that there was room for God to fill her up.
Oh, and it’s such a lesson for us! We who spend all our time filling ourselves up with proofs that we are in control. We stuff ourselves with pleasure and power and money and tell ourselves we will never get sick! We will never die! We’re not unlike our first parents in the Garden of Eden, convinced that we can be more powerful than God, that we are in control!
It reminds me of that great line from Winston Churchill, that the two most important things to know are that there is a God who is in control and that I am not him!
What makes that beautiful lady most blessed among women? Was it that she was so bright? We have no evidence of that. Was it that she was so articulate? After the annunciation we hear her speak only once (at Cana) when she says, “Do whatever he tells you!” Was it that she was so successful? Try telling her that as she stood with the body of her dead son in her arms at the foot of the cross.
What makes Mary most blessed among women was that she was obedient to God, that she emptied herself of ego and gain and the search for pleasure. This new Eve was the opposite of the first Eve…not grabbing for the gusto, but letting go and letting God. Like her Son upon the cross, she emptied herself and welcomed the swords that would pierce her heart. She made room for God and God alone.
And that, by the way is what it means for the beautiful Lady of this place to reveal herself as the Immaculate Conception, a title which proclaims that there was holiness about her from the very beginning God began knitting her in her mother’s womb she was freed from sin’s original stain.
For sin is a self-replicating contagion, which drives out light as its all-consuming darkness grows. Selfishness, arrogance and lust take up an awful lot of room in the human heart—until there’s no more room for God. So in this one who was immaculately conceived, where there is no room for sin, there is ample room for God.
And by her example, the Immaculate Conception urges us poor banished children of Eve, to follow her example. So when she proclaims “all generations will called me blessed,” this is not mere act of human hubris. Rather, she foretells that her words of humble obedience will be sung is all our vast assemblies until the end of time!
So the difference between the children and the skeptics is the difference between the First Eve and the Second: that the child, still capable of wonder and belief, is able to empty her heart of all the distractions of this world and stare with perfect love into the heart of God. To gaze into the eyes of the beautiful woman and see the beauty of a heart so emptied of human ambitions and cares that she can say “Fiat,” ‘Let it be done to me as God wills’ with her whole, being.
Soon after the beautiful lady told Saint Bernadette to urge the priests to build a beautiful Church on the site of the apparitions, a curious thing happened, as if to remind Bernadette and the gathered witnesses what the foundation of that Church was to be. All at once, Bernadette, up to know kneeling in rapt ecstasy, fell to the ground and kissed the earth. Then she dragged herself a little further and kissed the earth again. When she reached the rock enclosure she stopped for a moment and lay silent on the ground with her head raised in the direction of the niche where she had reported seeing the Blessed Virgin.
All of a sudden she stood up, turned to the crowd and instructed them: “You too are to kiss the ground!” Then she fell back to the earth and began kissing the dirt and the rock once again.
Bernadette later explained what she had heard from the Blessed lady: “You will pray to God for sinners; you will kiss the earth in intercession for the conversion of sinners.” The same command was repeated over and over again for several mornings, as if to remind us that the foundation of Lourdes, like the foundation of life is to learn to bow very low: to empty ourselves, to take the last place, to wash feet and to do it all in imitation of Christ’s perfect self-emptying on the cross and Our Lady’s self emptying at the Annunciation.
And that’s why there are so many confessionals in Lourdes. For the only way we can empty our hearts of the sin and selfishness which swells so malignantly, forcing out the light of God, is to confess our sins.. To beg for God’s forgiveness. And when, through the words of the Priest, God absolves us, cleans out our hearts to make room for the grace which is his presence in our lives.
But confession takes humility, and too often it is in short supply. Do you know where the word “humility” comes from? It comes from the Latin word humus, which means “ground” or “dirt.” It reminds us of the second creation account where God uses three Hebrew words: Adamah (meaning dirt), Ruah (meaning breath or spirit) and Adam (the name he gave the first man). God reaches down to the earth and takes a handful of Adamah and breathes his Ruah into it and Adam is born. That’s why each Ash Wednesday we are smudged with ashes and reminded that we are dirt and to dirt we shall return. It is only the breath of God which brings life into this earthly vessel, and only the Holy Spirit which turns us from houses of clay into Temples of his Glory.
And that’s why the Blessed Virgin is usually depicted as kneeling as the Angel announces to her that she will be the Mother of the Christ. So too we, whenever we approach God, we do so like the publican in today’s Gospel, by bowing, genuflecting, submitting to the will of God in respect, humility, reverence and obedience.
Abba Appolo, a desert father of the Church in her first days used to say that "the devil has no knees; he cannot kneel; he cannot adore; he cannot pray; he can only look down his nose in contempt. Being unwilling to bend the knee at the name of Jesus is the essence of evil."
But we must kneel, and empty ourself, like Mother Theresa, so poorly understood by so many readers of her letters to her spiritual letters, published a couple years ago, Like John of the Cross, she wrote the dark night of her soul, of the dryness, the darkness and the loneliness which were her daily companions, not unlike the pain, the uncertainty and the discomforts felt by many of our beloved malades. But what the doubters failed to understand was that Mother welcomed these crosses and a way to excavate the hardness of her heart to make it ready to be filled with grace and the knowledge of the presence of God. If only they had read more closely they would have seen these words by Saint Theresa of Calcutta: “Jesus, my own Jesus, I am yours—I am so stupid—I do not know what to say, but do with me what you wish—-as long as you wish. So the emptiness was a gift, a hollowing out of a space for God to enter in.
Which is precisely the reason for Jesus’ love for the poor, the sick and those who are in pain. They thirst with him on the Cross. So emptied of the preoccupations of this world that they long only for him to fill them up with his merciful grace.
That is why the malades among us are such a gift. For they teach us by their vulnerability how vulnerable each of us are. They teach us by their pain our desperate need for God. They teach us by the example of their patience, their faith and their joy to make a space within our hearts for a God who is so rich in his healing mercy.
The sick, then, know pain and fear, and even emptiness at times, and Mary did too. That’s why the Angel said to her: “Be not afraid, Mary.” For that fear neither sinful nor wrong, was but an invitation to Christ’s grace to fill her up and make her whole.
And that is the secret of Lourdes: That we are closest to God in our littleness, our brokenness, our sickness and our pain. For God has called me to follow him, not because I am strong or I am smart or I am so very bright, but because he looks upon me, just like his Blessed Mother, he looks upon me in my littleness and raises me up.
O Mary, Our Mother, Fill of Grace,
Pray for us!