As a Catholic girl of Irish descent who grew up in rural Ontario, I didn’t grow up with Disney princesses. I grew up with apparitions of the Blessed Virgin. When I was around six or seven years old, someone my parents knew went to Lourdes and brought back a small music box featuring Our Lady appearing to St. Bernadette in a grotto. The pillar of candles spun around as the music played Immaculate Mary. To me, it was magical. I would stare at it for ridiculously long periods of time. I wanted to learn more about the story, so I read about the apparition and watched the black and white classic film The Song of Bernadette. I also spent many hours playing in the fields around our farm constantly on the lookout for that one sunbeam shining in a grove of trees which just might turn out to be an apparition from Our Lady. No visions ever came, however. Oh, how I envied Bernadette! Now that I am older and realize the burden and suffering that accompanied the visions of the great saints, I am aware of (not to mention grateful for) the grace of unanswered prayers. But as a child, a vision was what I longed for.
It was February 1858 in France when it happened. In a small grotto on the bank of a river near Lourdes, Mary appeared to a young and poor child named Bernadette Soubirous. She asked the girl to pray with her, requested a church be built on the site and eventually announced her title, on the Feast of the Annunciation, saying, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Quickly, the curious and the devout began to investigate. Miraculous cures began to be reported. Today, Lourdes is one of the most well-known pilgrimage destinations in the world. Still, people who visit the site are healed spiritually and physically. In 1993, St. John Paul II declared February 11 – the memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes – to be the World Day of the Sick.
What I love about the story of Lourdes are the lessons I learn from it. We as humans yearn for experiences of the Divine. We want to literally taste and see God’s goodness. From time to time, we are granted such experiences where Christ, Mary and sometimes the saints, reach out to humanity in the form of visions. Rarely, are these experiences granted to the wealthy and the powerful. Most often, God speaks to simple, open hearts. I find myself prompted by this observation to try to keep my own heart simple and open so that I am more receptive to messages from heaven. I no longer long for a direct vision like Bernadette experienced. Rather, I look for such messages in those around me who are simple and poor – children, my elders, the marginalized, the ill and others whose life struggles have helped them to pare their spirituality down to the basics. In listening to people’s experiences, I am reassured of God’s constant, abiding, loving presence in my life.
–Christine Way Skinner
Christine Way Skinner is a Lay Pastoral Associate at St. John Chrysostom Parish in Newmarket, ON. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Theology degree from St. Francis Xavier University and a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School. She would probably have finished the doctorate in theology she began years ago if she and her husband Michael had not begun raising a large family. When she is not doing laundry, driving her children to activities or trying to find inclusive, compelling and creative ways to pass on the church’s 2000 year old traditions, you can find her looking at art, playing music, reading, gardening and playing board games with her children. Christine’s publications can be found and purchased here.