O, Lourdes: Franz Werfel’s The Song Of Bernadette (1941)

   While I grew up in an intensely Jewish suburb on Long Island, it just so happened that the  neighboring girls nearest my age were devout Catholics. Hide and seek, tag, swimming, slides and swings don’t register religious differences, and we happily hung out together until we neared our teens and for reasons different from our religions we drifted apart as childhood friends often do. While my two friends learned that I wouldn’t be sharing their ham and about what went on in Temple, I learned, while we searched for four leaf clovers,  that the ubiquitous three leaf ones were thought to be green representations of the Trinity, heard repeatedly the song about the nun and the ruler,  and  with some coaxing, accompanied my friends to the convent on Halloween where they, but not I, were required to perform before receiving their treats. One of my friends was named Mary.  Her middle name was de Lourdes. At the time I assumed that de Lourdes was a family name like Delano or Fitzgerald.  It wasn’t until much later that I figured out the significance of Mary’s middle name.

The Song of Bernadette is the fictionalized tale of St. Bernadette.  Bernadette was a girl of fourteen, living with her parents and siblings in the most squalid living conditions in Lourdes, France, when in February, 1858, she began seeing visions of a young lady.  Bernadette related that the young lady first appeared to her in a grotto when Bernadette was fetching firewood with her sister and a friend. Bernadette experienced eighteen visions in all during which the young lady reportedly identified herself  as the “Immaculate Conception.” Bernadette’s trips to the grotto attracted growing processions of townsfolk from both Lourdes and neighboring communities.  On one trip, Bernadette was seen to mutter about penitence.  During another, Bernadette was seen to be holding a dripping candle  without burning her hand. On yet a third trip, Bernadette was seen to scratch away at the dirt- -afterwards she informed her interlocutors that her actions were at the direction of the young lady– until a puddle formed and then to drink the water. Over the next days, the puddle grew into a large spring.  Within months, individuals emerged who claimed that bathing and drinking the spring water effectuated miraculous cures. The Church has documented 69 healings, with thousands more said to have occurred. Bernadette was canonized in 1933.  Six million visitors arrive at Lourdes each year. It is the third largest Catholic pilgrimage site after Rome and Israel.

Werfel uses Bernadette’s  story to ask whether miracles are possible in the age of science.   As Werfel writes, “In an industrial age a miracle constitutes a real danger.  It shakes to its foundations that social order which has shunted all metaphysical needs to the grass-grown railroad siding of religion in order that the great arteries of traffic be not blocked by them. There it is their function to wither nobly away….” His Bernadette is a study in simplicity and determination, steadfast despite pressure from secular and church authorities to retract her visions, since neither of these authorities wanted the headache of purported miracles, the state wary of any competing power, the church anxious about the threat a hoax would pose to its dwindling relevance.  Werfel’s Bernadette resists and overcomes bribes, entrapment, canny interrogators, a particularly ironic examination by a practitioner of the pseudo-science of phrenology  who is eager to prove Bernadette insane, and even physical barriers to the grotto.  While  The Song of Bernadette begins to bog into detail during the many visions and interrogations, it picks up again during Bernadette’s retreat to the convent and in the description of the shrine Lourdes became, the last refuge of the desperate, waiting in hellish circles of misery.  As one character states,  “Lourdes is that geometrical point of our planet at which this Hell transects Heaven.”

The Song of Bernadette is extraordinarily moving.  One doesn’t have to swear allegiance to Mary or believe in the reality of the cures to admire faith, devotion, struggle, and courage.

Equally intriguing is the story behind The Song Of Bernadette’s creation.  Werfel was a  Jew who fled from Austria to France with the rise of Nazism.  After the German invasion, Werfel hid in Lourdes where he learned Bernadette’s story.  He vowed that if he reached America he would “sing Bernadette’s song.”  For Werfel the novel was also a fulfillment of an older vow: Werfel had endeavored from the time he became a writer to “magnify the divine mystery and the holiness of man.”

The Song of Bernadette stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for a year, occupying the top spot for thirteen weeks.  A movie based upon the book was made in 1943 and earned Jennifer Jones, who played Bernadette, the best actress Oscar.

The Song of Bernadette continues to capture the imagination.  In 1986, Jennifer Warnes, Bill Elliott, and the late Leonard Cohen wrote a song entitled “Song of Bernadette.”  It’s been covered by Warnes, Bette Midler, Anne Murray, and Aaron Neville and Linda Ronstadt. Here’s Jennifer Warnes singing “Song of Bernadette”:


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