Wednesday 30 July 2014

The Case of the Forgetful Saint

And it shall come to pass after this, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy: your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Moreover upon my servants and handmaids in those days I will pour forth my spirit.
Joel 2:28-29

About 20 years or so ago when I was a new Catholic I was more than slightly sceptical about the various stories or legends surrounding many Saints. In particular the miracles and visions which were directly or indirectly associated with them seemed to me for the most part far fetched. This week I have been reading Blessed John Henry Newman's Essays On Miracles and it recalls to my mind how and why my attitude began to change. I haven't yet finished the essays but Newman has made one salient point about the different attitudes towards miracles associated with the Church (Ecclesiastical miracles) which have been expressed on the one hand by Christians of the Reformation traditions (often called Protestants) and on the other by Catholic Christians. Protestants accept the miracles which are recorded in the Scriptures but for the most part deny those associated with the Church in subsequent eras. Catholics not only accept the miracles in the Bible but also believe that in some way the miraculous will always be associated with the Church without denying that in many cases reported miracles are merely legendary or susceptible to non-miraculous explanations. Newman makes the point that the determining factor for belief in this or that miracle is not the evidence adduced for it but the attitude towards the Church which one takes as a starting point.

Protestants do not deny that God may well have worked miracles in this world  since the age of the Apostles. What they deny is that He associates the Church in any special way with this work of His. Indeed, insofar as miracles tend to confirm Catholic doctrines which Protestants reject, such as the invocation of Saints or the special honour accorded to the Blessed Virgin Mary, they must either be spurious or the work of the devil. Miracles are, they suppose, no more common among Catholics than they are among pagans or idolaters. Catholics, on the other hand, would argue that Jesus promised that special powers, particularly healing of the sick and exorcism would always be present with the Church, and that we would anticipate from prophecies like that of Joel that visionaries also would ever be associated with Catholicism. Each person then will evaluate the evidence presented to them in each particular case through the lens of their a priori expectations. Still more of course does this apply to those who deny any Divine agency at all who will simply decline to examine the evidence on the basis that their assumption tells them it must always and everywhere be false or misleading.

Thus far Newman. I think in one way, which I shall come back to, his argument is ultimately decisive but, as it happens, my path towards accepting the reality of a good many reported Ecclesiastical miracles and visions proceeded less from my attitude towards the Church as such and more from the forgetfulness of St Bernadette of Lourdes. Her story is well known to many Catholics but for the benefit of those who are not familiar with it I shall speed-narrate my way through the most important points. In 1858 a poor, sickly and largely uneducated teenage girl, Bernadette Soubirous, reported seeing visions of a beautiful young woman in a small cave (grotto) near her home in Lourdes, a town in the French Pyrenees. On one occasion following the directions of the apparition Bernadette uncovered a spring which was previously unknown to her. On another when asked her name the young woman replied in the local dialect "que soy era Immaculada Councepciou" meaning "I am the Immaculate Conception" a title which the Church had only a few years previously definitively ascribed to Mary the mother of Jesus although, again, it was previously unknown to Bernadette. From within a few hours of its discovery the spring had become associated with inexplicable cures of diseases, taking this together with the honour in which the Catholic world held and holds the Virgin Mary Lourdes very quickly became a major pilgrimage centre. Today, indeed, it receives about seven million pilgrims a year. In the meantime Bernadette ceased having visions after a few short months and subsequently she became a nun in Nevers a French town some hundreds of miles from Lourdes where she died aged 35 in 1879.

I first became interested in our Saint in about 2000 when I heard the book Lourdes. Body and Spirit in the Secular Age by Ruth Harris being read. One of the threads running through it is the way that Bernadette moves from her brief role centre-stage ever more into the shadows symbolised by her departure to distant Nevers and her early death. There is an air of sadness about this, somewhat reminiscent of John the Baptist's comment about Jesus He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30) This admittedly is a sentimental response which perhaps deserves the rebuke which our Lord gave to St Peter thou savourest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men (Matthew 16:23) since there is no indication that either the Baptist or our Saint were ever less than joyful at the attention paid, respectively to our Lord or our Lady of Lourdes. Sentimental or not I became interested in Bernadette and subsequently read the scholarly biography by Therese Taylor Bernadette of Lourdes: her life, death and visions It is important, I think, to emphasise that this was an academic exercise and not a hagiography because it has some bearing on what follows.

Apart from my sympathy for the young visionary I approached her story with a number of other pre-conceptions. Firstly, as a Christian I accepted in principle that it was possible that from time to time God does intervene in human history via, among other means, miracles and visions sent by Him. Secondly, I did not feel at all obliged to accept that He actually had done on any particular occasion since the heroic age of the Church. I had, moreover, a frankly elitist approach approach to Lourdes specifically; thinking that the pilgrims and believers in our Lady of Lourdes tended to be either poorly educated or especially credulous or both. As I became immersed in the life of the young visionary I was very forcibly struck by the girl's character. Bernadette was a transparently honest and straightforward person. She was possessed of a lively sense of humour but not of an equally lively imagination. It is important to note that time and again after she had started encountering the apparition she refused, often indignantly, offers of money or other material benefits for herself or her family which poured in to her. At one point her brother ran a stall selling holy memorabilia, a lucrative occupation shared then and now by many Lourdais, and Bernadette absolutely forbade him to operate on a Sunday thus significantly reducing the profitability of the operation. Thus, there could be no reason to suppose that she invented the story in order to profit from it.

Sister Marie Bernard, as she became in the convent, was one of the most examined and prodded about women in France at one point. The unanimous conclusion of all who examined her was that she was of sound mind. no symptoms of mental illness or a propensity to hallucination was ever discovered in her. So there could be no reason to suppose that mental unbalance had led to her to report her visions which were confined to a few weeks of one year of her life. Both in Lourdes and at Nevers she was frequently sought out as the seer of the Mother of God, a distinction which plainly irritated her and which she developed considerable skills in avoiding. So there could be no reason to suppose that a desire for notoriety had prompted her to report her experiences. On the basis of all the evidence about her character the only reasonable conclusion to which a person could come, in my opinion, is that she saw something which nobody else could see and then she reported as honestly as possible what she had seen. The question which remains is did she report accurately or did she cast into a form acceptable to her culture and religion a phenomenon which was not exactly as she described it? Therese Taylor makes the point that in the Pyrenean region there are a number of shrines to our Lady and stories circulating about her appearances which contains many similar elements to those described by Bernadette, a grotto, a spring, miraculous healings and so on. Our Saint's subconsciousness may have processed this material and combined it with whatever phenomenon it was that she saw to produce the story which so electrified Catholic France and scandalised secular France.

This naturalistic explanation is not only plausible but, I suspect, for atheists and hard core anti-Catholics the only possible narrative account if you discount the possibility of Bernadette being a liar or in some way mentally ill. Against it though stands the collateral evidence independent of Bernadette herself, by which I mean the inexplicable cures associated with the spring and the shrine of the grotto. From the beginning doctors, including robust sceptics were all over these claims like a rash and some of them can be discounted as of doubtful veracity or purely psychosomatic. there remains though a definite residuum of purely physical diseases which have been cured immediately. These the rationalists account for by saying either that science cannot explain them yet but one day it will be able to, which is a faith statement if ever I heard one, or that they exhibit a syndrome known as 'spontaneous remission' which is a fancy way of saying 'miraculous.' The combination of Bernadette's testimony and the related emergence of inexplicable cures mutually reinforce each other and lend weight to the likelihood that the Mother of God really did appear to that little girl in Lourdes.

The datum which finally convinced me, however, was the drama of the last few weeks and months of the life of Sister Marie Bernard. From her youth Bernadette had a very poor memory, she had been delayed in her progress through school and catechism classes as a result of this. As it became apparent that her life was soon to end she was constantly badgered by those who planned to write histories of the events and were desperate to get a full account of the story of the apparitions. Again and again she was questioned about them. This was not only a trial to her, as we can well imagine, but they added another dimension to her suffering. "My God", she said to her fellow nuns "what if I should forget?" With most people when they tell a story about their lives find that with each repetition the story grows longer and longer and more details, accurate or not, are added in. This is rarely an outright process of lying usually it is the simple effect of a normal human imagination dwelling upon a sequence of events which we place in the past. Elements that we think should be in it find their way in, things that we ought to have said it turns out that we did say and so on. With Bernadette though her story got shorter and shorter as she just forgot details and was unwilling to fill in the gaps in her memory with any old thing. The concessions she made to her forgetfulness by simply saying "I don't remember" seem to me to be the hallmarks of an honest person trying as hard as possible to recall an actual event and preferring to be thought of as stupid rather than say anything about it which she could not remember.

So, taken together accepting the possibility of a Divine Agency at work in the world,  the character (and memory) of the witness or witnesses, and the existence of collateral evidence could serve to act as persuasive arguments in favour of any claim to the miraculous or the visionary. However, they may be a necessary basis but they are an insufficient one. Which brings us back to Newman's suggestion that our prior attitude to the Church plays a decisive role in the decision we come to about a claim. It is certain that if we look across the history of the world we will see a number of cases where witnesses are unimpeachable and collateral evidence of some kind exists but yet the visionaries or miracle workers say things which are mutually incompatible. For example Baha’u’llah a contemporary of Bernadette's and the founder of the Baha'i faith was clearly an honourable and noble man who reported seeing visions and of whom it was reported that he performed miracles. Yet, despite Baha'i claims to the contrary, his religion is radically incompatible with the Catholic faith. We need therefore a standard by which to judge such things. The Scriptures say believe not every spirit, but try the spirits if they be of God (1 John 4:1) And the highest possible standard by which to judge anything is Jesus, His person and His revelation. Any purported vision or miracle which is compatible with that standard may be worthy of belief (though the Church compels no one to accept any post-Apostolic revelation) and any which is not so compatible cannot be accepted. This implies no dishonesty on the part of visionaries nor even necessarily denies the presence of Divine agency, it merely supposes that at the least they have misunderstood the significance of what they have seen and heard. And the only sure custodian of that revelation is that body to which it was made, the Apostles and their successors, that is to say the Bishops of the Catholic Church united around the See of St Peter the Prince of Apostles and his successor the Bishop of Rome.

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  1. Geek comment first: if blogger lets you get into the html, then by removing the code immediately around a word, it should revert to the same text as the rest of the page. And if you insert bold using code like this: and then an 'i' formatted the same way to get italics, you get: Bernadette of Lourdes, her life death and visions - bold italics.

  2. I think there are fascinating implications about the nature of consciousness here - it made me think both about Miss Quested in the Maribar Caves in Passage to India and about the unusual psychological states that many people occasionally have, who otherwise have their brains well under rational control - I can think of a Quaker I know who describes having "a mystical experience which I interpreted in the Jesus tradition at the time, because this is the society I grew up in".

    I was also thinking about the shooting of that Brazilian guy on the tube a few years ago - all the people in the train carriage, who were clearly random Londoners and not stooges of the police - gave witness statements that suggested he was acting in a way that warranted him being shot. It was only after the CCTV footage was released of a clearly terrified and unthreatening man, that it became obvious that they had all been bad witnesses - the shock, and the need to rationalise what was going on around them left them with a completely false narration of what was going on, that they had clearly believed themselves.

    This is not particularly to diss St Bernadette - in some ways I'm perfectly content to leave her in a sort of Schrodingers Box or Maribar Cave, admit that she obviously had a powerful experience of some kind and was plainly an honest person - to also accept that she was not generally speaking a person who was mad - but still to doubt that how her mind interpreted it was necessarily a real Christian manifestation. What you never get, of course, is someone who has been raised in one religious monoculture having a religious experience that relates to a different one entirely. (So no recorded visions of the Virgin in, say, 12th century China). The interpretative framework of the recipient always lies over the top.

    That said, I'm entirely in sympathy with people who have magic dreams of healing springs - here's a modern example: I think there's something very profound about water, and I find it completely likely that some has healing properties. From that point of view, she may well have been tuned into something. Still my inner unmystical Richard Dawkins also forces me to ask how many people go to Lourdes every year, and how their spontaneous remission rates compare with people who don't go to Lourdes. Obviously it might be hard to pin down reliable comparators.

    1. I'm not sure that your correct that people raised in one mono-culture don't get visions from another one. When Christianity was a missionary faith visions were sometimes a prelude to conversion. St Paul is the classic example but Acts 10 records the case of Cornelius who appears to have been Italian. Similar examples occurred across the mission field Constantine might or might not have seen a vision but others, like Olaf Haraldsson appears to have done so. New converts also had visions St Juan Diego in Mexico saw our Lady of Guadalupe which is arguably a hybrid since she appeared to have the features of a local Indian woman as well as being the mother of Jesus. And for what its worth Evangelicals are currently claiming a wave of conversions among Muslims following dreams
      I think that does not invalidate the point that the mind is involved in reconstructing what it sees into a pattern that it can recognise. All the cases I have mentioned either encountered Christianity or some representation of Jesus prior to their experience. But it does suggest that it does not require to have been a deep rooted and prolonged encounter. It is not the sort of material that you would necessarily expect the mind to reach for if it had already a source for explanation and description rooted in its childhood experiences and cultural milieu.
      Also by focussing on the interpreter and the mode of interpretation you take your eye of the thing being interpreted. Certainly Bahaullah being a Persian noble understood his experiences in a way that a Pyrenean shepherdess would not but that they both had experiences seems likely and that these took their origin from Divine agency is plausible.
      On Lourdes. The stuff about healing and springs is very ancient and widespread. What is interesting about Lourdes is that very quickly the Eucharistic Procession which happens every day during the season became even more associated with miracles than the spring. Also you make the same error about pilgrims that many commentators do. The overwhelming majority of visitors to the shrine do not seek healing so to compare the raw figure of pilgrims with the number of cures is wholly misleading. R. H. Benson, science fiction author and son of an "Archbishop" of Canterbury wrote a little booklet about his visit to Lourdes on the 50th anniversary of the apparitions. You might like the free ebook version of it on your next ennui day