Father Regis de La TEYSONNIERE
For Bernadette, the discovery of water comes after her experience with the mud and the muddy water. It is because she can wash herself while she is dirty and drink while whe is thirsty that the water takes on its full meaning. And it is because she is invited to do the same with her heart that, for Bernadette, the water becomes a sign. We therefore have to look back at what Bernadette experienced in order to understand the meaning of the sign of “Lourdes water”.
The first seven apparitions (on February 11, 14, 18, 19, 20, 21 and 23 1858) were a happy time for Bernadette. They were joyful encounters, face to face and heart to heart. However on February 28th, the day of the eighth apparition, everything changed. For the first time, Bernadette experienced suffering during the apparition. Lucille Casterot, the youngest sister of Bernadette’s mother, was so disturbed when she saw the pain on Bernadette’s face that she cried out and fainted right there in the Grotto. Her fainting provoked such a scene that the eighth apparition ended prematurely. The next day, on February 25th, the ninth out of the eighteen apparitions took place. Once again, Bernadette showed pain in her face. And most of all, she performed some unusual tasks.
At one point Bernadette was at the back of the Grotto, on her hands and knees, digging in the dirt. She quickly reached mud and put it on her face right away. She kept on digging in the same spot until she reached some muddy water and she drank a few drops after spitting it out three times. Then she kept on digging on her knees at the same spot and came to some fresh water. Right away Bernadette used this clean water to wash her mud-covered face. She then drank some of the water to take away the taste of the muddy water she had swallowed earlier.
“Penance, penance, penance!”
Bernadette repeated these same painful gestures during three consecutive apparitions: the ninth, the tenth and the eleventh. During these apparitions, Bernadette heard “the lady” repeat several times the same words: “Go and drink from the spring and wash yourself there”; “Penance, penance, penance, pray for sinners”; “Would you eat grass for sinners?” This last request made what Bernadette was doing understandable. Through the mud, the muddy water and the clear water, Bernadette was intensely experiencing the Easter mystery. When the Jews celebrate Passover, they are reminded of the bitterness of enslavement in Egypt by chewing bitter herbs.
It isn’t until after remembering their slavery that they celebrate their liberation: the Lord enabled them to go from slavery to freedom, from a deadly situation to a celebration of life. From the mud, the muddy water and the pure water, Bernadette represents the passion, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The words “Penance, penance, penance, pray for sinners” indicate that the actual gestures that Bernadette accomplishes concern the heart. “Penance” actually means “conversion”, in other words, an “about-face”.
It isn’t towards Egypt that one must face, but towards the Promised Land. It isn’t towards sin that we must turn, but towards grace. It isn’t towards darkness that we must go, but towards the light.
Desiring the true life
The Lord’s Easter is all we need to make this passage possible. We just have to see ourselves as being dirty, meaning sinful, and to realize that we thirst for life. And so, like Bernadette, what is central to the “Lourdes Message” becomes an Easter experience: “Go drink at the spring and wash yourself there”.
The never-ending spring cleanses, quenches our thirst and purifies… it is Christ himself. Every person who comes to Lourdes is invited to hear the words that Bernadette heard first, and to put them into practice. It is an awareness of sin that shows the way to grace. The desire for the true life shows the way to Christ who is Life. For many people, water is at the heart of this experience.