Stéphanie Saadé

A new horizon is defined, which is not a line situated afar, but rather the line of the ground we walk on. To see it, one has to imagine, under his feet, the mirrored world where roots are hidden. During a walk, the lower part of the foot, indecisive, embraces and quits with every step this separating line. The foot lifts, stepping over flowers, which grow at its level. To pick them, one needs to bend down. Picking a flower breaks the thin vertical line of the stem, which linked both sides of the horizon. What happens when the flower and its root are separated?

“The Virgin used me as a broom to remove the dust. When the work is done, the broom is put behind the door again.” Bernadette Soubirous


*Text chronology based mostly on Henry King’s film The Song of Bernadette, 1943.

“This is the story of Bernadette Soubirous who lived in Lourdes, a village of southern France, close to the Spanish border.” And so the movie starts. The story I would like to tell is a story of opposites and extremes in which star feet and roses.

“On February 11, 1958”, in the first scene of the film, we see a window closed by metallic bars. It is the window of the “Cachot”, the “Dungeon”, where the Soubirous live. The poorest family in town, they inhabit the worse habitation in town: a stinking insalubrious room, formerly a cell[1]. Once a miller, François, Bernadette’s father, lost his wife’s mill, as well as his left eye, when he was once chipping the millstone. While Louise, Bernadette’s mother, washes other’s clothes and scrubs other’s floors, François has become a day labourer.

“Stinking filth from the hospital had to be carted away and burned.”

In the next scene, we see François getting up early on the same cold morning of February. He is rue des Petites Fossées (the Small Ditches street), on his way to look for work in a bakery; the place contains what he will buy with the money that he will earn: bread. In front of the steaming hot loafs, he is told that there is no job for him here today, but that he should go looking at the hospital. Francois moves from the place containing health to the place containing sickness. In the hospital, he is given the task to take away the contaminated trash and “burn every bit of it”. Composed of blood, urine and excrements, “full of infection and disease”, this trash is the filthiest trash. François manipulates it with his bear hands; as he loads it on his cart, the trash touches his stomach. When he unloads his cart in Massabielle, the trash pours again on his body. This time it touches his right foot.

“The one that eats fastest gets the most”

The following scene shows us a catechism class for children. Bernadette, a “grown girl”, the “oldest in the class” and the tallest[2]is, according to her own words, “stupid”: when asked “What is the Holy Trinity?” she fails to answer. After apologizing about having a “poor head for study”, she is sent to the “foot of the class”. At one point during the lesson, Father Peyramale enters the class and starts the distribution of holy pictures. While doing so, he tells the girls that, as they “grow older”, they will be given a “foundation” by learning their catechism. Bernadette is given a picture as the others, but it is quickly taken back from her: she has no studied and is “not deserving”. The children are preparing for First Communion: the first time that they will ingest a holy food. In Bernadette’s home, food is constantly lacking. Bread, often eaten with nothing aside, is rationed, and has to last several days. Due to her poor physical condition, Bernadette receives a treatment of honour: her parents buy her white bread while her siblings only receive black[3].

“I’ve seen pigs with better manners and cleaner faces.”

On the same morning of February, Marie, Bernadette’s younger sister and her friend Jeanne are sent to collect firewood: dead wood, bones, scrap metal and detritus[4]. Despite her asthma, Bernadette is allowed to accompany them. The three girls head to the Field of Paradise, situated around the cemetery[5], but find nothing there. Reaching the Old Bridge, they meet Tata Pigouno, who directs them towards Massabielle[6]. Massabielle is known as the “pig’s den”: it’s where pigs were led to graze. In Lourdes, a person “raised in Massabielle” is a rude person[7].

“Look, my toes are not even white.”

Before they reach Massabielle, the girls have to cross a bridge. Suspended over water, the bridge is private but the miller who owns it allows the girls to cross it. He helps Bernadette, the latest, to cross it. The girls now have to cross a river. This time there is no bridge. Marie and Jeanne remove their stockings, then their shoes, they lift their skirts, and cross the water. On the other side, they rub each other’s feet to get warm; they tell Bernadette to wait for them and disappear; she decides to disobey. As she removes her left shoe and lowers her left stocking, the wind blows. One foot bare, Bernadette turns around, looks up and down, but the trees are still. She removes her right shoe and lowers her right stocking; once her right foot is bare the wind blows again, shaking a wild rosebush. Deprived of roses and rosehips – it is winter –, the rosebush is growing on the right of the grotto, under a small high cavity. Bernadette walks around it, barefoot, in search of an explanation; the bottom of her feet gets muddy. Finally, a luminous lady appears, over the brambles of the rosebush. Both her hands are crossed over her heart; Bernadette and her nod to greet each other. Bernadette gets down on her knees.

“What would a beautiful lady be doing in a filthy place like that?”

Marie and Jeanne come back carrying bundles of wood. They find Bernadette still, looking up; her back is turned to the pile of smoking trash her father dumper just earlier; Marie and Jeanne call Bernadette but only after a while does she hear their shouts and get up. She has to cross the river again to join them; this time, she lifts her skirt and enters the water, finding it “warm as dishwater”. The two girls urge Bernadette to tell them what she saw in the grotto.

“ – Well… I saw a lady… and she was all in white…

– A lady?

– And she wore a blue girdle… and had a golden rose on each foot.”

Bernadette is given the smallest bundle to carry back home, but chooses a bigger one instead. Lifting it above her head, she starts running. This time she is ahead, and reaches home before the two girls, running back out straight away to fetch water. Only after a while, Marie, tired and out of breath, arrives home. Bernadette is still out. Marie ignores her promise to Bernadette not to tell Maman anything of what happened: “Bernadette’s all excited because she says she saw a lady at Massabielle all dressed in white with golden roses on her feet”… “She had a rosary of pearls and a golden crucifix”. Back with the water, Bernadette surprises her sister telling on her. Questioned by her mother, kneeling to make a fire, she confirms her sister’s story. Getting up, the mother reports the story to the father, who is lying down in bed. He gets angry.

“Golden roses on her feet! Indeed!”

On the next day, we see Marie running and arriving home short of breath again. She explains to her mother that Bernadette is “dead or something”, “all white and sick-looking”. They leave right away to find Bernadette at a neighbour’s place. She has been rescued and is being offered “some warm milk”, which she refuses. Bernadette, who has been back to the grotto, has had her second apparition. Speaking to her in a formal language, the Lady has asked her to “render her the grace of coming here each day for fifteen days”. She has also added that she could “not promise to make her happy in this world, only in the next”. Bernadette’s mother formally forbids her daughter to go back to the grotto. The next day, Bernadette’s parents seek aunt Bernarde’s advice. “Christ was born in a stable”, replies the aunt, convincing them to allow Bernadette to go back to the grotto and honour her promise to the Lady. This time, Bernadette goes back to Massabielle accompanied by the woman of her family, as well as other women of the village. She is running ahead of them. As soon as she reaches the grotto, the lady appears to her, again. She is “standing there in the niche”. Bernadette kneels down. She is the only one to see the Lady, but the other women kneel down too. Behind them is the smoking pile of trash. Standing next to it, a police officer shouts to the women to clear out.

“Bring me back a dozen roses, will you please?”

It’s raining outside. At the Soubirous’, drops of water are falling from the bad ceiling. Bernadette is lying in bed, sick because she’s again been forbidden to return to Massabielle. Fearing for his child’s health, her father allows her to return there. The next day, after an early visit to the grotto, Bernadette heads to Father Peyramale’s house; she has a message to convey to him: the Lady asked for a chapel to be built for her in Massabielle. The Lady also added: “Let processions come hither.” The language of the message surprises the priest; In search of a proof, he asks Bernadette:

“ I want you to tell the Lady this: “The Dean of Lourdes would like her to perform a little miracle. He would like her to make the wild rosebush bloom now, this last week in February.”

On Thursday, the crowd is back to Massabielle, awaiting the miracle. The crowd is kneeling down. Bernadette stands up as the lady appears to her. She gets closer to the brambles of the rosebush. After looking up to her, she approaches her face to the Lady’s right foot and kisses it. Her face is close to the golden rose and her right hand is on the rock. As she walks back, the lady’s voice gives her an important order: “Go to the spring, drink of the water and wash there.” Bernadette looks behind her and sees the river. She runs towards it but the voice rectifies:

“ – No, not the river.

– Not the river?

– The spring yonder. Eat of the plants.”

Falling on her knees, Bernadette pulls out a bunch of plants from the ground and starts eating them. The lady repeats: “Drink of the spring, and wash there.” Bernadette starts digging a hole in the ground with her bare hands; under the dry soil, a damper one appears. She rubs her hands then her face with the mud.

Bernadette’s mother and aunt grab take her away to save her from embarrassment. The crowd follows. Only Antoine, the miller who had allowed Bernadette to cross his bridge, stays, with Bourriette, a stone carver who has lost an eye while working. Antoine is sitting on the ground, leaning on his right arm. Suddenly, we see water flowing and reaching his hand. It is coming from the hole Bernadette dig. Antoine dips both his hand into the now clearer water. Bourriette, kneeling down, brings the water to his face. He washes his face with his hands, keeping them on his eyes for a long moment. He can now see.

“Do you know the meaning of the word “immaculate”?”

“Yes, I know that. An immaculate thing is clean.” Bernadette answers, sitting on a chair; she is being interrogated by Father Peyramale. The lady has revealed her name to her: “I am the Immaculate Conception”.

More miracles start taking place; On Father Peyramale’s request, the episcopal commission to starts an investigation.

“ – And then I ran to the other side and ate of the grass and the herbs, as the Lady had asked me to.

– I can’t understand the Lady demanding anything so repulsive of you. It doesn’t fit into the description that you gave of her that she bade you act like an animal.

– Do you act like an animal when you eat salad?

– Go on

– Then I looked for the spring. Since I couldn’t see it, I supposed the Lady meant that it was below the ground. So I began to scratch and dig with my fingers.”

“When I looked for the spring, since I could not see it I supposed the Lady meant that it was below the ground. So I began to scratch and dig with my fingers.”

“Then I looked for the spring. Since I could not see it I supposed the Lady meant that it was below the ground. So I began to scratch and dig with my fingers.”

Bernadette is interrogated over and over. She sticks to her story.

“The spring is not for me.”

The results of the investigation are positive. On Father Peyramale’s advice, Bernadette accepts to join the order of the Sisters of Charity in Nevers. As she worries for her family, he reassures her: “I’ve arranged for your father to be established in the mill on the upper Lapaca.” In Nevers, Bernadette, now Marie Bernarde, is attributed a “cell”, and given the task of working in the kitchen: “wash dishes, scrub floors, sweep corridors. In brief do all the lowly tasks that need to be done.” Several times, she will be asked if this work is repellent to her and will answer no. In a next scene, we see Bernadette scrubbing the floor with her hands. She seems in pain as she stops working and takes her hand to her hip. Later on, while praying in circle with the other Sisters in the courtyard, she is seen limping. Before Bernadette has finished praying, the Mother Superior takes her apart; she wants to speak with her in her cell. Bernadette is asked to sit down. The Mother Superior believes that she is limping to attract sympathy; she confides to Bernadette her doubts concerning the veracity of her visions, begging Bernadette to give her “some proof”. After a moment, Bernadette, bending down, grabs the bottom of her skirt and lifts it up, uncovering her sick leg.

Bernadette spent the rest of her life with the Sisters of Charity in Nevers. After her death, she was buried on the convent grounds. Her body was exhumed thirty years later on September 22, 1909. When the lead coffin contained inside the wooden coffin was opened, no malodour was let out; "The head was tilted to the left. The face was dull white.”[8]The hands, which were crossed on her breast, were perfectly preserved, as were the nails. The hands still held a rusting rosary.”[9]"Like the hands, the feet were wizened and the toenails were still intact.”[10]“The lower parts of the body had turned slightly black.”[11] The body was washed and placed in a new coffin “ lined with zinc and padded with white silk.”[12]A second exhumation took place on April 3, 1919. The body was found in the same state of preservation as ten years earlier, except that the face was slightly discoloured, due to the washing it had undergone during the first exhumation. A worker in wax was entrusted with the task of coating the face of the Saint who had been dead forty years. Bernadette's body was placed in a coffin of gold and crystal and can be viewed to this very day at the Saint Gildard Convent in Nevers.

“I came to Nevers to hide.” Bernadette Soubirous

[1] Francois will spend two weeks in jail, after being accused of stealing a beam of wood, Anne Bernet, Bernadette Soubirous, La Guerrière Désarmée, Perrin, 1994
[2] She was paradoxically shorter than other girls her age, Ibid.
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Drs. Ch. David and A. Jourdan, Nevers, September 22, 1909.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.