A Sceptic & Future Nobel Prize Winner’s Eye
Witness Account of a Healing at Lourdes in 1902
[For Alexis Carrel’s—Dr. Lerrac’s name is Carrel spelled backwards—full 57 page account, The Voyage to Lourdes, published posthumously in 1950, along with some background information, click HERE.]
The church clock struck two. Groups of little carts drawn by the stretcher-bearers were approaching, followed by more and more pilgrims.
A distinguished-looking woman with a thick, black veil over her face sat down beside Lerrac on the bench. Deep red blotches showed through the crÍpe; he could imagine a noseless, corpselike face behind the veil, flaming with sores, the sinister butterflies of a skin tuberculosis. The came a young man in mourning, wearing light gray gloves, and pushing a little cart in which sat a blank-faced creature with a huge protruding goiter. Just beyond was a young woman whose right side was paralyzed, and next to her, the full-grown idiot whom Lerrac had noticed on the train. She moaned and wobbled her head continually while her unnaturally big tongue hung slobbering from her mouth. More carts kept coming.
Formerly, Lerrac had been moved by the sights and sounds of suffering, but now, as he looked at all these tragic people and saw the steadfast faith in their faces, he experienced a strange, new emotion.
He himself was young and vigourous; they too were young, but without hope of freedom, cut off from normal life, forever shut in, forever barred from the tremors and joys of love. Here was poor Marie Ferrand, having eked out most her life in the tuberculosis wards of hospitals, and now about to die without ever having lived.
Yet like so many of the other afflicted, Marie Ferrand was not really as unhappy as she seemed. This was because she put her whole soul and all her hope in Christ.
The death of a believer, Lerrac told himself, was a peaceful death, since it meant entering the radiant presence of the Virgin and of Christ. How strangely enchanting it must have been to see Jesus, rising, with His calm gestures, in the springtime verdure of the Judean mountains, to pronounce those words of the Sermon on the Mount! To every sufferer He offered the solace of eternity. Ah, how much wiser to believe in it! And how infinitely tender was the image of the Virgin Herself, offering all men protection and Her compassion for their woes!
A longing now swept over Lerrac to believe, with these unhappy people among whom he found himself, that the Virgin Mary was not merely an exquisite creation of the human brain. Lerrac was praying, now, praying for Marie Ferrand who had suffered so unendurably; he was asking the Virgin Mary to restore her to life, and himself to faith.
Lerrac’s exaltation did not last. He forced himself back into the safe paths of methodical scientific investigations and determined to be completely objective. He knew that Marie Ferrand was incurable, that recovery from advanced tubercular peritonitis was impossible. However, Lerrac kept his detachment and was prepared to accept the evidence of any phenomenon he might observe himself.
The sick were still crowding into the enclosure. On the other side Lerrac could see the men patients. The young man with the Christlike head lay on his stretcher, his eyes, in his hollow yellow face, shining with joy and hope. The hunchback with Pott’s disease, doubled up in his little cart, was intensely absorbed in saying his rosary. J.D., the boy with cancer of the jaw, his face uplifted, prayed aloud through his terribly distorted mouth.
By now all the cases from the hospital ward had arrived and were lying on the ground. All of them showed a great serenity. S.M., self-constituted master of ceremonies, came bustling up, his face still streaming with sweat under the black velvet beret, and ordered his band of volunteers to even up the line of stretchers. Then a young priest took his place, standing before the stretchers. The time had come for the solemn litany. Beyond the benches a rippling mass of white faces, hatless heads, reached to the edge of the stream. Lerrac saw Marie Ferrand carried past. He hurried over to her. Her condition was unchanged; there was still the same ghastly pallor, the shrunken form under the blanket still had the same distended abdomen, but apparently no more pronounced.
“We could only pour some of the water on her abdomen,” said Mademoiselle d’O. “They did not dare to immerse her. Now we are taking her to the Massabielle Grotto.”
“I’ll join you in a moment,” said Lerrac. “I see no change. If you need me, send for me.”
Lerrac turned back to the enclosure. The priest was kneeling down, facing the line of patients and the crowds beyond. He lifted his arms and held them out like a cross. He was young; his fleshy white face, dripping with sweat, was covered with red blotches. Only the childlike expression in his eyes and the evident intensity of his faith saved him from absurdity. His voice was so raucous, sincere, and impassioned that it seemed as if the Virgin could not fail to hear him.
“Holy Virgin, heal our sick,” he cried out, his child’s mouth twisted with emotion.
“Holy Virgin, heal our sick,” the crowd responded with a cry like the rolling of waves.
“Holy Virgin,” intoned the priest, “hear our prayers!”
“Jesus, we love Thee!”
“Jesus, we love Thee!”
The voice of the crowd thundered on. Here and there, people held out their arms. The sick half-raised themselves on their stretchers. The atmosphere was tense with expectancy.
Then the priest stood up.
“My brothers, let us lift our arms in prayer!” he called.
A forest of arms was raised. A wind seemed to blow through the crowd; intangible, silent, powerful, irresistible, it swept over the people, lashing them, like a mountain storm. Lerrac felt its impact. It was impossible to describe, but it caught his throat and sent a tremor along his spine. Suddenly, he wanted to cry.
If a strong, healthy man could be carried away, what must be the effect on sick and suffering people in all their weakness? Anxiously, Lerrac studied the faces of the patients, especially the faces of the neurasthenics. He expected to see these nervous cases rise from their stretchers and joyously announce their recovery. But no one stirred.
He walked past the lines of little carts and through the crowd toward the Grotto. Pausing for a moment at the edge of the stream, he observed the crowd. A young intern from Bordeaux, Mr. M., whom Lerrac had met the day before, greeted him.
“Have you had any cures?” Lerrac asked.
“No,” replied M. “A few of the hysteria cases have recovered, but there has been nothing unexpected, nothing that one can’t see any day in a hospital.”
“Come and look at my patient,” said Lerrac. “Her case is not unusual, but I think she is dying. She is at the Grotto.”
“I saw her a few minutes ago,” said M. “What a pity they let her come to Lourdes. She should have been operated on. Bringing her to the Grotto does not seem to have helped her.”
It was now about half-past two. Beneath the rock of Massabielle, the Grotto glittered in the light of its thousand candles. The entrance and the walls were hung with rosaries and crutches. Beyond the high iron grille was a statue of the Virgin, standing in the hollowed rock where Bernadette once saw the glowing vision of the lady in white, the Immaculate Conception.
Before the statue of the Virgin, a large square space was fenced off; it was reserved as the place of honour for the sick. Volunteers of Our Lady of Salvation were on duty to prevent crowding and confusion among the little carts and stretchers.
In front of the iron grille and almost touching it, a stretcher was already lying. Beside it, Lerrac recognized Mademoiselle d’O.’s slender figure. He and M. made their way toward the Grotto where they could have a close view of the sick and the pilgrims. They stopped near Marie Ferrand’s stretcher and leaned against the low wall. She was motionless, her breathing still rapid and shallow; she seemed to be at the point of death. More pilgrims were approaching the Grotto. The lady with the black veil moved up to the front row, near Marie Ferrand’s stretcher. She raised her veil and now Lerrac could see her hideously mutilated face. Gracefully, Mademoiselle d’O. knelt down; Lerrac observed her finely cut profile, the delicate shadow cast by her long lashes. She was lost in prayer; no doubt she was praying for a miracle.
Volunteers and stretcher-bearers came crowding in. The little carts were being wheeled from the pools to the Grotto. The idiot with the slobbering mouth and the poor creature with the huge goiter were drawn up beside Marie Ferrand. S.M., his chest puffed out with pride in his decorations, moved feverishly here and there among the patients, full of activity and self-importance.
Lerrac glanced again at Marie Ferrand. Suddenly he stared. It seemed to him that there had been a change, that the harsh shadows on her face had disappeared, that her skin was somehow less ashen.
Surely, he thought, this was a hallucination. But the hallucination itself was interesting psychologically, and might be worth recording. Hastily he jotted down the time in his notebook. It was twenty minutes before three o’clock.
But if the change in Marie Ferrand was a hallucination, it was the first one Lerrac had ever had. He turned to M.
“Look at our patient again,” he said. “Does it seem to you that she has rallied a little?”
“She looks much the same to me,” answered M. “All I can see is that she is no worse.”
Leaning over the stretcher, Lerrac took her pulse again and listened to her breathing.
“The respiration is less rapid,” he told M., after a moment.
“That may mean that she is about to die,” said M.
Lerrac made no reply. To him it was obvious that there was a sudden improvement of her general condition. Something was taking place. He stiffened to resist a tremor of emotion. Standing against the low wall near the stretcher, he concentrated all his powers of observation on Marie Ferrand. He did not lift his eyes from her face. A priest was preaching to the assembled throngs of pilgrims and patients; hymns and prayers burst out sporadically; and in this atmosphere of fervour, under Lerrac’s cool, objective gaze, the face of Marie Ferrand slowly continued to change. Her eyes, so dim before, were now wide with ecstasy as she turned them toward the Grotto. The change was undeniable. Mademoiselle d’O. leaned over and held her.
Suddenly Lerrac felt himself turning pale. The blanket which covered Marie Ferrand’s distended abdomen was gradually flattening out.
“Look at her abdomen!” he exclaimed to M.
“Why yes,” he said, “it seems to have gone down. It’s probably the folds in the blanket that give that impression.”
The bell of the basilica had just struck three. A few minutes later, there was no longer any sign of distension in Marie Ferrand’s abdomen.
Lerrac felt as though he were going mad.
Standing beside Marie Ferrand, he watched the intake of her breath and the pulsing at her throat with fascination. The heartbeat, though still very rapid, had become regular.
This time, for sure, something was taking place.
“How do you feel?” he asked her.
“I feel very well,” she answered in a low voice. “I am still weak, but I feel I am cured.”
There was no longer any doubt: Marie Ferrand’s condition was improving so much that she was scarcely recognizable.
Standing beside the stretcher, profoundly troubled, unable to analyze what he beheld, Lerrac looked at M. and Mademoiselle d’O. to see if they too were aware of this extraordinary change. Mademoiselle d’O. was watching it as calmly as a doctor watching the setting of a broken bone. She had seen such things before.
Lerrac stood there in silence, his mind a blank. This event, exactly the opposite of what he had expected, must surely be nothing but a dream.
Mademoiselle d’O. offered Marie Ferrand a cup of milk. She drank it all. In a few minutes she raised her head, looked around, moved her limbs a little, then turned over on her side, without having shown the least sign of pain.
Abruptly Lerrac moved off. Making his way through the crowd of pilgrims whose loud prayers he hardly heard, he left the Grotto. It was now four o’clock.
A dying girl was recovering.
It was the resurrection of the dead; it was a miracle!
He had not yet examined her; he could not yet know the real condition of her lesions. But he had seen with his own eyes a functional improvement which was in itself a miracle. How simple, how private, it had been! The crowd at the Grotto was not even aware that it had happened.
Lerrac returned to the place du Rosaire.
The Bureau of Medical records was under the arch of the great stairway, next to the quarters of the Volunteers of Our Lady of Salvation. When Lerrac reached it, he found Dr. Boissarie standing in the doorway. At once he told Boissarie what had happened. Boissarie showed no trace of surprise.
The chief of the Lourdes clinic was an elderly little man, thick-set, with a large, smooth face. His dark beetling brows overhung a pair of rather heavy-lidded, lusterless eyes which were capable, at times, of expressing sudden fire. Lerrac had read Boissarie’s books; though he did not find the doctor exacting enough in his scientific standards, he had the utmost respect for his character and intelligence. Moreover, when Lerrac arrived in Lourdes, Boissarie had received him cordially and answered all his questions with indefatigable good nature. By conviction rather than out of any personal ambition, Boissarie had constituted himself the defender of Lourdes; an experienced doctor, he had published his books about the great Lourdes cures in all good faith. He deserved the admiration due to sincerity of purpose and willing sacrifice.
While Lerrac told him about Marie Ferrand, he stood absolutely still. Lerrac made no claim that the patient’s lesions had been cured; all he reported was the startling functional improvement. But when he had finished, Boissarie said simply:
“Your patient is cured, or at least her cure seems more than probable. Please bring her over to my clinic tomorrow.”
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