Song of Bernadette

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Category: Classic
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Date Published: 1941
Number of Pages: 600
Print Price: $13.57
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I knew three things as I read the first page of The Song of Bernadette: Franz Werfel was an extremely gifted writer, I did not know everything I thought I knew about St. Bernadette, and I absolutely had to continue reading.

Werfel, a Jewish writer, captures in his prose a vital combination of simplicity and beauty. His style of writing is evocative, demanding of the reader both full attention and admiration. In the first paragraph he describes a typical early morning in the Soubirous home, “Francois Soubirous gets up in the dark. It is just six. (…) Soubirous knows that it is six even though the chimes of the parish church of Saint Pierre have not yet rung for early Mass. The poor have the time in their bones.”

This is the life of Bernadette – the life of the poor.  This child of 14, whose story Werfel is ultimately telling, was brought up in desperately meager circumstances in a small, seemingly insignificant town, Lourdes, in France. She is the eldest of four siblings who live with their father and mother in an old, damp, abandoned prison.

The family has fallen on hard times and Francois must go out each day in search of work.  Louise, his wife, helps by cleaning the home of a family in town, all the while trying to feed her family on what is only sporadically available.  Bernadette is a sickly child and is considered to be behind others her age at school.  She has not received First Communion like the others which is apparently quite a scandal at her age.  Her teacher asks her, “So you really know nothing of the Holy Trinity, dear child? (…) I’m puzzled, my child. Are you pert or indifferent or only stupid?...”

There are quite a few occasions such as this in the book – occasions where Bernadette is berated or called ‘stupid.’ I found this very troubling at first, but I later realized that it was part of the way in which Werfel planned to illustrate to his reader how life really was during this time. Children in the 1850’s were treated much differently than they are today, and this writer has included this as a means of transporting us into Bernadette’s world. He is very effective in this regard; it is truly part of the charm of the work.

The story progresses at an appropriate rate as Werfel describes the little town of Lourdes and its inhabitants. It is not long before we reach the ‘meat’ of the story, the apparitions of the Blessed Mother that were witnessed by Bernadette. It is in the telling of these accounts that Werfel excels.

The meetings of the Lady and Bernadette are each shown to be an instance of grace.  There are few words spoken.

“’When I speak with the lady, I speak here.’  At the word ‘here’ she laid a finger on her heart.”

Bernadette and her visitor pray together, laugh on occasion, and seem content to be in one another’s company.  Werfel’s descriptions of Bernadette’s ecstatic experiences are beautifully written. One can almost see the expression of love on the child’s face as she looks upon the Mother of God.

The writer’s accounts of the townspeople’s reaction to the visits of the Lady are also notable. While many ordinary people from the surrounding area immediately believed in the miracle of the Lady’s appearance, those who disbelieved Bernadette were also numerous. Werfel tells us that the local bishop, doctors, and even Bernadette’s parents were among her critics. To her credit, however, this innocent child simply kept retelling what she knew as the truth without anger or malice toward anyone.

Werfel also describes the characters’ encounters with temptation.  Francois and Louise are almost persuaded to use Bernadette’s visions for monetary gain.  A rich woman in the community is tempted to believe that the Lady is her departed niece. The mayor hopes that the natural spring brought forth by the Lady will lead to increased revenue for his town. Ultimately, however, grace will win out over the natural human faults of these people.

This sense of grace, I believe, is the real strength of this novel.  It shows grace at work in a fallen world, in particular in the very home of the Soubirous family. Grace came to a small, sickly child in a tiny, insignificant part of the world. The grace did not alleviate all pain; it did not eliminate doubt; it did not bring with her the comforts of this world.  The grace did, however, show the world that even small, seemingly unimportant moments in time can be touched by God.

Bernadette went on to live a quiet and too-short life.  Her story, thanks to Franz Werfel, lives on for eternity.  His simple and eloquent style of writing about one of the few times Heaven has visibly descended to earth is a classic that should not ever be seen as anything other than the dramatic and always timely portrayal of The Song of Bernadette.

Publisher:
ISBN-13: 978-1586171711
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 8 x 5.2 x 1.6 inches


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Michelle Sheehan Tholen is a graduate of Catholic Distance University (CDU). She holds a Master's Degree in Theology with a concentration in Catholic Culture from that institution and a BA in English from the University of Maryland University College. She is the mother of two, lives in Bayou Vista, Louisiana with her husband, Paul and teaches English at Hanson Memorial High School. Mrs. Tholen is a writer for the CDU Year of Faith blog at www.cdu.edu/blog.


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