“If there is magic on the planet,” writes Loren Eisley in The Immense Journey (1957), “it is contained in the water. Its least stir even, as now in a rain pond on a flat roof opposite my office, is enough to bring me searching to the window. A wind ripple may be translating itself into life…”
From this vantage point, almost as if anticipating Eisley’s panegyric on water and raising it to another level years ahead of time, we have Antoine de Saint-Exupery in Wind, Sand, and Stars (1939) writing: “Water has no taste, no color, no odor; it cannot be defined, is relished while ever mysterious. Not necessary to life, but rather life itself, it fills us with a gratification that exceeds the delight of the senses.”
Although we recognize the truth of these words, the two passages nonetheless represent two exceptional states of awareness, it seems to me, in two exceptionally insightful minds. For most of us, pretty nearly all the time, it is really as Thomas Fuller declares it is in his Gnomologia: “We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.” To confirm inwardly the truth of this, we need only to call to mind that unforgettable experience of awakening Helen Keller describes in the fourth chapter of her book The Story of My Life:
We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.
I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me.
We need only, as I have suggested, to bring to our attention this experience of the blind and deaf, not quite seven year-old Helen Keller in order really to feel the full weight of Fuller’s words. Were we wanting in our spiritual thirst to throw a bucket down our inner well, wanting to hear the splash, wanting to hear the echo, wanting to wind up the bucket and see it dripping and spilling over the brim, what then? What if the well is dry?
“That living word awakened my soul,” says Keller, because now . . . “everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought.”
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’ (John 5:7-15)
Give us this water, this living water as of something forgotten, a living word to wake up the soul and give it light, a word that is truly the water of life: water of life because this water has memory; water of life because this water is memory.
Near the village of Lourdes on Thursday February 11, 1858 – exactly 153 years ago today – the fourteen year-old Bernadette Soubirous, daughter of an erstwhile miller and now casual laborer, went with a sister and a friend to collect some firewood and bones in order to be able to buy some bread. Taking off her shoes and stockings to wade through the water near the Grotto of Massabielle, she “heard a noise, as if there was a rush of wind”, but the trees and bushes nearby did not move. Very soon she heard the same noise again. Here follows her own account, as given in the biography Bernadette by André Ravier (Collins, 1979, pp. 13-19):
I raised my head and looked towards the grotto. I saw a Lady dressed in white, wearing a white dress, a blue girdle and yellow rose on each foot, the same color as the chain of her rosary: the beads of her rosary were white.
The Lady signed to me to approach; but I was frightened; I dared not move; I thought I had made some mistake; I rubbed my eyes, but it was no use. I looked again and I still saw the same Lady.
Then I put my hand in my pocket and took out my rosary.
I wanted to make the sign of the cross, but I couldn’t; I couldn’t lift my hand to my forehead, it fell back again. Then I became more frightened then ever and yet couldn’t move.
The Lady took the rosary which she held in her hands and made a sign of the cross. My hand was trembling. Then I started not being frightened; I took my rosary again; I tried to make the sign of the cross too and this time I could; and as soon as I had made it, I was calm, the great fear which I had felt left me. I knelt down and said my rosary, always having this beautiful Lady before my eyes. The vision ran the beads of hers between her fingers but she did not move her lips.
When I had finished my rosary, the Lady beckoned me to approach her, but I didn’t dare; I stayed exactly where I was.
Then the vision suddenly disappeared.
There was a second appearance on Sunday, February 14, after High Mass:
The second time was the following Sunday. I went back there because I felt urged to in my inmost self. My mother had forbidden me to go there. After High Mass, the two other girls and myself asked my mother again. Again she said no.
She told me she was afraid I would fall into the water; she was afraid I wouldn’t be back for vespers. I promised her that I would be. So she allowed me to go.
I went into church to get a small bottle of holy water so as to throw it at the vision when I reached the grotto, if I saw it.
When we arrived there, each of us took out our rosary, and we knelt down to say it. Hardly had I said the first decade than I saw the same Lady. So then I started throwing the holy water at her, and telling her, if she came from God, to stay, and, if not, to go. Then she smiled and bowed her head, and the more I saw her making signs. Then suddenly I was very frightened and quickly threw all the water at her until my bottle was finished. Then I went on saying my rosary.
She disappeared, and we went away to go to vespers.
On Thursday, February 18, there was a third appearance – and an invitation to a meeting:
The third time was the following Thursday. The Lady did not speak to me until the third time. I went to the grotto with some grownups who advised me to take paper and ink and to ask her, if she had anything to say to me, to be so good as to write it down.
When we arrived at the grotto, I started as usual to say my rosary; hardly had I said a few Hail Maries than I had the same vision. I said to the Lady the words [I had been told to say]. She smiled and said that what she had to tell me need not to be written down, but she asked me if I would be gracious enough to go there every day for a fortnight.
I answered that I would.
From February 19 to March 4 there followed then the fortnight of appearances:
I went back to the grotto every day for a fortnight. The vision appeared every day, with the exception of one Monday and one Friday.
She told me several times that I should tell the priests that a chapel should be built there and that I should pray for the conversion of sinners. In the space of this fortnight she gave me three secrets which she forbade me to tell anyone. I have been faithful so far.
The “discovery” of the famous spring is hard to date. Although all historians agree that it happened between February 22 and 27, they continue to differ as to the exact day.
The Lady told me that I must go and drink at the spring and wash myself there. As I didn’t see any spring, I went to drink in the Gave. The Lady told me that it wasn’t there; she signed to me with her finger to look beneath the rock. I went and there I found a trickle of water resembling mud, but there was so little of it that I could hardly collect any in the hollow of my hand. I obeyed, however, and started scratching; after that, I was able to collect some. I threw it away three times because it was so dirty; at the fourth time I was able to drink it.
She also told me to eat a plant which grew in the same place as where I drank; just once, I don’t know why. [When someone said to her later that this was a very foolish thing to do, she replied: “But we eat salad.”]
Then the vision disappeared and I departed.
Here André Ravier comments (ibid. p.19):
There is one thing that surprises everyone familiar with the manuscript accounts of the appearances. Nowhere does Bernadette write the word “penance”. On the contrary, it is always a matter of “praying for sinners”. Would not Aquero [“Dear One”, Bernadette’s name for the Lady] have uttered the word “penance”? Yes, Bernadette’s oral accounts and stories of witnesses are categorical. In any case the actions that Aquero indicated several times to Bernadette, such as washing at the spring, advancing along the ground on her knees, kissing the ground, had a significance which did not escape her. To anyone who asked her why the Lady had told her to eat some leaves from that plant growing along the damp fringe of the spring, she answered simply: “For sinners.” Prayer and penance went side by side in her eyes when it was a matter of converting sinners.
Prayer and penance: prayer and penance and compassion for sinners, for we are far from what we could and should be, and all what we call nature waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons and daughters of light. “Great minds have always seen it,” writes Loren Eisley in Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X (Dutton, 1979, pp. 233-4):
That is why man has survived his journey this long. When we fail to wish any longer to be otherwise than what we are, we will have ceased to evolve. Evolution has to be lived forward. I say this as one who has stood above the bones of much that has vanished, and at midnight has examined his own face.
If there is magic on this planet, give us this water, this living water as of something forgotten, a living word to wake up the soul and give it light, a word that is truly the water of life: for if we fail to remember, if we fail to resurrect again reverence for all that is holy, if we fail to enter again into holy awe of the Eternal One who blesses in the sanctuary, all will be for us as it already has become for so many creatures in the Gulf of Mexico, as now it already is in the spectral depths of hearts on Wall Street, whose daily bread has become the dollar sign of grain futures, bringing hunger and starvation to hundreds of millions.
“Man is not as other creatures,” writes Eisley in The Star Thrower, “and . . . without the sense of the holy, without compassion, his brain can become a gray stalking horror – the deviser of Belsen.”
The heart that is inflamed in this way embraces the entire creation – man, birds, animals and even demons. At the recollection of them, and at the sight of them, such a man’s eyes fill with tears that arise from the great compassion which presses on his heart. The heart grows tender and cannot endure to hear of or look upon any injury or even the smallest suffering inflicted upon anything in creation. For this reason such a man prays increasingly with tears even for irrational animals and for the enemies of truth and for all who harm it, that they may be guarded and be forgiven. The compassion which pours out from his heart without measure, like God’s, extends even to reptiles.
May Our Lady of Lourdes, whose feast it is today, she who said, “I am the Immaculate Conception,” pray for us. May she pray that the water of life be ours to drink, so that even the vulgarity of the corrupt commercial quarter of Lourdes — so that even the vulgarity of the corrupt commercial quarter of any place else in the world — will no longer matter.
So that what will matter will be the water of life: water of life because this water has memory, because this water is memory, memory for all that is, and memory for all that ever shall be, holy.
Pax et Bonum,