Private Revelation: Two Stories and Two Basic Types

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
—Hamlet, Act 1, Scene V

Nineteenth-century France turned out splendid atheists. There was nothing half-baked about a nineteenth-century French atheist. When he left the Catholic faith, he didn’t shilly-shally around with Protestantism or the religious methadone treatment called Unitarianism. He went straight for hard-boiled materialism that declared the supernatural to be bunk.

One such man was Alexis Carrel, a nineteenth-century doctor who won the Nobel prize in Medicine in 1912. Raised a Catholic, Carrel had, by 1900, rejected all supernatural belief and become a committed atheistic materialist. But he also believed in investigating facts rather than simply imposing ideology on things. So in 1902, he accompanied a doctor friend to the shrine at Lourdes where, it was said, the Blessed Virgin had appeared to a girl named Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. There were many stories of miraculous cures at the shrine as sick people washed in or drank from a spring that had been dug there by Bernadette. Profoundly skeptical, Carrel wanted to see for himself. So he boarded a train for Lourdes—and met Marie Bailly. Fr. Stanley Jaki tells the story:

Marie Bailly was born in 1878. Both her father . . . and her mother died of tuberculosis. Of her five siblings only one was free of that disease. She was twenty when she first showed symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis. A year later she was diagnosed with tuberculous meningitis, from which she suddenly recovered when she used Lourdes water. In two more years, in 1901, she came down with tubercular peritonitis. Soon she could not retain food. In March 1902 doctors in Lyons refused to operate on her for fear that she would die on the operating table.

On May 25, 1902, she begged her friends to smuggle her onto a train that carried sick people to Lourdes. She had to be smuggled because, as a rule, such trains were forbidden to carry dying people. The train left Lyons at noon. At two o’clock next morning she was found dying. Carrel was called. He gave her morphine by the light of a kerosene lamp and stayed with her. Three hours later he diagnosed her case as tuberculous peritonitis and said half aloud that she would not arrive in Lourdes alive. The immediate diagnosis at that time largely depended on the procedure known as palpation. In Lourdes Marie Bailly was examined by several doctors. On May 27 she insisted on being carried to the Grotto, although the doctors were afraid that she would die on the way there. Carrel himself took such a grim view of her condition that he vowed to become a monk if she reached the Grotto alive, a mere quarter of a mile from the hospital.

The rest is medical history. It is found in Dossier 54 of the Archives of the Medical Bureau of Lourdes. The dossier contains the immediate depositions by three doctors, including Carrel, and Marie Bailly’s own account, which she wrote in November and gave to Carrel, who then duly forwarded it to the Medical Bureau in Lourdes.

The highlights of Marie Bailly’s own account are as follows: On arriving at the baths adjoining the Grotto, she was not allowed to be immersed. She asked that some water from the baths be poured on her abdomen. It caused her searing pain all over her body. Still she asked for the same again. This time she felt much less pain. When the water was poured on her abdomen the third time, it gave her a very pleasant sensation.

Meanwhile Carrel stood behind her, with a notepad in his hands. He marked the time, the pulse, the facial expression and other clinical details as he witnessed under his very eyes the following: The enormously distended and very hard abdomen began to flatten and within thirty minutes it had completely disappeared. No discharge whatsoever was observed from the body.

She was first carried to the Basilica, then to the Medical Bureau, where she was again examined by several doctors, among them Carrel. In the evening she sat up in her bed and had a dinner without vomiting. Early next morning she got up on her own and was already dressed when Carrel saw her again.

Carrel could not help registering that she was cured. What will you do with your life now? Carrel asked her. I will join the Sisters of Charity to spend my life caring for the sick, was the answer. The next day she boarded the train on her own, and after a twenty-four-hour trip on hard benches, she arrived refreshed in Lyons. There she took the streetcar and went to the family home, where she had to prove that she was Marie Bailly indeed, who only five days earlier had left Lyons in a critical condition.

Carrel continued to take a great interest in her. He asked a psychiatrist to test her every two weeks, which was done for four months. She was regularly tested for traces of tuberculosis. In late November she was declared to be in good health both physically and mentally. In December she entered the novitiate in Paris. Without ever having a relapse she lived the arduous life of a Sister of Charity until 1937, when she died at the age of 58.

Carrel was caught between two worlds. As an atheistic materialist, he didn’t want to be identified with what he regarded as the gullible hoi polloi who believed this stunning cure to be a miracle from heaven. But as an honest man, Carrel simply couldn’t ignore what he saw, as many in the French medical establishment insisted he should do. For many years, Carrel tried to distance himself from both groups and tried to ascribe Marie’s healing to gobbledygook about “psychic forces” and various other lame naturalistic explanations. But at the end of his life, Carrel finally received the sacraments of the Church and died reconciled to God.

Emile Zola was a contemporary of Carrel’s. A famous novelist and literary figure, he, too, was an atheist and materialist, but unlike Carrel, he was not going to let any facts get in the way of that faith when he visited Lourdes.

Zola . . . accepted with simple faith the unproved and unprovable dogma that the natural world is a closed system, and that supernatural agencies do not exist. Zola’s negative faith was proof against the stubborn fact of the two miracles which he himself witnessed at Lourdes, of which the first was the sudden cure of an advanced stage of lupus. Zola describes Marie Lemarchand’s condition as he saw her on the way to Lourdes. “It was,” writes Zola, “a case of lupus which had preyed upon the unhappy woman’s nose and mouth. Ulceration had spread and was hourly spreading and devouring the membrane in its progress. The cartilage of the nose was almost eaten away, the mouth was drawn all on one side by the swollen condition of the upper lip. The whole was a frightful distorted mass of matter and oozing blood.” Zola’s account is incomplete, for the patient was coughing and spitting blood. The apices of both lungs were affected, and she had sores on her leg. Dr. d’Hombres saw her immediately before and immediately after she entered the bath. “Both her cheeks, the lower part of her nose, and her upper lip were covered with a tuberculous ulcer and secreted matter abundantly. On her return from the baths I at once followed her to the hospital. I recognized her quite well although her face was entirely changed. Instead of the horrible sore I had so lately seen, the surface was red, it is true, but dry and covered with a new skin. The other sores had also dried up in the piscina.” The doctors who examined her could find nothing the matter with the lungs, and testified to the presence of the new skin on her face. Zola was there. He had said “I only want to see a cut finger dipped in water and come out healed.” “Behold the case of your dreams, M. Zola,” said the President, presenting the girl whose hideous disease had made such an impression on the novelist before the cure. “Ah no!” said Zola, “I do not want to look at her. She is still too ugly,” alluding to the red color of the new skin. Before he left Lourdes Zola recited his credo to the President of the Medical Bureau. “Were I to see all the sick at Lourdes cured, I would not believe in a miracle.”

Roughly speaking, Carrel and Zola represent two basic worldviews:  supernaturalism and naturalism. Supernaturalism, the view held by the overwhelming majority of the human race throughout history, says there is Something beyond and outside of nature and that this Something may, from time to time, intervene in nature. Naturalism says the universe of time, space, matter, and energy is all there is or ever was or ever will be and there is nothing beyond it. The question that immediately arises when considering stories like these healings at Lourdes is: “Do miracles—intervention in nature by some power beyond nature—ever really happen?”

Of which more next time.