While celebrating the memory of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. recently, I spent some time perusing that great man’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. One passage in particular jumped out at me, and — quite surprisingly — it brought to mind St. Bernadette Soubirous, as well as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
King wrote: “I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love? — ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.’ … Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? — ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ … Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? — ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love…”
You’re probably asking, quite reasonably, how King’s words could nudge my thinking toward an impoverished, uneducated 19th Century peasant girl from Hautes-Pyrénées in France and an aristocratic 18th Century widow from New York. It came from pondering the notion of extremism in the service of something much too great to be surrendered to anyone on earth — not to law, not to Church, not even to those we love — and thereby have it whittled down into weak conformity. For both Reverend King and St. Bernadette, that meant being willing to be continually second-guessed; it meant having to repeatedly, and patiently, bear witness to the truth even to the deliberately obtuse and condescending, and it meant being willing to suffer for their stands, literally for the rest of their lives.
That’s remarkable and tough work for an educated African-American man, who had so much to offer the world, while working within a culture stacked against him in myriad ways. It was remarkable and tough work for a 14 year old girl, too, particularly one looked upon as utterly dismissable, ignorant, unteachable, and all-too-common. Growth-stunted due to malnutrition and sickly from living with her family in a damp and moldy one-room basement that had formerly been a jail, Bernadette seemed to be a needful creature with little to offer anyone.
When Bernadette had her initial vision of a beautiful woman, surrounded by light and gazing at her with a look of love, she was distrustful of what she was seeing. She brought out her rosary and began to pray, and the vision appeared to approve. Neither of her companions saw what she saw, and she asked them to say nothing to anyone.
Naturally, they blabbed about it as soon as they got home. Bernadette’s mother reacted to the news by promptly smacking her and telling her to stop making up stories. The vision, however, asked Bernadette to return to her for a fortnight, to which the girl agreed. Neighbors called her neurotic; they derided her as being too stupid for heaven to use in any meaningful way — a strange stance for supposed people of faith — and subjected her to taunting and even physical bullying, even as they followed her to the grotto at Massabielle and waited for something spectacular to happen.
But nothing Bernadette ever did was spectacular. She kept her visits with the being she referred to in her Occitan patois as “aquero”, or “that”. Urged by her doubting pastor to discover the vision’s name, Bernadette obediently asked and — upon receiving the answer — quickly made her way to the rectory. Upon admission, she stood before the priest and, imitating the extended arms of “aquero” she repeated to him words she did not understand, affirming a dogma she had never been taught: “I am the Immaculate Conception!”
The revelation brought Bernadette no glory. After following the Lady’s directions by eating grass and then digging in the ground with her hands as instructed, Bernadette was mocked and abandoned by her disgusted neighbors, until the next morning, when a spring of fresh water emerged from where she had dug, and miracles of healing swiftly followed.
Suddenly the little visionary became a social pet, offered money — which she refused — and asked for blessings, which she would not presume to give. “Go to the priest,” she would say. Over and over again she was ordered before Church and civil authorities who — despite the reality of the spring, and what was happening all around it — could not permit themselves to believe that a creature as lowly as she could be so singular a conduit between Heaven and Earth. “Are you telling us,” she was asked, “that the Mother of God told you to eat grass?”
“I never called her the Mother of God, and I’m telling you what happened,” she would say, adding in her pragmatic way, “Haven’t you ever eaten a salad?”
“But…but…” they would object, for this peasant could not have heard what she said she had heard, or seen what she said she had seen.
Politely but firmly (and, often with a slight shrug of the shoulders) she would respond, “You have asked me, and I have told you. My job is to inform, not to convince.”
She walked away from all of that, and into a convent where she endured great hardship from a community of religious intent on insuring that this already-humble young woman wouldn’t become full of herself. One new arrival, coming from an exalted family, asked the novice mistress to point out to her the great visionary of Lourdes, and when she saw the diminutive, slightly hunched-over Bernadette gasped, “What, that?”
Bernadette laughed and replied, “Yes, dear sister,” she said, “only that!”
Like Reverend King, Bernadette died young. He was felled by a malignancy of hatred, she by a malignancy of the bone. Nevertheless, once they had discerned their callings both gave their unstinting witness and allegiances to their missions, offering extreme obedience to truths that discomfited those who believed they already knew all they needed to, but brought hope, light, inspiration and yes, truth, to many. They never backed down.
It was precisely the sort of extremism for the sake of love that Mother Seton would have understood, for she never backed down either. “You must be in right earnest,” she once said, “or you will do little or nothing for God.”
ELIZABETH SCALIA is the award-winning author of Strange Gods, Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life and Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick You.