Probably many of my readers have seen the classic 1943 film, “The Song of Bernadette”, but if you have not, I would like to recommend it to you – even if you are not Catholic. The older I get, the more I “get” the film, and the more its meaning changes for me. Oftentimes viewers are so caught up in the miraculous visions, or the pressures put on Bernadette to recant what she reported to have seen, that they forget Bernadette had a different life once the visions ended, and she left Lourdes forever. And it is there, I think, that what might otherwise have been just a pious, respectable film takes on a bit of greatness, when it comes to examining the human condition.
The character of Sister Vauzous – played by the great English actress Gladys Cooper, who received a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars for her performance – is something of a parallel to the older brother of the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ parable. Like him, Sister Vauzous does not go out to seek fame and fortune, nor does she want to live in depravity, sexual hedonism, and dissipation. In fact she does everything she is told to do and more, with copious amounts of fasting, prayer, lack of sleep, and so on.
However she has done none of this for the right reasons. One gets the distinct impression that she has spent all these years living in a form of perpetual penance not out of love for God, but rather out of self-hate. And self-hatred is a very dangerous road to travel.
As the character tells us in the scene where she finally confronts Bernadette, informing her about how much she has suffered compared to the peasant girl, she expresses what is obviously a deep-seated sense of jealousy, yes, but also of self-hatred. This little nobody from Lourdes, whom she knew years before, gets the opportunity to see the Mother of Jesus, while she herself is denied any such gift. That seems to Sister Vauzous fundamentally unfair.
Of course the real person Sister Vauzous is upset with is not Bernadette, but God. Why, she asks herself, do you bless that one and not me, with such consolations? The root of that anger is self-hatred: we are unhappy because X has something we wish we had, which seems better than what we have. Sister Vauzous is so unhappy with her own life, that she has rather childishly deluded herself into believing that she is ascetic penitent, when in truth she is a self-righteous Pharisee.
So often reviewers of this film focus on the character’s doubt and skepticism of Bernadette’s story as the wellspring of her harshness, but truthfully it is Sister Vauzous’ hatred of herself that is the real issue. She has run away to the convent not to serve God, but to add to her own sorrows, and pick at them like scabs until they bleed, over and over again. She is a figure of morbid self-pity, who cannot see beyond her own unhappiness to do anything out of love for anyone else.
In the Gospel parable, the father tells the older brother of the Prodigal Son that he must come rejoice that his brother has come alive again and returned to them, but Jesus does not tell us what happened next; He leaves it to our imagination to decide whether the older brother did change in his heart or not. In “The Song of Bernadette” however, we actually see the complete redemption of Sister Vauzous. Not only does she seek forgiveness after Bernadette reveals how horribly she has been quietly suffering for years, but she herself changes: she becomes Bernadette’s greatest friend in the convent. So much so, that she literally carries Bernadette around when the girl becomes so ill that she can no longer walk.
I suspect that many of my Christian readers would like to think that they are more like Bernadette than Sister Vauzous. The truth is that we can very easily fall into the same traps as the latter. We can be so rigid with our formulae on how we are supposed to live our Christian lives, that we forget the whole point is to act in imitation of Christ. And one of the common complaints about Jesus from His contemporaries was that He went about chatting and dining with people whom the supposedly religiously upright of his day categorically saw as sinners, instead of basking in the glow of the religious authorities’ high opinions of themselves. What they did not understand, and I suspect oftentimes we all forget this as well, myself included, is that it is not only possible, but necessary, to try one’s best to follow and witness to God’s law, without simultaneously causing others to completely lose heart in the process.
Today being the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, when Catholics recall the first apparition to St. Bernadette at Lourdes on February 11, 1858, if you have seen “The Song of Bernadette” before, go back and watch it again, in light of this reflection. If you have not, then find it online and take a look at it. And have the honesty to ask yourself, which of these two nuns am I more like, right now? The answer may surprise you, but the real benefit will be what you do with that realization.