Friday Book: A place for belief in miracles

JEAN-PIERRE BeLY, a 69-year-old former intensive care nurse from Angouleme, was recently proclaimed as the first unexplained cure at Lourdes in almost a decade. According to the Shrine, Mr Bely visited the Sanctuary in October 1987 and, shortly after celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation, "felt overcome with a powerful sense of interior liberation and peace that he had never before experienced". Within a few hours, he was able to sit up in his bed, to feel contact against his skin and to walk for the first time in three years. His health has improved ever since.

The Shrine's International Medical Bureau announced on 9 February that "Mr Bely suffered an organic infection similar to multiple sclerosis in a severe and advanced stage, of which the sudden cure during a pilgrimage to Lourdes [is] unusual and inexplicable according to all the knowledge of science." How, in our secular age, can we begin to explain such miracles - or decide whether they are simply an elaborate trick by a hysterical patient, with a body of colluding doctors?

The question, and its attendant dilemmas, may seem to be rooted in pre- millennial preoccupations. But Ruth Harris's stunning history of the Sanctuary shows that the debate dates back to Bernadette Soubirous's visions of 1858. Harris provides a rich cultural context in which to understand how a 14-year-old peasant girl rose to sainthood, founded the Catholic world's most famous shrine, and safeguarded the phenomenon of spiritual healing. For Lourdes's appeal is not simply as a place where miracles occur. It draws on an almost medieval inversion of the external world: a sacred place of intense physicality and backbreaking labour, where pain and suffering take centre stage.

Harris explores the genesis of the shrine through Bernadette's writings, eye-witness accounts, and explanations by the major players at Lourdes. But she also makes a compelling argument for understanding Bernadette's vision as a modern example of a medieval tradition that had deep roots in Pyrenean culture. Stories of miraculous discovery and healing were common throughout the mountain region of south-western France. Bernadette was continuing, rather than inventing, a tradition of peasant girls who had visions near fountains of bubbling waters.

Once her vision had grasped the imagination of local women and then, fortuitously, a Catholic journalist, a local bishop and Amirale Bruat, nanny to the Empress Eugenie's son, the story went national. Inevitably, perhaps, Bernadette was first besieged by pilgrims, then sent to a local boarding school, and finally hidden away at a convent in Nevers. After performing her service as the shrine's inspiration, she was "watched, questioned and disciplined, all at a time when she was subject to frequent illness". She was also punished by the Mother Superior, who kept her a novice for 10 years. She died in 1879.

Meanwhile, Lourdes continued to flourish as its reputation grew as a centre for healing. By 1883, a Medical Bureau was established to investigate the veracity of the pilgrims' extravagant claims. In 1880 alone, the Assumptionists, who chronicled the cures, chalked up 150 of them. The year before, the Shrine's director wrote of the 70 "written records of complete cures and considerable improvements". But it was a Mephistophelean bargain, writes Harris. "On the one hand, the Church gained a measure of scientific sanction for the miraculous; on the other, it ceded some of its authority, no longer willing, it seemed, to pronounce without medical approval."

Underlying the scepticism that has periodically surfaced over the claims to incredible cures, witnesses often record a profound respect for the human suffering and hope they witness. The novelist Emile Zola, who regarded Lourdes as a "miracle show", was astounded by what he saw on a visit in 1892. His journals reveal that he found Lourdes disturbing and upsetting. "The continual chanting and endless supplication revealed yearnings that he had hoped - or believed - the 19th century had eradicated," writes Harris.

This honest desire to explain Lourdes, a city that still ranks as France's greatest tourist attraction outside of Paris, sets Harris's history apart. It is written with a sharp intelligence, a wealth of detail and deep respect for the strange and enduring phenomenon of pilgrimage.