Another story of God’s providential merciful love comes from Lourdes in France which has been a pilgrimage centre ever since Bernadette Soubirous in 1847 experienced apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the river Gave.
In one of the apparitions Bernadette was instructed to scrape in the ground. As she did so it formed into mud, and then finally into a crystal clear spring, which has become a source of miraculous healing for many.
Thousands of people come to Lourdes weekly to bathe in the waters at the Grotto and pray for healing. In the January 2000 issue of the Lourdes magazine there is a remarkable story. The real names are not given to protect the living.
In 1944 when the Nazis were driven out of France by the Allies, there were angry court cases and swift sentences against any French people who had collaborated with the German occupation.
One man, named Jacques, when he was drinking too much, was bragging about his bravery during the Occupation. But he dropped a loose comment that his friend Martin was a possible collaborator. Jacques was summoned for questioning about his comment. He was scared and panicked, making up stories to incriminate Martin. Martin could not disprove the charges. He was sentenced to prison for 20 years for treason.
On her first visit to him in prison his wife said, “The good God knows you are innocent so let’s turn to Him and ask His help to prove it.”
Martin, consumed with rage, retorted, “Don’t you ever talk to me about God or your Virgin or anything to do with prayer again. After what your God allowed to happen to me I don’t want to hear anything about religion.”
In 1957 Martin was given an early release. During his imprisonment his wife had died and his son was killed in the French Indo-China war.
He returned to the family home which had been unoccupied since his wife’s death. Upon entering he found a letter that his wife had written to him just before she died. In it, she reminded him of how she had fulfilled her promise never to speak to him about God, but now as a dying request she asked him to return just one more time to Lourdes where they used to go on pilgrimage before the war.
Martin felt obliged to fulfill his wife’s dying wish. On arrival in Lourdes he went down towards the Grotto, brooding over his wasted life. A young woman approached him and offered him a glass of water.
Startled, he took the glass and drank. Then awkwardly handed it back, mumbling thanks, and walked away.
As he passed the Grotto he heard a priest preaching, “Father, forgive us as we forgive others.” Martin’s anger flared. How dare he tell me to forgive. He still had plenty of time before the afternoon train went back to Paris. So he decided to look at the underground basilica that had recently been built. But as he was entering the Basilica he felt overcome with a nauseous indignation and hate.
His distress must have been visible, because a priest asked him if he was alright. Martin began to spill out his tragic story. He concluded by warning the priest that it was no good to preach to him.
He was only there because of his wife’s last request. No sermons! “That creep down at the Grotto had the hide to tell me to forgive the mongrel who ruined me and my wife. You can both stick all that sentimental crap!”
The priest paused then spoke softly. “I can see that you really loved your wife, and she loved you and stuck by you. Why don’t you just do what she asked, which is to go down and stand at the Grotto. You will always feel bad about it if you have only half done what she asked with her dying breath.” Martin agreed, and made his way to the Grotto.
There he met the girl who had given him the drink. She smiled and said, “Monsieur, you look much happier now.” He was intrigued and said, “I am sure I have never met you before. Are you in the habit of giving strangers glasses of water, and commenting on how they look?” The girl said apologetically, “Forgive me for seeming rude but you looked so miserable when you came down here earlier.
You seemed to be so sad and burdened that I asked Our Lady to help you first before she heard my petition.” Martin’s curiosity was aroused. “What’s your problem, what brought you here?” he asked. “My father is dying” she replied “the doctor said his heart can’t last much longer. I’m not praying for his cure. But he’s dying with terrible guilt, and that’s why I’ve come to ask Our Lady to help him. After the war he betrayed a boyhood friend to one of those tribunals and the man was given a 20 year jail sentence. My father is convinced God will never forgive him because he can never undo the evil he did. I can’t bear seeing him die without hope.”
Martin looked at her face more closely. He gasped “Why, you are Marguerite!” “How do you know me?”, she asked. “Because I now remember you when you were little. I am the man your father betrayed!” She went white and turned to run.
He grabbed her wrist, “Marguerite, stop! You were kind to me this morning. Now do me one more favour. I can’t recite the last part of the Our Father. I think you know the part I mean. Please!” A shaken Marguerite stumbled through the prayer. He sighed as if a boulder had been lifted off his chest. “Thank you Marguerite. Now let us go together to see if we can’t help your father.”
How wonderful are the ways of God! How rich he is in mercy! What a grace-filled moment when Martin could pray the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us!”
What an extraordinary moment for Jacques when the man whom he betrayed now comes to bring forgiveness! He could now die in peace. The most striking feature of this story is that both the one offended and the offender were living in a hell of hatred; Martin in his hatred for his betrayer, Jacques in self-hatred for having betrayed his boyhood friend. Both encountered the mercy of God.
And let us not overlook that all this took place in the context of the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of Mercy.