The Song: "Song of Bernadette," Jennifer Warnes. Words & music by Leonard Cohen. Track 7 of Famous Blue Raincoat, 1987.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette, 1987.
I have written about this album before. It is one I would need on a desert island, and it's not an exaggeration to say it might have saved my life. Certainly it helped me live with myself at a time when that was very, very hard. This song, in particular, still makes me cry, and if you don't mist up a little at it, how do we know each other?
Today is the feast day of St. Bernadette, unlikeliest of saints. She was a desperately poor, uneducated 14-year-old girl when she saw a dazzling light and a "small young lady" at a grotto outside her small town. Her own parents didn't believe her. The police threatened to arrest her. Her fellow townspeople thought she was insane, but were amazed when a spring flowed clear from a place that had been nothing but mud. Bernadette said that the lady asked for penance, and said that a chapel should be built on the site, and that people should come.
Now that site is the shrine of Lourdes, where 67 people with fatal or crippling illnesses have experienced cures certified by the Catholic Church as miracles. Countless more people give Lourdes credit for miraculous cures of their own, although unconfirmed by doctors or scientists. The water, tested over a period of 150 years, is perfectly ordinary mineral water. Bernadette herself said that the healing came from prayer, not from the water itself.
Bernadette died at the age of 35. Paradoxically, she was sick for most of her life, with cholera, asthma, and finally the tuberculosis that killed her. But she believed that her life was touched by miracles, and was canonized in 1933, 54 years after her death.
A friend once told me that I had lived a magic life, and I agreed that it was true. But I think that magic lives are as much about what you notice as about what actually happens to you. It's about what you keep track of, and how you keep score. Bernadette, poor and sickly, felt blessed. Whether or not you believe she saw the Virgin Mary, her ability to feel loved in the midst of doubt makes her a role model — for Leonard Cohen, and for me.