We share a birthday, Bernadette Soubirous and I. She was born in the year of the Great Disappointment, 1844, in Lourdes, France. Hardly superstitious, but terribly romantic, this means much to me. I have no expectation that anything will come of visiting the sacred place where aquero (“that”), the small young lady, the Immaculate Conception, visited Bernadette. But with my husband Peter and his Roman Catholic parents, I make the pilgrimage.
I observe, intrigued by the sincerity, humility and hope visible on faces, in posture, in tone of voice. Nuns or nurses in tidy white habits pushing wheelchairs; people of all colors, languages, ages, fashions, and importance waiting patiently in line; a man cleaning the enormous candelabra in front of the shrine with meticulous and reverent care, removing every bit of wax before placing new, unspent candles in the wrought iron cups.
As the line moves slowly toward the grotto, my hands caress the polished rock where so many other hands have lain in the 150 years since this place was recognized as sacred. I am calm, fascinated, a bit aloof until my fingers meet water—a tiny trickle seeping down from mossy crevice. The famous spring itself is barricaded by thick glass. But this bit of moisture brings tears to my eyes and a shiver to my skin. It does have the savor of holiness.
Bernadette ate grass, kissed earth, tasted and swallowed the dirt of this particular place when it was just a muddy cave. In her vision it was the purest of spring waters. Indeed, the next day a clear stream bubbled from the rocks. Since then, 69 cures have been documented and verified as miraculous, inexplicable, attributed only to the holy water of Lourdes.[i]
My tears mix with the stream from the nearby public spigot. I drink my full, fill a bottle; Peter strokes my neck with cool, damp hands and murmurs words of blessing. We wander through the stands of burning candles. I sit mesmerized in the basilica, gazing into an artist’s rendition of Bernadette’s deep blue eyes, the same color as mine.
My connection with Bernadette is eerily kindred, but it’s usually the death-day you celebrate for saints, rather than their birth. I hope we don’t have this in common. Bernadette died at age 35. I’m only six years away. I fear the healing waters, which did not save her, likewise hold no magic elixir for me. The big nodule in my neck is likely benign (three biopsies agree, but the endocrinologists say this type of goiter can’t be definitively diagnosed). It is growing rapidly, encroaching on esophagus and trachea, surgery inevitable.
I have stories of water too. There was the water in Disappointment Valley, named by cowboys who saw the lush meadows far below the rocky pass, assumed sweet liquid, but found sulphurous, sour instead. The local road grader drank it anyway, and every spring he got sick with giardia—always this word gets tangled in my mouth, my mind, with gaillardia, the mountain desert flower I love. Every spring he endured a week of puking and pain and then was immune for another year.
I had giardia when I was three years old, when we lived in Disappointment Valley. From then on my mother filled bottles at my grandparents’ farm sixty miles away. Their water tasted chalky like limestone but didn’t make us sick. The water witch had pointed to a weak underground vein, and Granddad and Grandma’s well was almost always almost dry. We used the water sparingly, cherishing each distasteful swallow.
My brother and I ice-skated and skinny-dipped in the ponds on our step-dad’s ranch. He, the step-dad, said that pond water made you smarter, so I’m sure we imbibed, though with no obvious effect.
The church baptismal pool where I was submerged, reborn, and spoke affirmation to the (then) twenty-seven fundamental beliefs seemed quite sacred until I learned the pastor wore hip-waders to avoid getting wet. I thought that was the point—getting wet all over, inside and out. Washing away the sin-dirt from body and soul.
Then there was the spring seeping from red sandstone cliffs along the Colorado River, near Castle Valley, Utah, where I lived many times—at four years old, sixteen, twenty—where my mother lived as teenager, young mother, and now again. The water from the artesian wells in Castle Valley, about thirty miles upstream, didn’t sit well in our stomachs. So we drank this sweet liquid instead, never guessing….
This summer I learned of a superfund site just outside Moab, just around a bend from the natural spring. Over 200 million gallons of contaminated water were recently removed from the area for remediation. Sixteen million tons of uranium mill tailings are gradually being transferred to Crescent Junction by train, relocating the soil away from the Colorado River to a landfill or “disposal cell.”[ii] The uranium was mined in the 1950s-70s, for use by the US Atomic Energy Commission in national defense programs and in the 90s sold to nuclear power plants.[iii]
While in France, I read Susanne Antonetta’s disturbing memoir, Body Toxic. She grew up in one of the most polluted counties in New Jersey, the most polluted state in the united fifty. She writes of playing in the wake of the DDT truck, picking berries near the nuclear plant, swimming along the shore where toxic waste was illegally dumped. Susanne is bipolar, her thyroid full of tumors, and she cannot bear children.
Bernadette’s knee carried tuberculosis from perpetually kneeling to scrub the floor of the monastery where she lived out her short adult life. My mother’s breast harbored cancer. My neck grows goiters. Our bodies bear the tellings, tailings of water—sacred and poisoned.
Susanne tells her life story in terms of her waters: “To talk about how we live you have to talk about water, that it’s two-thirds of our bodies and of the earth and very devious stuff…. In the body your H2O waits to accept tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, to become unstable tritiated water, leaving lesions in your cells. It’s a human weakness to love water….”[iv]
The unstable, radioactive isotopes live longer than we have capacity to imagine. The half-life of uranium-238, the “yellow cake” stuff from the mine near Moab, is about 4.47 billion years.[v]
To think we’ve gone and created immortality and the problem is how to mortalize it again. That we’ve not been able to make immortality for our bodies but have given them growths, splotches, sarcomas, melanomas, blastomas, calcifications, lesions—things to cut away and look for and then cut away again. We grow superbacteria, retroviruses, breastless women. But we’ve bombarded ores with atomic bits and filled them with radioactivity, something that lives as close to forever as we can imagine. We’ve made immortality for our waste, which grows larger and more important and more alive, and bulks itself out to inhabit the spaces we dwindle ourselves away from.[vi]
How do we live with immanent death (as compared to immortal uranium)? How do we, in our technologically and medically advanced society deal with dying? We try to keep it as far away as possible, put it off, sterilize and separate ourselves from death. We preserve dead bodies with makeup and formaldehyde. We place them in expensive, satin-lined coffins to keep the worms at bay. Bernadette’s corpse wears masks to protect her fragile skin. Physicians attest to seeing her exhumed body supple, muscular, whole.
As I’ve read Susanne’s stories, encountered Bernadette at Lourdes, and remembered my own waters, I am convinced that death can only be conquered by death itself.
In Adventist theology we have the first and second deaths. I’m talking about another death—dying before you die. This is what Jesus did: died—lost himself, felt separation from his Father, experienced the depths of suffering. By dying to attachments, to expectations about how life should be, our definitions of our selves and God, we become intimate with death and know there is nothing to fear.
What we lose in death is gain—resurrection, transformation, union. We lose our identity as the center of our small universe and find our true belonging in God. To die before we die is to know this reality on Earth, throughout the rest of our mortal lives, living truly, aware that God’s love and presence are always with us. Nothing can separate us from God’s life.
This is what the symbol of baptism, being lowered into a watery grave, means. That you die to self and are raised into new life. Death is conquered through death. To drink from the River of Life is not only to be healed and whole, but first to die, to partake in this human life’s suffering and seeming separation, but coming to realize that God is present in the midst of pain, that we are never apart from God’s love. To remember that at creation the Holy Spirit hovered over the deep, the void, the water, and brought forth life. Many waters, even the deepest ocean, cannot quench love. I am convinced.[vii]
[iv] Susanne Antonetta. Body Toxic (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001), 107.
[vi] Susanne Antonetta, 208-209.
[vii] Song of Solomon 8:7; Romans 8:38-39