Friday we visited my favorite icon shop, George Thullier, 10 Place Sulpice, found golden images of St. Paul, Christ the Good Shepherd, and Christ the Tree of Life. The shop is packed with religious art… inexpensive to expensive medals, icons, santons. Then we continued up the Rue de Sevres to the Chapelle de la Medaille Miraculouse, where Dr. Rachelle DuPres from my novel Offerings is stunned by the light and the remarkable story of Catherine Labouré:
She picked up a leaflet by the door and sat in the back. The sanctuary was awash with light, a clear, breathable air. A vault of blue mosaic rose over a white marble altar and tabernacle. A life-size Saint Joseph, holding the boy Jesus on his hip, stood in a tall niche to the left, and on the right, Mary, draped in white, held a golden sphere in her hands. A glass sarcophagus rested at her feet.
Rachelle opened her leaflet.
On July 19, 1830, the feast day of Saint Vincent de Paul and six days before the streets of Paris were barricaded by the July Revolution, the Virgin Mary appeared to twenty-four-year-old Catherine Labouré.
Catherine, one of ten children born to a poor farming family in Burgundy, had joined Vincent de Paul’s Daughters of Charity. One night, three months after she arrived at the motherhouse on the Rue du Bac, an angel-child led her to the chapel. There, Mary appeared to her and predicted terrible times for France. She wore a white robe and held a globe representing the world.
She instructed Catherine to have medals made of a certain design with the words O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you. The Blessed Virgin promised graces to those who wore her medals and to those who prayed before her image in the chapel.
Catherine told her confessor and urged him to have the medals cast. The archbishop agreed, seeing no harm. She told no one else about the visions until her deathbed confession in 1876, forty years later. Decades after her death, the body of this “Saint of Silence” was found to be incorrupt, untouched by time.
Rachelle walked to the glass coffin. Through the side panel, she could see Catherine’s body, clothed in black with a white headdress. Her face was coated in a wax-like substance, but the body certainly appeared whole, Rachelle thought. How could this be? By now, over a century after her death, it should be nothing but dust and bones.
Rachelle returned to her pew. The chapel was nearly full, and the standing crowd thickened behind her. All these people were here for a weekday mass.
An elderly nun stepped to the microphone and led a pre-mass rehearsal. She chanted a tune that floated over the people, and wove her hands through the air as though inviting them to join a great work, to give themselves to God. Rachelle looked up to the wide galleries above, now packed as well, where screens broadcast the service to those who could not see into the chancel. What brought all of these pilgrims here? There must be hundreds. Was this another Lourdes? Would the sick be healed?
The crowd was mixed, every race and class, gender and generation; the crippled leaned on canes and slumped in wheelchairs; faces reflected worry, exhaustion, devotion, adoration. A priest began the liturgy and the sisters sang from the front pews. Rachelle followed the songs on the yellow sheets and joined in the Glorias. Another priest preached from the center aisle, bellowing and waving his arms. She wondered what he said and regretted her poor French, but sensed he called his people to action.
Rachelle turned to Mary who gazed over her children. She was a loving mother, a powerful, caring mother. She was a mother who understood all: the beginnings, the middles, the ends; where Rachelle had been, where she was now, and where she was going. Hail Mary, full of grace…guide me, help me. Rachelle studied the faces in the crowd as they listened to the preacher. These were ordinary people seeking the extra-ordinary, searching for miracles of body and soul, wanting more than the everyday reality of their lives, wanting to be filled with something beyond themselves. Could she be filled too? How empty she was of late, except for that moment in Saint-Remi.
As the French prayers danced through the vaults, Rachelle’s eyes were drawn to the crucifix above the altar, then to the white tabernacle, and finally, to the bread and wine of the mass. The celebrant raised the chalice, offering the Agneus Dei, the Lamb of God, and the crowd surged forward, receiving the host on their palms and placing it carefully in their mouths.
Rachelle pulled Anne-Marie’s medal from her pocket. Catherine’s vision of Mary was engraved on one side—it was the Madonna in the chapel with the outstretched hands. Rachelle examined the other side. The M wrapped around the cross, as though enclosing it in mother love, tangible love. Two hearts rested at the base of the M. A sword pierced one heart and thorns pierced the other, uniting love and suffering, love and sacrifice. What did it all mean? Offerings (OakTara, 2009)
Friday the chapel looked just the same, even more luminous than I recalled, and touching the medal lying on my heart, I entered and knelt before the body of Catherine, praying for my friends and my family, for my church and my country. It was a place where the eternal had intersected time, and while I believe this occurs at every Eucharist, these historic visitations, particularly of the Virgin Mary, in the century of France’s many revolutions, effect me profoundly. Mary’s love is so real, so endearing, so comforting, a mother’s love.
I prayed that Our Lady would watch over us in our travels, in our own journey through time.
We headed back to our hotel, icons safely in hand, the light of the chapel lingering in my mind. In our room I unwrapped the golden images, the two of Christ and the one of the red-robed St. Paul. I set them on the desk to keep me company as I scribble these notes, as I try to illumine what I have seen and known.