When I was in Lourdes as a chaplain for a couple of years, I must admit to being rather distracted, time and again, by the exclamatory words of the Immaculate Conception – now highlighted in raised gold lettering under the statue of the grotto - which are usually translated as “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
Going down from the Chaplain’s house on the “zig-zag path” to the grotto to offer Holy Mass followed by adoration (from 11:00 PM until midnight, my favorite time in Lourdes), or passing by the grotto on my way to the Rosary or Eucharistic Processions, or to hear Confessions in the morning and afternoon, I would stare hard at these words. I knew I just had to hunt down some of the rapidly diminishing in number local Bigourdan speakers. You probably can’t tell it from my blog posts, but I’m a bit of a grammar freak, and these words just bothered me to no end. Sorry. I think I was born this way.
So, I went Bigourdan-speaker hunting and spoke with an elderly, retired gentleman who, though not knowing anything about grammar or spelling, was quite certain of the following, for he has lived the language. If I remember rightly, he was the legendary head sacristan who retired just days after my speaking with him.
The “què” [yes, with the grave accent, impossible in French], he said, has nothing to do with the French subjunctive. It means “je” in French (or “I” in English). I’m sure he’s correct, though I bet this derived from the subjunctive as a cultural oddity, which speaks to the humility of the locals, not wanting to put themselves forcefully forward, but always using the subjunctive for themselves.
Anyway, the “soy” is “suis” in French (or “am” in English).
“Immaculada Councepciou” is clearly “Immaculée Conception” in French (or “Immaculate Conception” in English).
The “éra” [yes, with the accute accent], he continued, is not part of a compound verb (perhaps giving us something like a presently continuing situation of a past event [and wouldn't that be interesting?]) but is rather what he called a definite article, as in “la” = ” l’ ” in French (or “the” in English). But then he backtracked and said that, in reality, “era” is the Bigourdan way of saying “elle” in French (or “she” in English), giving us something exclamatory like: “I am she: Immaculate Conception!” Wow… I can’t imagine that being said except with much joy. No wonder Bernadette ran, ran, ran to the parish priest, repeating what our Lady had said the entire way.
But then this elderly gentleman got complicated on me, saying that, in his opinion, it is not written the right way, that “Què soy éra Immaculada councepciou” is unacceptably too proper. The “éra”, he says, would be contracted into “Immaculada”, giving us this: “Què soy érimaculada councepciou”. So, not an exclamation. The pronoun was simply used over time as a definite article: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”
But then, why was the phrase written the way it was written, especially if this is so unacceptable? Did the parish priest try to clean up the language a little bit, falling into a linguistic error himself? No. I doubt that. I mean, when the words ‘Que soy era Immaculada Concepciou’ were put up, wouldn’t all the locals who knew how to read know exactly what the words meant? And wouldn’t they have realized that there was a mistake if there indeed was one?
So, back to the exclamation: “I am she: Immaculate Conception!”
I should be satisfied with that, I suppose. But the accent in “éra” bothers me. The opening deadened “e” in the French “elle” would hardly develop into “é”, even if the double “ll” easily turned into an “r”. A self-proclaimed expert said that this could be a past tense verb of some kind, but that surely it was just a definite article. Given the difficulties with the “unacceptable” nature of the “éra” standing on its own, I’m guessing that it is some kind of past tense verb, giving us presently continuing action begun in the past. This would be the perfect rendition of the Greek perfect in Luke’s Gospel, where the angel says, “Rejoice, O you who stand transformed in grace” (in context, from the first moment of her vocation to be the Mother of God, from the first moment of her conception). Now, wouldn’t that be wonderful? This would be a gentle push for the Church at that time (1858) to look more closely at the Gospel, and this just a short time after the very correct definition that Mary was immaculately conceived (1854). The doctrine of Sacred Tradition is not only reflected in the Sacred Scriptures, but it is in the Sacred Scriptures themselves (not only in Luke 1,28, but also in Genesis 2,4–3,24). Mary was not only immaculately conceived, but she is still perfectly what she was when she was just conceived, to wit, the Immaculate Conception. Wonderful.
While in Lourdes, I kept asking Bigourdan speakers about the “éra”. While they admit that Bigourdan is way closer to Italian than it is to Spanish, and while they admit that however much French there is in this dialect, there really is quite a bit of Italian influence, some are adament that this is a definite article, or, at least, something along the lines of “She is”, giving us “I am she is… Immaculate Conception.” More smoothly: “I am she: Immaculate Conception.” So, does that solve the mystery? Perhaps the “definite article” did not have to be in a contracted form at that time. Moreover, the continuing action begun in the past is perfectly rendered here: “I am” is present tense, while “Immaculate Conception” hails to the time of her conception. Again, that perfectly reflects what’s happening in Luke 1,28, where we read of Mary perfectly continuing to be perfectly transformed in grace from the first instant she could begin to live her vocation to the Mother of God, that is, at her conception, her Immaculate Conception!
How very humble of Mary. Instead of pointing to her being the Mother of God, she instead emphasizes the glory of being the Mother of God, which is doing the will of God, which she did perfectly, by the way, at the time of her being immaculately conceived. She was always, from the first instant, utterly transformed in grace, just as she is today as Queen of heaven and earth, angels and men, the Virgin Mother of God assumed soul and body into heaven. It is God’s life within us that counts the most, doing his will.
You might want to click on this blog’s category “Immaculate Conception.”
/// A great seminarian wrote in the other day to say that he was offering the Emergency Chaplet of the Immaculate Conception for me (very, very much appreciated), but with some changes. He said that before and after this chaplet, on the three beads one finds by themselves on a rosary, he added the words three times each: “Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou!” He called these statements “prayers”… This seminarian is very close to Saint Bernadette. I got to thinking about that repetition of those words, and Bernadettes breathless run came to mind, from the grotto to her parish priest up the steep hill, up in town, incessantly repeating these words, “Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou!” Imagine what the parish priest would have thought with such a child, totally out of breath, utterly uneducated, stammering on his doorstep: “I am she: Immaculate Conception! I am she! Immaculate Conception! I am she! Immaculate Conception!” …. and only after just a bit explaining that this was the name of the lady she saw in the grotto. To repeat those words with the innocence of a little child, with such enthusiasm, yes, this also is a prayer. Was not Jesus, the High Priest, also Mary’s little child? Yes, by the way, He was, and is! Are we not as well? Yes, I think we are!