In this excised excerpt from Sabra the Astonishing, Jesuit priest Xavier Buck goes to view the body of St. Bernadette Soubirous, on display in a glass coffin at the convent where she served as a kitchen nun in Nevers, France.
Perfectly preserved the nuns said as they ushered him into the church. It had something to do with the type of soil she’d been buried in. Charcoal? Limestone? Only her skin had blackened on exposure to air, so that they had artfully covered her hands and face with a sort of chamois. Such fine handiwork.
They stepped aside to let Xavier draw near. Save for the fact that her neatly trimmed fingernails seemed too deeply sunk into the flesh of her fingers for them to have been real, the short neat figure in the black and white habit of the Sisters of Charity and Christian Instruction had seemed quite lifelike, as though she had fallen asleep a century earlier, her pretty face turned to one side on the lace-covered pillow, her fingers curled around a rosary pressed to her heart.
As he gazed down on the saint he had experienced a sudden pang of desire so sharp that it riveted him to the spot. An urge to throw open the coffin and crush the tiny body to his breast, tumbling the chamois mask from the blackened face and crackling those age-brittle bones on which the flesh so perniciously clung came over him.
But, “Don’t touch the glass!” the nuns cried shrilly. They rushed after him, grabbed him by the elbows, and dragged him back. “You’ll get fingerprints all over it!” A fat pigeon of a nun interposed her bulk between it and him and, reaching into the folds of her habit, withdrew a bottle of Windex. Spraying the coffin liberally with the solution, she scrubbed at it with her sleeve.
He had thought, standing there in the dark convent chapel with the sweat streaming down his face and his fingers squeezed into fists, that if he could only embrace the horror beneath, tumble the mask, then everything would come clear for him. The darkness in which he lived would be rent like a curtain, thrown back, and he would see things as they were. He wanted it so badly. He felt that he couldn’t live a moment longer without it. But the nun continued to polish the coffin, crawling all over it like a black and white bug, all the time casting quick victorious glances over her plump shoulder at him. At length his friends, embarrassed, had urged him gently to go, and he had turned away, his heart in his mouth, his hands trembling. As he stumbled from the shrine one of the nuns had plucked his sleeve and like a madam who, on a summer’s eve when the blood stirs, calls to passersby from a chair placed beside her door, she lisped through death’s head lips “She’s beguiling, is she not? Our Bernadette?”