BETHLEHEM, West Bank—Recently, a group of 25 Indonesian pilgrims visited the tiny Milk Grotto Church in Bethlehem. Upon their arrival, they descended into the underground cave where, according to tradition, the Virgin Mary hid in order to breast-feed the Baby Jesus when she and St. Joseph were fleeing from King Herod toward Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15).
The tour group's members were hushed as they explored the grotto's irregular-shaped nooks and crannies, which house a sanctuary as well as several candle-lit altars where paintings and statues of the Virgin and Child abound.
The visitors were deeply moved by this modest little underground church, where the smoke from pilgrims' oil lamps and candles long ago turned the grotto's once-white stone ceiling gray-black.
They were even more moved when Franciscan Brother Lawrence Bode, the church's devoted caretaker, explained that during the past three years—ever since the church began assembling testimonials—170 infertile women had gotten pregnant and given birth to children after praying the daily devotion to “Our Lady of the Milk” and consuming a drink composed of a tiny bit of powder from the stones of the grotto.
The devotion asks husbands and wives to pray together the third of the joyful mysteries of the rosary, meditating on the Nativity of the Lord.
“I have no doubt that others have also conceived,” Brother Bode said, “but we do not know their names. And that does not include all the couples who prayed in past years.”
Brother Bode showed the visitors the new parents' grateful letters and the framed photos of their young children hanging on the walls.
At the end of the tour, when other group members left the church, one young couple lingered at the entrance. The woman's eyes were wet with tears.
Brother Bode ushered the husband and wife into a private room and handed them a small packet of milky white powder—which can only be obtained by personally visiting the shrine. He told the couple how to mix the powder with water or milk and to pray to Mary for her intercession.
“I hope to be hearing good things from them,” said Brother Bode, who has kept the church open during good times and bad.
At a time when peace between Palestinians and Israelis seems as far away as ever, the upbeat stories one hears at the Milk Grotto Church provide a glimmer of hope to those who most need it.
For much of the past three years, since the start of the Palestinian intifada, Bethlehem has been under strict security closures and curfews. As a result, residents have been largely unable to leave the town, and pilgrims have found it difficult to enter.
Yet even during the most violent and turbulent periods, when security closures locked people inside their homes or last year when the Church of the Nativity around the corner was under siege, the Milk Grotto Church has given the faithful a reason to believe in miracles.
Throughout the ages, pilgrims—especially women—have flocked to the church and prayed to the Virgin Mary to intercede on their behalf, particularly with regard to their hope for children.
According to tradition, Mary spilled some breast milk while nursing Jesus, turning the underground cave white with “Virgin Milk.” Some believe it is the site where the Three Kings visited the Holy Family at the grotto and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Divine Child.
Sometime prior to the year 404, St. Paula, who lived in Bethlehem, built a small oratory for devotion to the Virgin Mary. This church became known as the Church of St. Paula. In the 14th century it became known as the Church of St. Nicholas. The present stone church and monastery were built by the Franciscans in 1838 and are maintained by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.
“We don't get many large groups these days,” Brother Bode said with a tinge of regret. During the Jubilee Year, which marked the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ, 1.5 million people visited Bethlehem, and several thousand visited the Milk Grotto. Since the start of 2003, in contrast, only 500 to 1,000 people have come to the underground church.
Those who do manage to come, however, believe it is worth the effort.
The many inspirational letters once-infertile couples send to the church from around the world are proof that people have been touched by the experience.
“The novena truly helped my husband and me emotionally and spiritually, and we know the novena is why we have our beautiful daughter,” writes one couple.
“After being married for nine years, having used no birth control, we had no children. A small sample of the milk of the grotto, and a miracle occurred,” writes another family.
Brother Bode, a New York native who followed his calling to the Holy Land 36 years ago and who has been at the Milk Grotto Church since 1995, said he feels blessed to serve in Bethlehem.
“These are the places Jesus lived, where he spent his hidden and public life,” he said. “Through prayer I feel close to Jesus and God and the Trinity and to Jesus' holy mother, Mary. It helps my faith when I see the faith of the people who come here.”
Brother Bode regrets that, due to the church's policy and a lack of manpower, it is impossible for him to send the powder to those who request it. He is also unable to answer letters or to engage in correspondence of any kind.
“I urge those who are in need,” he said, “to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and to the Milk Grotto, or to ask someone going on such a pilgrimage to bring the powder back for them.”
Michele Chabin is based in Jerusalem.