Friday, August 15, 2014

I meet Mary in the Milk Grotto: Reflections on the the Feast of the Assumption in Lafayette, Louisiana

During the Christmas season of 2006, I accompanied a group of college students to Israel and the West Bank--the Holy Land. As I recall, I had no great desire to visit the Holy Land. I think I associated it with Protestantism because I had a dim childhood recollection that Baptists liked to visited the Holy Land so they could see the Jordan River.

So the Holy Land held no great interest for me. But my wife had visited Israel and the West Bank in 2004, and she was profoundly moved by the experience, so I took advantage of the opportunity to see the Holy Land for myself.

To my great surprise, I had several deeply moving experiences while I was there, which I will always remember. But my most profound experience occurred in the Milk Grotto of Bethlehem.   The Milk Grotto is basically a cave where Mary and Joseph spent the night before taking Jesus to Egypt to escape from Herod. Here is where an angel visited Joseph in a dream and instructed him to arise in the night and immediately take Mary and Jesus to Egypt.

We celebrated Mass in the grotto, and then my group departed for the nearby Franciscan gift shop. I lingered, however, and reflected a moment about the frightened young couple who had huddled with their child in the darkness at the very place where I was standing more than 2000 years ago. At that moment, in my mind, Mary and Joseph and Jesus were not the Holy Family. Mary and Joseph were just a mother and father risking their own lives to keep their infant child from being murdered.

I recall two young sisters of the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa's order) were also in the grotto, clad in their distinctive white habits with their striped blue veils. One of them licked her finger and pulled it across the milky substance that clung to the roof of the cave. Then she put her finger to her mouth to taste the residue that she had collected.   This milky substance, tradition tells us, represents the milk that flowed from Mary's breast in the grotto; and miracles of fertility have been attributed to it.

Seeing the sister's simple act of piety, I followed her example; and I too tasted the calcified deposits on the ceiling of the cave. It tasted like chalk.

And at that moment, I felt the distinct presence of Mary in the grotto with me, and I was seized with a brief certainty that she would grant me anything I asked if only I would ask immediately.  Without taking time to consider, I asked for something humble: "Mary," I asked, "make me a better person." And then the moment passed.

Today is the Feast Day of the Assumption of Mary, a holy day of obligation, when Catholics celebrate their belief that God assumed Mary into heaven immediately upon her death and that her body, which had been conceived without sin, suffered no corruption.   Being in Lafayette today, I attended Mass at St. John's Cathedral in downtown Lafayette.

As it happens, Our Lady of the Assumption is the special patroness of Acadiana, and the cathedral was at least half full for the noon Mass. We began the Mass by singing "Hail, Holy Queen," that beloved, simple and childlike song to Mary that I always associate with Catholic children.
Hail, Holy Queen Enthroned Above
Oh, Maria
Hail, Mother of Mercy and of Love
Oh, Maria
I was sitting near the front of the cathedral, and I heard hundred of voices swelling up behind me--the voices of young people and old people, most of them descendants of Le Grand Dérangement, the great deportation of the Catholic French Canadians by the wicked British in the 18th century.

 "Triumph, all you cherubim," I heard them sing. "Sing with us, you seraphim."  The words rolled over me, clear and strong, like a warm and benign physical force. "Heaven and earth resound the hymn," they sang. "Ave, Ave, Ave Maria."

And again I felt the presence of Mary. I felt she was pleased by our adoration, and pleased to be in our presence, just as she had been pleased to make her presence known to me years ago when I was alone in the Milk Grotto.

But I confess I am still waiting for Mary to answer my prayer. Mary, make me a better person.

The Milk Grotto, Bethlehem

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