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A Mystical Legend on Canvas


    The Lactation of St. Bernard

    When my daughter visited a museum in Spain, she saw an unusual painting of the Blessed Mother. Mary was nursing or squirting milk from her breast to St. Bernard. My daughter asked me what I knew of St. Bernard. I was sorry to say all I know is that the rescue dog of the Alps was named after him. I have inquired about the picture, but I haven’t been able to learn anything. Do you know the story concerning this painting?

    According to the concise edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, St. Bernard of Clairvaux was born near Dijon in France in 1090. He died in 1153 and was canonized in 1174. In 1830 he was declared a doctor of the Church. He was called “Doctor Mellifluus”—the Honey-sweet Doctor.

    As a young man he entered the monastery of Cîteaux which observed the strict, or “Cistercian,” interpretation of the Benedictine rule. He inspired some 31 men to follow him, including four brothers and an uncle.

    From Cîteaux, Bernard was sent to found a new monastery at Clairvaux. There he was later joined by his elderly father and another brother.

    Popes, bishops and princes called upon Bernard for advice and to settle differences.

    Bernard was present at the Second Lateran Council. At the request of the papal legate Bernard preached against the Albigensian heresy throughout Languedoc. Pope Eugenius commissioned him to preach a Crusade after the Seljuk Turks captured Edessa.

    Bernard died in 1153 after successfully completing a peace mission in Metz. By the time he died, 68 monasteries had been founded from Clairvaux, so that he is counted among the founders of the Cistercian Order.

    With the help of Brother William M. Packovec, S.M., of the Marian Library at the University of Dayton, I am able to tell you the picture your daughter saw hangs in Madrid’s Prado. It was painted by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, who lived in the 17th century, and the picture is sometimes called “The Lactation of St. Bernard.”

    An exhibition catalog from Weidenfeld and Nicoloson in London told some of the painting’s story. It takes its inspiration from a “mystical legend,” dating from the 14th century, about a prayer experience of St. Bernard. A dramatization of a metaphor, the picture is founded in Bernard’s love for and devotion to the Blessed Virgin. It expresses the idea that Mary filled him with graces.

    Bernard’s experience is supposed to have taken place while at prayer before a statue of the Madonna nursing the Infant Jesus.

    As Bernard prayed, “Monstra te esse Matrem” (“Show yourself a mother”), the statue came to life and Mary pressed her breast to nourish and wet the lips of Bernard, dry from singing her praises. The picture also illustrates the idea that Bernard’s preaching and eloquence were “sweet as milk.”

    The information given me by Brother Packovec says that at least 27 works of art depict this legend.

    Incidentally, St. Bernard dogs are associated with Bernard of Montjoux (or of Menthon), who spent 40 years as a missionary in the Alps and founded two hospices to help lost travelers.



    What Was Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh?

    One of the recent Sunday readings spoke of a thorn in Paul’s flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7). What was that thorn?

    No one knows for sure what Paul meant when he spoke of the thorn in his flesh. Some speculate that he referred to carnal temptations. Yet Tomas O’Curraoin, S.P.S., in a New Commentary on Holy Scripture (Nelson), says that was certainly not the case. He suggests it was a chronic humiliating malady with acute attacks, such as “marsh fever.”

    John McKenzie in his Dictionary of the Bible is just as certain Paul did not mean an illness. He says that some interpret the thorn to mean persecution by former coreligionists. Jerome Murphy O’Connor in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary says the passage is widely interpreted to refer to a psychic or physical ailment which, in Jewish tradition, would be caused by Satan or a demon.

    But Murphy O’Connor rushes on to say the passage really suggests an external personal source of affliction. He writes that in the Old Testament thorns meant enemies. The thorn in Paul’s flesh is the hostility coming from within his own communities.


    I’d Like to Bring Up the Gifts

    It has come to my attention that Protestants attending Mass have been invited to bring up the offertory gifts.

    It seems to me that many Catholics would love to be selected and consider it a privilege, whereas others merely show off their “importance” without an iota of knowledge concerning the piety involved.

    Let me begin with a few observations:

    1) I could find no law or regulation forbidding a non-Catholic to be among those bringing the gifts to the altar.

    2) Most of the time Protestants or other non-Catholics attending the celebration of the Eucharist are not interested or desirous of participating in the bringing of gifts. They are usually strangers and guests and simply want to observe and be present, rather than to take a significant role in the ceremonies of the Eucharist.

    3) When those of different faiths become involved, it is usually because of some special circumstances or relationships, for example, relatives attending a funeral or wedding. Close relatives at a wedding may be members of the wedding party, act as ushers or bring the gifts to the altar. I don’t think anyone finds that offensive.

    For the rest, I hope no one exercises a liturgical role or brings the gifts to the altar merely to be seen and noticed or uses it as an opportunity to show off. That is poor motivation.

    I also suspect that those planning and supervising liturgies are often looking for people willing to participate—in this case, to be in the offertory procession. If you would like to be among those presenting the gifts, I suggest you volunteer your services to the celebrant or whoever plans the services and appoints the ministers.



    War and ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’

    Talking with someone about Catholicism, I came upon a question I couldn’t answer. I’ve been curious to know how the Church allows or justifies killing during times of war when one of the Ten Commandments states, “Thou shalt not kill.”


    A treatment of war really deserves more than a few lines. I would encourage you to read what the new Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about war or what is written in the Dutch A New Catechism. Either one should be available from any Catholic bookstore.

    If you look at the Book of Exodus, however, you will find the command is given this way: “Do not slay the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked” (23:7). That is the translation in the Revised Standard Version. The New American Bible translates the verse, “The innocent and the just you shall not put to death, nor shall you acquit the guilty.”

    The Good News Bible has it, “Do not put an innocent person to death for I will condemn anyone who does such an evil thing.” In their translations of Jeremiah 7:6, the thought is the same. Note the prohibition is about killing the innocent and just.

    The Church and those theologians who are not pacifists do not see the commandment as forbidding self-defense. Both the individual and society have the right to self-defense. And they see a just war as self-defense.

    So says the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The prohibition of murder does not abrogate the right to render an unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. Legitimate defense is a grave duty for whoever is responsible for the lives of others or the common good” (#2321).



    Why ‘Father?’

    How and when did the practice of addressing priests as “Father” originate?

    I have read that Catholic priests, like Anglican clergymen, were addressed as “Reverend Mister” in English-speaking countries in the 1700’s and 1800’s. For example, John Carroll refers to his fellow priest as “Reverend Mister” in his writings.

    Also, what biographies of John Carroll would you recommend?


    According to Our Sunday Visitor Catholic Encyclopedia, those in the early Church who gave special witness to the faith were called “Father.” This title was then given to all bishops who exercised spiritual authority over people as “fathers in God.” According to St. Jerome, who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, monks in Egypt and Palestine gave the title to one another. In medieval England confessors were called “ghostly fathers.”

    In 19th century Ireland all priests came to be called “Father.” As Irish priests and people emigrated, the title was used in other English-speaking countries and the custom was encouraged in England by Cardinal Henry Manning.

    For a biography of John Carroll, try Martin Marty’s A Short History of American Catholicism (1995, Resources for Christian Living [RCL], $10.95).

    Also, I understand Georgetown University has a portrait of John Carroll in Almanac, Volume Four.

    The classic biography was written in 1881 by John Gilmary Shea—The Life and Times of the Most Reverend John Carroll.

    You may need the help of a librarian finding one or the other of these.



    Communion for the Sick

    I am a eucharistic minister in a large urban hospital. Every once in a while the other ministers and I are faced with the situation of a patient who has expressed a desire to receive holy Communion, but indicates by words or gestures that only a small piece of the host can be handled orally.

    Our priest chaplain has told us not to administer to such a patient any part of a host.

    Are there any rules governing this situation?


    I find it difficult to understand the chaplain’s refusal to give Communion to a person who can swallow only a part of the host. Any Catholic requesting the Eucharist at a reasonable time and in reasonable circumstances has a right to this sacrament. And the sick, especially, are in need of spiritual help and nourishment.

    Giving the sick who have difficulty in swallowing only a part of the host has been taught in pastoral theology classes and has been common pastoral practice for a long time.

    In Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite (Ignatius Press), Msgr. Peter J. Elliot, who has served in the Roman Curia, offers practical solutions for problems in ministering Communion. After stating that no attempt should be made to give the Eucharist to the irrational, the unconscious or those who cannot hold down solid or liquid food, he considers the situation of those who have difficulty swallowing.

    He states that some solutions are to provide water immediately after Communion and to give the communicant only a small fragment of the host. For those unable to swallow solid matter, Msgr. Elliot recommends offering Communion with the Precious Blood from a sealed container.



    The Wise Man welcomes your questions. If you have a question, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Wise Man, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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