This is the story of how I recently came to know about the Vision and Miracle Healing of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the stained-glass window, and the 130-year long journey of stained-glass windows from Munich to Gethsemani to California.
During a recorded talk about Merton’s teachings of contemplation, an old priest made a sudden, brief detour following a memory that must have popped into his head when he began describing his surprise upon seeing a two-paneled stained-glass window leaning against a wall in the gift shop at Gethsemani, depicting—of all things—Mother Mary holding baby Jesus in one arm and her breast in the other hand, a stream of breast milk going from one stained-glass panel to the other, falling on St. Bernard’s lips. WHAT?! What was that you said? I stopped the recording, rewound it, and listened again with more attention—Yes, I heard it right. The remainder of the old priest’s talk was so dry; I cannot recall a word nor his topic. All that remained with me was a vivid, sacred, symbolic image of that stained-glass window. Now I had to know about this; I had to see it; I had to understand it. And so, my research began.
First, I called the friendly groundskeeper I met at Gethsemani, T., and asked him if he had seen this stained glass in the gift shop; and could he send me a photo of it. He hadn’t seen it, but he recalled hearing a story about a woman from California coming with a Budget moving truck and hauling away many stained-glass windows when the Abbot wanted to get rid of them. Two days later he surprised me with a text: he must have asked around and found the name and phone number of the lucky woman who hauled away this piece—and many others. I contacted her immediately, left her a message. Two days later this photo of what I have titled, “The Vision and Miracle Healing of St Bernard” showed up in my phone; it was more beautiful than I had imagined it. A minute later my phone rang, it was Joan, an artist who makes and restores stained glass windows. We talked like old friends for two hours; I will tell you her account of the history of this window.
ST. BERNARD’S PRAYER, VISION, AND HEALING
St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s vision and miracle healing happened long ago in 11th century France. If we can’t even get the news straight now, we can appreciate variations in this ancient legend. It goes like this: Bernard, the monk, was praying before a statue of Mary, “Show yourself as a mother.” Suddenly, the statue came to life! In one arm, Mary held Infant Jesus, with the other hand she squeezed her bared breast, squirting breast milk on the lips of Bernard, who, being nourished spiritually received gifts of healing and wisdom. Being healed, physically and spiritually, Bernard is credited with hundreds of healings; the Church gave him the rare title of “The Doctor.”
In one version the vision-miracle happens in his sleep. Sometimes only three drops of Breastmilk fall on his lips, in another telling the milk streamed into his eyes and cured an infection giving him the gift of “seeing.” When Mary’s Milk touches his lips or mouth, he receives the gift of wisdom, inspired teaching; he becomes a beloved teacher. I contemplate the profound meaning of Mary’s Breastmilk nourishing the Infant’s body and the monk’s soul; perhaps the answer to Bernard’s prayer is that he felt “mothered” by Mary. Another way to understand this medieval image is twofold: One, breastfeeding was familiar to everyone at the time artists painted “St. Bernard’s Lactation,”so people might not have been surprised or offended as some are now. Second, breastmilk was believed to be mother’s blood turned into breastmilk; for medieval people, alchemically-speaking, the Breastmilk of the Virgin may have in a way paralleled the symbolic Blood of Christ.
How does Bernard of Clairvaux tie into an Abbey in Kentucky?
Bernard of Clairvaux founded a Cistercian abbey in France and created Rules for monastic life in the 12th century that are still followed today. The Abbey of Gethsemani was founded by 44 Cistercian monks from France. It makes sense this stained-glass gift was presented to the Abbey. But how and when did it get there?
In the 1890s, Trappist Abbot Olbrecht (who I think lived in Munich, Germany) wanted to send a gift to the French Cistercian monks living in poverty in a new monastery in Kentucky. He wanted to preserve some continuity with the churches they were accustomed to in their old country, France, by sending stained-glass windows.
The windows made a remarkable journey: The stained glass windows were crafted and framed in Munich in the early 1890s; they crossed the Atlantic by ship; then, oxen yoked to covered wagon trains pulled the crated windows cross country; they finally arrived at a little monastery in the wilds of Kentucky in 1893.
THE VISION & MIRACLE
St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s prayer, vision, and miracle healing happened long ago in 11th century France. As we still can’t get our news straight now, we can appreciate variations in this ancient legend. It goes like this: Bernard, the monk, was praying before a statue of Mary, “Show yourself as a mother.” Suddenly, the statue came to life! Mary held the184659 Infant Jesus in one arm, with the other she squeezed her bare breast, squirting a stream of breast milk on the lips of Bernard, who, being nourished spiritually, received gifts of healing, teaching, and wisdom.
In one version, the vision-miracle happened in his sleep, in another when he is praying. Sometimes it is said that only three drops of Breastmilk fell on Bernard’s lips, yet in others, the milk streamed into his eyes and cured an infection giving him the gift of “seeing.” After Mary’s Milk touches his lips or mouth, he receives the gift of wisdom and becomes a beloved teacher. Mary’s Breastmilk nourished the Infant’s body and the monk’s soul; perhaps Bernard felt “mothered” by Mary.
To more fully understand this medieval image, it is helpful to consider two things: One, that breastfeeding was familiar to everyone in the day, so the paintings (called “The Lactation of St. Bernard”) may not have surprised or disturbed people then. Second, at the time, breastmilk was thought of as “processed maternal blood;” the Breastmilk of the Virgin may have in a way paralleled the symbolic Blood of Christ.
HOW JOAN SAVED THESE STAINED-GLASS PANELS
Some years ago, when Joan, a stained-glass conservator, was attending a glass conference in Louisville, Kentucky, she looked up “Thomas Merton/buried” on the internet. When “Gethsemani” (near Bardstown, Kentucky) came up, she realized he was buried fairly close. She called the monastery and asked one of the monks if she could visit his grave and leave a flower; he invited her to stay for a five-day Retreat, which was starting the same day, and she accepted. Joan is a great storyteller; I hope you enjoy her story of fate and destiny:
“I was walking in the garden when—I kid you not—out of the corner of my eye, I saw something sparkle like a mirror catching the sun. I looked over to see that the sparkle was coming from a building on the other side of the wall. It looked like stained glass, but it didn’t compute. So, I dismissed it, thinking to myself, “All I’ve been doing for five days is looking at glass, thinking about glass, talking about glass. So, now, even when I’m not looking at it, I think I’m still looking at glass.”
The next morning, I went back and took another look. And sure enough, there, inside a ratty old building, was stained glass! Heaps and heaps and piles and fragments and panels that were leaning up against the window and little painted faces leaning up against the panes!
When I asked a Brother about the old building and the glass, he said, “That’s our water treatment plant, and, yeah, those are some old windows we have in there.” I learned hundreds of stained-glass panels had been stored in a neighboring farmer’s barn for forty years; the family recently returned them to Gethsemani, stacking them in the watershed. Joan didn’t want to take their stained-glass windows; she wanted to volunteer her skills in restoration so that they could be enjoyed again. Long story short. Joan returned year after year for five-and-a-half years to work on the restoration project. Consider the perfection of being in the right place at the right time: No one else noticed the glint of hidden stained-glass. The Abbot told Joan that had she not restored and taken the windows to California, they would have gone to rubble, and he would have disposed of them as the Abbey would never use them again. Once again the windows were crated and put in a Budget moving truck, driven from Kentucky to California.”
"When you enter into prayer, you enter into nothingness. Solitude brings you to the innermost self." Thomas Merton
Upon contemplation of the history and journey of this image and stained-glass, what symbolic or alchemical feeling or meaning comes up for you? It occurs to me, that for Catholic storytellers in search of healing or needing to be mothered, this story might be resonant. Please, share your insights or thoughts with us on Facebook.
During the past few weeks I was compelled to follow a chance chain-of-events leading me on this Path. Who can know where a suggestion, a word on a page in a book, an observation or felt-sense of a moment in time or place will lead? In my mind I hear don Juan asking Carlos Castaneda, no, asking Me, “Does this Path have Heart?” Don Juan said all paths lead nowhere, but we have to know whether an inviting path has a heart. If not, don’t bother to follow it. But if it has a heart, even though it too leads nowhere and has no gain, one must follow it. I think we must follow toward knowing something, to knowing another, to knowing something about oneself that would not be known in any other way, on any other Path.
All day I’ve been writing this blog and putting together Temenos, the February newsletter which is going out late. It will be a belated Valentines issue, but Love is always, never late, so it’s okay—I tell myself. Tonight, a storm is expected to come lay a thick blanket of snow down on Indianapolis. Tomorrow was to be a travel day, but I may have to cocoon-in-place and finish a painting.