Perhaps you’ve come across this image before and thought, “What in the world?”
Known as the “Lactation of St. Bernard,” it usually shows Our Lady holding the infant Jesus with one hand, exposing one her breasts with her other hand, and squirting breast milk at St. Bernard of Clairvaux into his mouth.
Here’s the story behind the unusual image.
Born at the end of the 11th century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux was a key reformer of the Cistercian order in the 12th century. In addition to his holiness, he was a gifted preacher and brilliant theologian. He was canonized just 21 years after his death and in 1830 was the 16th person to ever be officially honored with the prestigious title of Doctor of the Church.
But where did he get his great wisdom? That’s where the strange story about Mary comes in.
The story goes that St. Bernard was kneeling and praying when suddenly the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Him holding the infant Jesus. Mary squeezed one of the her breasts, squirting breast milk to him. In one version, the milk went to his mouth and symbolized both that she would be a special mother to him and that she was supernaturally granting him wisdom.
In another version, the milk went to his eyes and cured an infection he had. But even this second story could be interpreted as having the same meaning as the first: the infection could symbolize sin or ignorance, and curing it could symbolize her granting him the illumination of wisdom.
Thus, this explains how he achieved such incredible learning and wisdom.
Are you still uncomfortable that Our Lady would expose her breast and give him breast milk? Rather than dismiss it, let this story be a challenge for you.
Our culture today doesn’t exactly have a healthy view of the human body or sexuality. This story has been generally accepted and preserved for centuries in the Catholic tradition. If such a story doesn’t make sense to us today, perhaps we should consider that it is because we are lacking something in our views of these things.