The Church of the Milk Grotto, Bethlehem

Saturday 5th July 2014

After visiting the Church of the Nativity, I visited the Church of the Milk Grotto. You just have to love the diversity of Catholic devotion. I had not heard of this place before, but here’s the story that explains it.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” (Matthew 2:13, NIV)

The Milk Grotto is located around the southeast corner of the Basilica of the Nativity. The grotto is converted into a chapel. It is irregular in shape and hollowed from a soft rock cave.

According to tradition, the Holy Family hid within the Milk Grotto before they escaped to Egypt. While the Virgin Mary nursed the baby Jesus there, drops of her milk fell on the ground within the cave and turning the rock white. Many believe that the rock is the source of miraculous power with regard to fertility. Couples who have difficulty conceiving, drink a bit of the rock’s powder mixed with water and pray to the Virgin Mary. On the left of the chapel there is a room decorated with many photos of newborn babies and testimonial letters from parents attesting to the powers of the chalky sediment that was scratched from the cave walls.

The Milk Grotto, Bethlehem

The Milk Grotto, Bethlehem

In the grotto is a lovely painting of the Virgin breast-feeding the infant Jesus.

I spoke with the Franciscan priest who was presiding in the souvenir shop annex. He told me about couples who did not have children coming to the grotto and praying. He said there are 3,000 babies born as a result of these prayers! He also told me there is a new baby born every second day! As flesh and blood proof, one wall of the souvenir shop had baby pictures and testimonies from the parents on display. He said he had 2,000 photos!! He also said that the successful pregnancies resulting from these prayers and from imbibing the stone powder were a matter of faith rather than demonstrable proof.

As I wrote, you have to love the variety of Catholic devotions! I had never heard of it before. Yes, I had heard scoffing references to a drop of the Virgin’s milk falling to the ground and turning a stone white, but I had never heard about the claimed miraculous powers of the stone, especially in regard to fertility!! Maybe if they had heard of it the Billings would have had something to say about it!

I was surprised to see photos of Pope John Paul II visiting the Franciscan community at the Milk Grotto, and Pope Benedict, and I was told that Pope Francis had also visited and the site had been reserved for his photo on the wall.

Three popes and three thousand babies!!!

For more information and photos of the Milk Grotto see:

After my pilgrim excursion to the sacred sites of Bethlehem, I turned into a tourist and spent some time visiting the commercial sites of Bethelehem, wandering in the suq and looking at the variety of available wares.

To the surprise of the shopkeepers, I practised my very limited Arabic. I even surprised myself, how I was able to communicate, and how much I was able to understand. Of course, they have functional English, as well as being functional in a variety of languages to attract customers of diverse nationalities to their shop.

I enjoyed my conversations with them. But I have been puzzled and amused by some of the words today and on other forays into the linguistic world of the Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian. In Arabic there is no letter “p”, so Patrick becomes Batrick. I am Bat McInerney!! Pakistan becomes Bakistan. In one shop I was being offered a “billow” and thought I was getting something from the ocean, till I realised it was a “pillow”. I was also offered “burses”, but these weren’t scholarships that would fatten my wallet, but rather “purses”, the “burchasing” of which would empty my wallet! We also discussed “bolitics” and “boliticians”, how the “beople” of “Balestine” want “beace” but the leaders of both sides have vested interests in conflict. The only solution is “brayers” for “beace”! I heartily agreed.

I really enjoyed my conversations with the Palestinian shopkeepers of Bethlehem. Apart from the linguistic leaps (should that be “leabs”?), I found them friendly and good and very hospitable (in one shop I really enjoyed a cup of sweet tea, and this during the Ramadan fast!). I had found some of their counterparts in the suq in Jerusalem to be very friendly also but then become quite hostile if a purchase did not eventuate. I admit it is only some, not many, but one or two made a lasting, very negative impression on me, though I admit that the majority are fine and appreciate the banter and the gamesmanship of seeking sales.

However, overall I had a much more positive impression of the Bethlehemites, part of which was feeling for their constrained situation. Overall, the territories under the Palestinian authority seem poorer, more run-down, more rubbish around, than in Israel. They are finding life and business a struggle in the prevailing circumstances.

They made it very clear that the shopkeeping business is not good. The controversial wall separating the territories under Israel and the Palestinian Authority have made it more difficult for the traders. There are fewer pilgrims to buy their goods. They do not have access to other markets in Israel. Even the escalation of Israeli-Palestinian tensions in the past few days over the killings of the Israeli and Palestinian teenagers have caused a reduction in the number of pilgrims to Bethlehem and therefore a dip in their sales. I felt for their plight. I was glad to buy a couple of items and contribute to the local economy. It was one of the reasons I had deliberately gone to Bethlehem rather than doing all my shopping in Jerusalem.

As I sat in the suq and watched the passing parade (bassing barade?), I was amazed at the high number of young men in their late teens, early twenties. It made me realise that Palestine is a young population. They were born and grew up and have never known peace. May their children be born into a world of peace.

With the early morning start and the trip to the two holy sites and one commercial site in Bethlehem, it was a long day. I caught the bus back to Jerusalem and experienced a small taste of the separation that divides the population. At the checkpoint between the Palestinian and Israeli territories I and other foreign nationalities on board had to show our passports. Palestinians under 25 had to get off the bus and pass through a checkpoint showing their identity documents. Older Palestinians remained on the bus and two Israeli army personnel checked their papers.

Let us indeed bray for beace!!!

Shalom, Peace, Salaam!!!


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