Maria SS. della Lavina: Torrents of Water and Drops of Milk
by Fr. William Rock, FSSP.
If one were to visit Cerami, Sicily on September 7, one would encounter young women wearing red tunics, harkening back to the time the island was Greek, and young men wearing blue shirts and black pants. Dressed in this festive attire, they are assisting at the annual Maria SS della Lavina celebration.
Devotion to the Maria SS della Lavina image is traced back to a Byzantine icon which was brought to the area at some unknown time in the past (several theories exist which attempt to explain the arrival of this Byzantine icon in Sicily). The icon, as it shows Our Lady suckling Our Lord, is interpreted by the locals as an image of Our Lady of Graces [la Madonna delle Grazie]. Such depictions of Our Lord and Our Lady are ancient. “The earliest images of Mary nursing the Child are of Coptic [Egyptian] and Palestinian origin…From the Monastery of Saint Sabas in Palestine, the composition spread to Italy (Rome, Santa Maria in Trastevere) and, via Serbia, reached the monasteries of Mount Athos. In the seventh century, during the struggle with the Iconoclasts, Pope Gregory II (d. 731) wrote to his adversary, Emperor Leo III the Isaurian: ‘Among the icons to be worshiped there is also an image of the Holy Mother holding our Lord and God in her arms and nursing him with her milk.’” (Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church, pg. 183)
The original Maria SS della Lavina icon was, according to the harmonized, pious local tradition, housed in a convent of Benedictine nuns. During a time of danger and iconoclasm, the icon was nailed to a beam in the ceiling in order to protect it. When that danger had passed, the icon was left in its hiding place. Eventually the nuns moved to a different location, leaving the icon behind, and the monastery fell into disrepair.
In the mid-seventeenth century, it is held that Our Lady appeared several times in a dream to one of the Benedictine nuns and directed her to request that the local Archpriest unearth from the ruins of the old monastery the sacred icon. The request was received with skepticism by the priest.
During the third apparition, Our Lady stated that because of the skepticism of the priest, she herself would bring the icon to light. Soon, a torrential rain fell which caused flooding. The day after, a farmer was leading his mule near the torrent caused by the rainfall. Inexplicably, the mule then stopped and, after striking the mud with his hoof, knelt. The farmer, struggling to get his mule to move, drew by this commotion the attention of those who were nearby. After digging, and to the astonishment of those present, the icon of the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child was found buried in the mud. (It is claimed than an imprint of the mule’s hoof can still be seen on the sacred icon.)
As soon as the Archpriest heard of the episode, shaken and repentant, he made the bells ring out and, together with a large crowd of faithful, went to the site and the sacred icon was recovered with great devotion. In memory of this event, in May, Cerami celebrates the Feast of the Encounter and the icon is carried in procession.
From this time, the image received the title of “Lavina” from u lavinaru, which means in the local dialect “torrent,” a reference to how the image was discovered after the torrential rainfall carried the image out of the ruins and buried it in the mud caused by the flooding.
The pious tradition also tells us that the discovery of the icon was crowned by some miraculous events: one of the best known is of a certain Giuseppe, blind for thirteen years, who, as soon as the news of what had happened reached him, was led by his relatives to the image, and, having kissed the holy icon, regained his sight.
While the miraculous icon itself was placed in the church of the new covenant, a chapel was built on the site where the icon was found. Due to damage received over the years, especially during the Second World War, this chapel has gone under several renovations since its original construction. Within this chapel was placed a newly produced painting (17th century) which depicted the same scene written on the icon, that of Our Lady nursing Our Lord. The new image along with the new chapel received the name of Maria SS della Lavina also, thus linking them with the devotion shown to the miraculous icon. It is this second image, the painting, which is carried in procession during the September celebration.
Devotion to this image of the Virgin and Christ Child was brought to the United States by Italian immigrants. A Maria SS della Lavina Society was organized at St. Aloysius Church in Caldwell, New Jersey by the early 1900s which was legally chartered in 1912. This Society held yearly processions in the town originally with a banner and later with a painting. This painting, which still currently hangs at the church, was undertaken in 1934 by Mr. Onorio Ruotolo, founder of the New York City Leonardo da Vinci Art School.
Some may object to this presentation of the Virgin and Child on grounds of modesty. In our overly immodest culture, it is tempting to retreat into a puritanical position in this regard. Faithful Catholics, however, must ensure that they do not simply take a reactionary position, but should rather allow themselves to be formed in this matter by the perennial liturgical and devotional traditions of the Church. Such would do well to consider, for example, the Epistles read on the Thursday of the First Week of Lent and the Saturday of the Third Week of Lent and the Gospel assigned for the Saturday Mass of Our Lady during the Time After Pentecost in order to see what the Church allows to be read in her public liturgy and which she does not view as degrading to the dignity of the sacred action. Such should consider also the Marian hymn O gloriósa vírginum which is sung in the Divine Office. The first verse is as follows:
|O gloriósa vírginum,
Sublímis inter sídera,
Qui te creávit, párvulum
Lacténte nutris úbere.
|O glorious of Virgins,
Exalted among the stars,
He Who created you, as a little one
You suckle by your milk-filled breast.
Drawing from the letter of Pope Gregory II, we can see that the practice of depicting the Virgin suckling her Child has existed in the Church for over 1,000 years. In Bethlehem, one can even find a Chapel under the name “Milk Grotto of Our Lady.” According to pious tradition, the Holy Family stopped at this site during the Flight into Egypt, and there, while Our Lord was feeding, a drop of Mary’s milk fell, and the floor of the cave turned white. Let faithful Catholics then allow their position on this matter, as in all others, be formed according to the mind of the Church as perennially expressed in her approved liturgies and devotions.
May God bless you all and may you have a happy and blessed Maria SS della Lavina Feast Day!
Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, Mater Lavinæ!
Fr. William Rock, FSSP was ordained in the fall of 2019 and is currently Assistant Pastor at Mater Misericordiae parish in Phoenix, AZ. Thanks are due to Msgr. Robert Emery, Pastor of St. Aloysius Church in Caldwell, New Jersey, for his support and permission to use parish media, Mr. Fabio Sturchio for his translation work, Mr. Antonino Casabona for granting permission to use his photographs, Mr. Franco Digangi for providing historical information and review, and Mrs. Santa Rock and Ms. Ashleigh Grenci for photography.
September 7, 2020