Miracles and Medicine: the Margins of the Lukiškės Mother of Mercy Miracle Book: The Mystical Fountain

Books of miracles belittle the efforts of medics to help the sick (“no prescriptions of doctors could help”) because they preached a different cure, a miraculous cure through the will of God. Books of miracles are not only the sources of religious experience and the daily routine surrounding it but also peculiar annals of most common diseases occurring at the time that evidence a variety of pathologies, their identification and the significance attached to them.

From “curing” kaltūnas (the Polish plait) to resurrecting the dead

With the veneration of the Virgin Mary increasing, books of miracles spread fast in the 17th century, sanctuaries (sacred sites of particular religious significance) were established and data collected to officially recognize the miraculousness of some images of Our Lady. Victory over disease miracles predominate in many miracle books that have reached us, the “Mystical Fountain”, published in 1737, among them. It describes the miracles worked by Our Lady of Lukiškės in 1684–1689.

The book consists of five sections called streams.

The introduction to the book reads: “The fountain spurts five miraculous streams that restore health, bring back life and strengthen faith”.

The first stream encompasses 11 miracles, resurrection from the dead cases mainly. In the second stream 26 miracles are described among which miraculous healing from “severe, incurable and fatal diseases” prevail. This stream is described as “bringing back primary health, with the help of living waters, to those in mortal agony”. The third stream “restoring the sight and (…) eyes to the blind through the flow of crystal-clear water” covers 33 miracles relating mainly to curing blindness, visual impairments and various eye diseases. The fourth stream “curing the sick, through healing waters, from all possible infirmities” is the most numerous, including 129 miracles. Here cases of paralysis, epilepsy, deaf-muteness and Polish plait are mentioned. The fifth stream “pouring currents of grace” comprises 16 miracles among which we find not only miraculous cures but also miracles of help.

“Encycloaepedia” of ailments

A certain classification of events is also characteristic of other miracle books of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 17th-18th centuries, usually chronological or symptomatic – according to diseases. An example of chronological classification could be the Sapieha’s Madonna miracle book, where the events are grouped according to the time of their occurrence. The book retained the recording style of different stages of miracles. The same principle was followed in the Luck and Ruzhan-Stok miracle books. Closer to the “Mystical Fountain” is the Grodno Mother of God of Students miracle classification “according to diseases”. The section devoted to the history of the icon is followed by a section on the resurrection from the dead, then another dealing with “paralyses, epilepsy, Polish plait, dropsy”, and on “gout, bone fractures, tumours, dysentery”; part five dealt with “restoring the sight, various diseases and headaches, also with curing feet and hands” etc. From the medical point of view such grouping of ailments is difficult to explain; it was most probably based on a certain genesis of the disease. Alongside the first and the last sections devoted to the history of the icon and its cult, the Grodno Mother of God of Students publication as well as the “Mystical Fountain” contain five lists of miracles whose chronology begins from the start. Some kinds of miracles occupied an analogous place in the structures of both books, e.g. the first part describes the resurrection from the dead miracles, the last one deals with all kinds of miracles, not only with miraculous cures.

From the point of view of medicine it is important that the majority of diseases described are of neurological or neuropsychiatric character: epilepsy, that was sometimes called St. Valentine’s disease, paralyses, headaches i.e. neurological pathologies which were more often than others marked by outward dramatism, shocking impression and had a symbolic (usually that of demonic possession) meaning. “It is only by prayer that this evil can be cast out” (Mark 9, 17-29).

Diabolic agents of disease

The Old Testament considers disease to be first and foremost the Scourge of God, the will of God (from 4, 11).

The main cause of disease and pain is sins while the only way to recovery is return to the Lord, our God (p. 38).

In the New Testament, the subject of disease is even more expressive. Jesus Christ meets and heals the sick and the cripples among whom there are paralytics, the blind, the deaf-mute, epileptics, lepers, those suffering from dropsy and hysteria. Jesus Christ, as the Son of God and Eternal Saviour, the Redeemer of sinful mankind, could heal taking all the sins and infirmities of humans upon himself.

Demonstrating his power over disease, the Son of God showed his will and victory over sin. The healing miracles worked by Jesus, unfolding before people’s eyes, were to show the purpose of Jesus coming to earth. After Jesus’ death, the messianic and healing activity was taken over by apostles (Matt 10, 1; Acts 31-10; Acts 9, 32-34, Acts 28, 8-10), then by the saints, who, following Jesus’ example, served as intermediaries between God and people.

The New Testament diseases mentioned in the above miracle books were typical of the Middle Ages. The list of diseases was supplemented in new times; their nature, however, and their spiritual conditionality remained.

In the Lukiškės miracle book, Mary, mediating through the miraculous icon, is called “Medicine,” “Medication,” and “Pharmacy,” which associates her with the living, healing, cleansing waters. The physical cure occurring through her help equals spiritual purification. The pre-history of the disease holds its spiritual reason determining the ways to overcome it: prayer, pilgrimage or an offering.

Tojana Račiūnaitė