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Face-to-Face With the Miraculous

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I took to the road again but this time headed to visit one of my favorite places, Saint Tikhon's monastery. Saint Tikhon's is an Orthodox monastery about 40 minutes outside of Scranton. The three hour trip on Martz Trailways went without a hitch. One of the monks, Brother Stephen, was at the bus terminal waiting for me when I arrived. We chatted amiably in the car on the way to the monastery gates, and then I was left on my own at the guest house where I unpacked and read until the two-hour Vespers service at 4:30. Dinner followed at 6:30 and then there'd be free time to read, explore the grounds (and the woods) until bed.

Life in a monastery is generally serious business. There is no such thing as "monastery entertainment," no movie nights or daily happy hours. I didn't take a cell phone or a laptop but opted to go natural. It was good to get away from the city and to talk to the monks. In the car on the way from the bus, for instance, Brother Stephen told me about a group of retired Catholic nuns who love to visit St. Tikhon's. These sisters are ultra modern types who don't wear a religious habit, so it's my guess that they are drawn to the extreme traditionalism at the monastery, where the monks wear cassocks twenty-four seven. In any event, Brother Stephen had a lot of nice things to say about these nuns.

Like my first visit to the monastery a year and a half ago, I was the only one staying at the guest house. My large room had two twin beds, a desk, closet, and a bathroom across the hall. Near the bathroom was a communal kitchen of sorts that was also attached to a hermitage where a very learned priest-monk, Father Athanasay lived. Father Athanasay, Brother Stephen informed me, was a former Jesuit Catholic priest who switched to Orthodoxy around the time of the Second Vatican Council. Father Athanasay has a particular devotion to Saint Anna, the mother of Mary. As a result of that devotion he was able to donate a miraculous icon of Saint Anna to St. Tikhon's, although this icon didn't start out as miraculous at all.

Years ago Father Athanasay was approached by an elderly woman who gave him money to spend as he pleased. Father Athanasay decided he would go to an iconographer and have an icon made of Saint Anna, his patron saint. Shortly after the icon was made, it began to stream myrrh (perfumed oil). This fact attracted considerable attention, which inevitably led to numerous reports of miracles and healings after people prayed before the icon. The icon of Saint Anna is located in a small, separate chapel near the monastic dormitory. The chapel is large enough for fifteen monks and is sometimes used when the main church is over crowded due to a St. Tikhon's seminary event. Brother Stephen was kind enough to show me the icon, taking it out of its glass container so that I could get a close up view of it as well as see the gifts of jewelry, necklaces and rings draped around the perimeter of the icon. These gifts were left by people who had benefited from miracles as a result of prayers to Saint Anna.

If you're not Catholic or Orthodox, all this might sound like Halloween hocus pocus. Some people, in fact, have suggested that the miraculous effects of the icon (or any icon) are illusionary, and that the streaming part is a hoax engineered by priests or monks just to get people to donate money or come to church. "There has to be a rational explanation," one friend of mine insisted. I am at a loss to explain these things to skeptics except to shrug and say that the mysteries in the universe sometimes outweigh rationality and logic. Sometimes there isn't a rational explanation. When Brother Stephen showed me the icon of Saint Anna, I didn't smell perfume or see it stream myrrh, but I did cross myself and give it a kiss.

Two days later I would visit Saint George's Orthodox Greek Catholic church in Taylor, Pennsylvania, when the Abbott of Saint Tikhon's invited me to accompany one of the monks and his visiting parents to a service around the exposition of two weeping icons that have been attracting considerable attention.

For at least two years these icons of the Virgin Mary (Theotokos) have exuded a fragrant oil or perfume like substance that literally flows down the surface of the icon, so much so that it can be collected in a bottle or swabbed up with cotton balls. Sometimes the streaming is so intense it fogs the outer glass containers into which the icons are placed. The service, called a Moleben, is about 40 minutes of prayers and hymns during which the priest places the icons on a Tetrapod (or stand) and then anoints the congregants with the myrrh. In the past, the Moleben has attracted thousands of people, some of whom have reported healings of serious back pain and stroke related problems. Brother Stephen said that there were so many people at the service one year that the local police had to direct traffic in and out of the church parking lot.

The people who attend these services are Orthodox, Roman and Byzantine Catholic Christians. In the Catholic world, there are statues and pictures of the Virgin Mary that also weep. But this is not about seeing the face of Jesus or Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich or the swirl of a Dairy Crème ice cream cone. The media favors these frivolous stories because they tend to poke fun at crazy religious people up to their necks in superstition. There's nothing laughable about an icon that weeps.

That's why when the Abbott, Father Sergius, asked me if I'd like to accompany the monk and his parents to see these icons, I replied with curious enthusiasm. On the evening of the service, I met up with Father Silouan, the young bearded monk who converted to Orthodoxy several years ago after finding himself in a rut while attending art school. Father Silouan, who is currently an iconographer at St. Tikhon's, changed his mind about a career as a secular artist when the instructors at the art school he was attending announced that they would begin to teach students how to sell and make money from their art. The future monk, cooled by this emphasis on money, announced that he was not interested in doing art for cash. As a result, he left art school and then, through a serendipitous chain of events, happened to find himself inside an Orthodox church when one of his friends told him that he "should take a look at this place."

Father Silouan took to Orthodoxy like a fish to water and not long after entered the monastery at St. Tikhon's. But for his parents it was a slightly longer road. While traveling with Father Silouan's family, his mother told me that she was at first a little put off by her son's conversion. For many Protestant evangelicals, like Father Silouan's mom, Orthodoxy can seem like voodoo with its icons, candles, incense and blatantly un-modern vestments. Nevertheless, both she and her husband followed their son's path. For Fr. Silouan's father, who was born Catholic, the transition was easier. He told me that following his son was like going back to the Church of his childhood before Vatican II.

Fr. Silouan's mother recalled the initial reactions of her evangelical friends when she told them she was now Orthodox: "It's superstition, almost witchcraft!" some of them replied. Of course, her friends were thinking about the icons, and how they saw them as idol worship, even if they didn't realize that prayers are said to the saint the icon represents, not to the icon per se (as an idol). Icons, simply put, are not worshipped. Catholics get similar criticisms when some insist that they pray to statues, not to the saint a statue represents. Father Silouan's mother found that explaining these things to her questioning friends to be a hopelessly frustrating experience. "This is the original Christianity," she told me she told them. "Before there was scripture -- before there was a bible -- there was liturgy."

The church was crowded when we arrived. There were Greeks, non-Greeks, non-Christians, workmen who looked as though they'd just left a construction site, elderly couples, people with obvious medical conditions, families, children and curiosity seekers. The two icons, in glass containers, were placed front and center before the iconostasis. The priest, in blue vestments, chanted a prayer that elicited robust responses from the hundreds present. The energy in that small church had an upward drift, even a touch of the charismatic, but just a touch, because the Orthodox never get crazy with these things. You won't find hand waving, head rolling, or snake charming.

By the time we made our way to the icons to get anointed from the streaming myrrh, the entire church had the smell of roses. We watched as the priest would switch from one icon to another, sometimes holding one aloft but at an angled position so that the myrrh would run in a steady stream into the cupped hands of congregants. The streams of myrrh were constant. When it was my turn, my forehead was swabbed with the fragrant oil. Some people were in tears.

For a good 10 minutes or so in the car on the way back to the monastery, nobody said a word. We were all still in the perfumed environment of the church.

The tempo changed when Fr. Silouan announced that, compliments of the Abbot, we would be stopping at a Chinese restaurant for a bite to eat because we had missed dinner at the monastery.

We continued to talk about what we had experienced through dinner, feeling very good that we had witnessed a true... miracle.