Residents of Texas between Austin and San Antonio have long referred to their area as God's Country. It's where the one billion-year-old Enchanted Rock rises over the much more recently established state of Texas, and where thick forests shade rivers, ferns, and waterfalls while a few feet away, rocks, cactus, and juniper provide an altogether different kind of beauty. It's the place where Lyndon Johnson flew to get away from the confines of the White House. It's the Texas Hill Country and according to the monks, nuns, and priests at Christ of the Hills Orthodox Church, the area was and continues to be blessed by a miracle.
The monastery of New Sarov was founded near Boerne in 1967, by two monks, Fathers Benedict and Vasili, who still reside in there today. The present location of the Eastern Orthodox community was built in the spring of 1980, in a remote section of Blanco County, two miles off the main road, past several cattle guards. A group of modest structures make up the religious hamlet. The unassuming group of buildings surrounded by ranches gained little attention until the mid-Eighties. In 1983, an icon of the Christ child and his mother, Mary, was commissioned by the church, painted by a fellow monk in California, and delivered to New Sarov. Icons are an important part of life in the Orthodox faith. So the news on May 7, 1985, that the image of the Virgin Mary, or Theotokos, as she is known to those in the Orthodox, was reported to be weeping tears of myrrh, a fragrant oil, caused quite a stir. The icon is reported to have wept constantly until October of 1985 and has purportedly continued to weep occasionally since. Father Anthony, a brother at the monastery, says the tears average once a day, "But it's up to God, [when the icon will cry]."
Mother Seraphima, the only nun in New Sarov's community of eight monks, says she has seen people come for a variety of reasons. One would guess the faithful would show up, and they do. "Sometimes people are out for a Sunday drive, and find themselves drawn to the icon in ways that they can not explain," she said. Mother Seraphima, who has lived at Christ on the Hills since 1989, believes that it is New Sarov's job to provide "love in a little place [for people who wish to come visit]."
"Some people come here looking for a miracle, some people come needing help with their faith," said Father Pangratios, who has been with the order since 1980. "Some people don't come for any particular reason, only they are drawn by the spiritual," he said, remembering a family who flew in from Egypt just to see and pray before the icon.
Another of those pilgrims was New York City attorney Sheri Rikert, who was in Dallas for a legal conference. Some friends told her about the monastery, and she wanted to make a pre-Easter visit for a couple days of prayer. Rikert, a Catholic, is like many of the visitors who are not part of the Orthodox faith. "Ninety-five percent [of our visitors] are not Orthodox," confirms Father Andrew.
Holy items from Greek and Hispanic cultures surround the icon. Items such as a bag of hair from a cancer patient and other relics from those who need prayers are also left with the artistic rendering of Jesus and Mary. "We realize everyone is sent by God in a time and a way that is best," offered Father Pangratios. "A good number of the people are Roman Catholics, but we've had people who are Baptist. There was a family who was Church of Christ, people who I thought wouldn't be interested in a weeping icon of the Virgin Mary but who came, and came in faith, and God touched them," he said.
The services may be somewhat different to those accustomed to the ones offered by Roman Catholic or most Protestant churches. The Orthodox church is neither Catholic nor Protestant, having separated from the early Christian Church in 1054. (For timeline comparison: Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation didn't take place until 450 years later.)
Little about the mass has changed in the centuries since the first services. The church at New Sarov, for example, has no pews, as most of the congregation stands during the mass, which runs about two hours; shoes are removed before entering the church. Parishioners face east to remind them of the risen Christ and the second coming. Women stand on the left, before the image of Mary and men stand on the right, in front of Jesus. Prayers and scripture readings are sung. Father Anthony explained this reluctance to change. "If we loosen hold of tradition, we lose part of the faith," he said.
Visiting the icon during Holy Week, I asked Father Anthony about how he came to New Sarov. He was sick and facing the possibility of a brain operation. "I came here from Chicago to check it out, and the second time I came, I stayed," he said. He is free from his illness, without surgery. Miracles in the Last Days, a book available at the bookstore at New Sarov, details similar stories of healings of cancer, arthritis, addictions, and even hemorrhoids.
Father Pangratios is quick to point out, however, that "It's important for us not to approach God with a shopping list," and further elaborates on people's need to pray. "Of course, there are people with needs, and God wants us to come to him when we have needs, but the most important kind of healing is the healing that goes on in the soul."
Souls are why the faithful believe that this particular Mary is crying. As Miracles in the Last Days states: "God is not interested in making us say 'wow'; rather, God is trying to get us to wake up out of our stupor. To see reality. To realize that there is more than just this earthly life. To realize that we are not the center of the universe; God is the center of the universe." The church believes that the tears of Mary ask five things of the faithful:
1. Daily repentance and weekly confession
2. Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays
3. Ceaseless prayer
4. Love God, love neighbor, live the Gospel of Jesus Christ
5. Refrain from all judgment
A crying object can easily be faked, according to world-renowned skeptic James Randi of the James Randi Educational Foundation. Randi, who made his name as a professional magician, has for many years been in the business of debunking claims of the paranormal, psychics, faith healers, and religious miracles. In an article on his Web site, he tells about an encounter with a TV news crew.
"I was able to cause a statue -- one the [TV crew] purchased and brought with them -- to weep uncontrollably at will," he wrote. "I simply squirted the figure surreptitiously and the liquid rolled down the face and arms quite convincingly."
Far from the world of the non-religious is the Catholic Church, which requires scientific investigation and evidence before considering something worthy of worship. For example, doctors -- rather than the clergy -- verify stories of healings. Even then, it is not declared an official miraculous sign of God that has a specific message, but is simply acknowledged, stating for the record that something has happened with no other explanation.
In a small building, behind a locked door, is the Weeping Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos of New Sarov. Looking at the icon with other visitors, Father Anthony invited all of us to get as close as we wished, but not to touch the image. Two glistening streaks were barely visible. The streaks made their way from the eyes to the bottom of the picture, laying on a stand at a 45-degree angle. Cotton balls at the bottom of the icon were moist with the fragrant oily liquid that the priest used to bless us all.
"I think it's very touching," said Rickert, the New York attorney whose visit to Texas brought her to the icon. "It's a great consolation and a great challenge from Our Lady."
Copyright © 2013 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.