Converting to Orthodoxy has been wonderful ...and overwhelming at times. I imagine it’s something akin to the wonder felt by the Pevensie children as they tunneled through the wardrobe to arrive at the brilliance of Narnia.
There is so much church history to devour and Tradition to understand as entrusted to us from the ancient church. It’s a marvelous journey that I am on and it’s worth a pause here and there to hold a discovery, a treasure of the Orthodox faith, before others so that they might be blessed, too.
For those who are cradle Orthodox or have been converted for many years, myrrh streaming icons are nothing new. But for me, coming from a Protestant background with a subtle prejudice against anything that looked or smelled Catholic, these ‘weeping icons’ were met with skepticism and even quiet anger as I contemplated a possible mockery of God’s house. For those of you who may be unacquainted with weeping icons, they are an icon or statue* (please read comments below) depicting a saint or Jesus Christ himself, that miraculously begins to produce an oily substance commonly referred to as ‘myrrh’.
The myrrh usually begins to form as small droplets on the painted surface of the icon and then slowly streams down to the bottom, thus the phrase ‘tears of heaven’ is a frequent description. Typically the priest or pilgrims venerating the icon will use cotton balls to absorb the liquid, placing them carefully into airtight bags to preserve the oil as long as possible. Oftentimes those who are blessed by the myrrh report being healed in some physical or spiritual way.
To me, “myrrh” is a bit of a misnomer as it calls to mind the resin from the Commiphora myrrha tree found in Somalia. This resin is steam distilled into essential oil and frequently used in therapeutic oil blends for the skin and as a meditative aid. In fact, this type of myrrh has an ancient history in the role of healing, meditation and religious ceremony that is worthy of another essay. However, the miracle of “myrrh” weeping from some icons is something altogether different. In at least one instance I’ve read, the molecular structure of this weeping substance was likened to that of olive oil.
And something else which I find utterly fascinating is the scent commonly ascribed to the streaming icons: that of roses. This is particularly interesting to me because long before I knew anything about Orthodoxy or icons, I was reading accounts of people with near death and at-death experiences. Repeatedly I would encounter stories from people who would notice the scent of roses - when no flowers were present- when a loved one passed or during prayerful times or occasions when they were ill yet felt the presence of God. The scent of roses seems to be inextricably woven in the veil that separates the heavenly and earthly realms.
As I was learning about these icons and sifting the hoaxes from the genuine accounts, I came to discover the Weeping Icon of the Theotokos at St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church in Chicago. It’s a wondrous account and, if I’m not mistaken, I believe it was this icon that so touched Matthew Gallatin in his book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells. A genuine weeping icon will be examined and blessed by a priest or bishop and revealed to the Church for all to pray and venerate it as they wish.
More recently, I read the account of the Iveron Weeping Icon from Hawaii that has traveled to San Francisco in early September ’08 to be venerated by the faithful at Holy Virgin Cathedral. Very often, these wonder-working icons will travel to various parishes, cathedrals or monasteries so that the miracle may be shared by many. I know that the Hermitage of the Holy Cross near me has hosted such an icon. I regret that I didn’t learn of it earlier so that I might have visited and prayed before it. It’s truly a miracle, an occurrence without explanation. Still, people will ask, “But why? Why does the Blessed Virgin weep? What are we to make of this?”
Since so many around the world have been blessed by these icons, I would say that they weep for our healing. I’m not seeking to understand the how or why, I just pray that someday God will grant me the opportunity to see and touch these tears from heaven.
*Photo is from Holy Theotokos of Iveron Russian Orthodox Church website.