Friday, October 3, 2008

Myrrh Streaming Icons

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.


Fr. Andrew said...

For whatever it may be worth, the Greek myron that is the traditional term for what comes out of such icons (and often, the relics of saints) has a somewhat broader meaning than the English myrrh. In Greek, it refers to almost any sweet-smelling oil, unguent or perfume (usually) extracted from plants. The long-standing tradition of this Greek term is probably why we use myrrh in English to refer to what comes out of these holy objects. (Myron is also a traditional term to refer to the substance used for chrismation.)

Interestingly, some icons and relics stream so much myrrh that it has to be collected constantly. At one point, the relics of St. Demetrius the Myrrh-streaming in Thessaloniki, for instance, had to be cleaned off every day to prevent the coffin from overflowing. (I'm not sure if this is still the case.)

amy said...

Thanks so much for enlightening me on the root "myron"; it makes more sense to me now. I assume it is pronounced similarly to myrrh? ie, MUR- on ?

Do we have, in the U.S., myrrh streaming relics?

Fr. Andrew said...

Myron is pronounced "MEER-ohn." (In Greek since around the time of the NT, the upsilon is pronounced similar to the French "eu," though perhaps more on the "ee" side.)

I am not aware of any myrrh-streaming relics in the US, but I do know of some relics that have a sweet scent to them. There's a collection in a nook at the St. Ignatius Chapel at the Antiochian Village which are fragrant, particularly one of St. Paul and one of St. Moses the Black. I've smelled them myself. I also smelled a fragrance once on a relic of St. Raphael of Brooklyn, as did a few other people, but that was only one one day.

DebD said...

Amy, there is the Myrrh Streaming Icon of St. Anna in Philadelphia. It does not stream myrrh all the time but has been known to stop and start over the years.

I have been blessed to venerate this icon on 2 occasions.

Myrrh Streaming Icon of St. Anna

amy said...

I'd love to hear more of your experience when you have time to write about it. Thanks for the link and, I wonder if this is the same miracle-working icon of St. Anna that has visited the Hermitage of the Holy Cross?

Anonymous said...

This might seem a "niggling" point - please forgive me for my presumption. The Eastern Orthodox don't have statues as the Latin or Roman Catholic Church does - only icons and perhaps bas relief (one priest told me these were considered orthodo). Historically: it somehow goes back to Charlemagne and spiritually: to how icons actually work by drawing the viewer into heaven by their spiritual perspective. A statue is 3-D and solidly in this world even if it represents a saint of holy topic. Perhaps it is a question of perspective but there are still east-west historical issues that make this another difference (sadly) between us.
I do not know if this is a traditional thing or has been decided by canon law? Maybe someone else knows?

amy said...

Handmaid Leah,
Thank you for raising this point and sharing your insights. This will be a topic for me to explore more fully, as I do not know the history of Orthodox tradition regarding exclusion of religious statuary.

On a separate note, I'm glad you stopped by so I can tell you how much I enjoy the beauty of your blog.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Amy, for sharing the stories of the miracles that overwhelm us. Many an uncontrollable tear has been shed over the Hawaii icon and its blessings.

amy said...


Thank you for reading and posting your thoughts; 'tis a blessing.

Unknown said...

A myrhh-streaming icon from Hawaii visited St. Basil the Great Greek Orthodox Church in San Jose, California on 8/16/09 and was venerated by a large crowd
Chuck of Canterbury

Megan said...

I saw this icon in Washington DC. It is absolutely amazing! And the scent is so heavenly.

God bless Brother Nectary, the guardian of the holy icon. He is exactly like Brother Jose, so humble and always remaining out of sight. People were asking who the caretaker was, and no one seemed to know. In the end we asked matushka and she told us he is the humble gentleman standing in the far corner of the church.

God chooses such saintly people for his missionS.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

The myrrh from the relics of St. Demetrios used to flow out of the church, down the hill, and into the sea sometimes, a distance of about a mile in those days.

The relics were "removed" by Catholics (Crusaders??) and when they were returned, about 30 years ago, they were no longer streaming anything, and do not today.

I was blessed, a few days after my baptism, to be able to venerate a different copy of the Iveron Icon (Brother Jose's, which disappeared when he was killed.) It also streamed myrrh. Afterward, I wrote to the Skeptics Club of Montreal, where the icon "lived" when it wasn't traveling. I pretended to be concerned about the possibility of trickery, and suggested the Society should send somebody to debunk this icon.

Well, the sent somebody alright, but he couldn't succeed. His best explanation was that the icon had earlier been coated with candle wax, which then melted when a strong light was shone on the icon.

Except there was no strong light on the icon. And the myrrh that streamed from it was not waxy. And there was enough of it to anoint about 400 of us who were there that evening.

We were praying for Galina Mickle, daughter of our Protodeacon, Fr. Deacon Leonid. She was very sick from a terrible kind of leukemia for which the survival statistics basically didn't exist.

She got well.

amy said...

Thanks for all the comments; I enjoy reading each one!

And, Anastasia, Praise God! Our merciful Lord & Saviour..our Great Physician! thank you for sharing your story!

Anonymous said...

Two new myrrh streaming icons have been revealed at my home parish church of St. George Orthodox Church in Taylor, Pennsylvania (near Scranton). The day after the "Hawaiian icon" visited a copy of this Hawaiian icon began to stream fragrant oil along with another larger icon of the "Kardiotissa Mother of God". These two icons have been exuding large amounts of this oil since October and continuing until today. I have personally witnessed this back in November when I was visiting family and again this past week. Truly amazing: God is wondrous in His saints! The pastor of the church refuses to publicize this miracle in order to prevent a carnival atmosphere but large crowds have been attending a moleben service being held each Wednesday.

Father Edward Pehanich
St. Nicholas Orthodox Churches
Monongahela, Pa.
Jacobs Creek, Pa.

amy said...

Glory to God for all things!!! wonderful news!

Thank you for visiting and sharing this, Fr. Edward. May God bless you & keep you as you shepherd His flock....

The miracles of God never cease †

Anonymous said...

I am a former student (well, Sunday school student, that is) of Father Edward Pehanich and was born and raised in Taylor. My family and I saw the wonderful icons this past week. I realize that Father Mark at St. George's does not want to publicize the Streaming Icon miracles, so I'll keep my comments brief and respectful. I was humbled and had I not experienced these icons with my own eyes, would have certainly been a 'doubting Thomas.' My life has been forever changed because of these icons. How miraculous! Blessings to all & thank you, Father Edward Pehanich for your religious and spiritual leadership and guidance to our youth when we were young and impressionable. It made a difference in our lives!

amy said...

Praise God! I am so glad you took the time to leave a comment and share with the many who read this article each week, of your experience. Praise God from Whom all blessings flow...

Anonymous said...

Father Edward -- I completely understand Fr. Mark's deep concern. The church is now packed to capacity every Wednesday. It is filled not only with Orthodox, but Roman Catholics, some Protestants, and a few folks who've not stepped into _any_ church in their whole adult lives. The jammed parking lot and the illegal parking on Keyser Ave, to Fr. Mark's point, could be an indication of potential future chaos if this phenomenon 'hit' the mainstream media. That aside, I am deeply greatful for the hospitality of this kind pastor and his congregation. Attending the molebens has been the highlight of every week for well over a month.

Fr. Chris

amy said...

Blessings and greetings to you Fr. Chris. Thank you for taking the time to comment here. My prayers are for Fr. Mark and the congregation at St. George Orthodox Church in Taylor, PA. What an awesome responsibility to preserve and protect such a miracle. May God continue to bless them with strength and humility to host such multitudes....and may God bless all pilgrims, both the faithful and the doubters who come to witness the tears of heaven. May they be healed and restored by them..†

Anonymous said...

My folks went to the Taylor mass yesterday. They were moved. I pray the tears heal my father.

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