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The weeping icon at Christ of the Hills

by Bette Stockbauer

It is easy to think of this as sacred ground — 101 acres of Texas hill country owned by a monastic community of Russian Orthodox priests and sisters. The focus of worship is a tiny temple which sits at a high point and commands a gentle view of the smoky blue hills in all directions. At the heart of the community is an icon of Mary and the child Jesus. The icon has been weeping tears of myrrh since 1985.

The monks and sisters do not believe that the Mother of God is weeping because she is happy. Rather, they see her tears as a sign of distress; they see her call as a call to prayer, fasting and a change of life — from a worldly way of thinking to a Divine one.

Great miracles have come as a result of anointing with the tears of the icon. Cures of cancer, leukemia, blindness, mental illness, and the most precious gift of all — peace of mind — have been given to many souls. Often she seems to weep when someone comes into her presence who particularly needs her healing love.

The story of Christ of the Hills begins with Father Benedict and a long journey from Roman Catholicism to Russian Orthodoxy. At the age of 17 he was a Benedictine monk, dividing his time between Vermont and Jerusalem. The time spent in the Holy Land gave him a deep feeling for the ancient origins of Christianity as well as a view of the religious and cultural conflicts focused in Jerusalem when it was a divided city.

Years later an assignment brought him to San Antonio and there he fell in love with the Texas hill country. He requested permission to found a monastery in the area, and in 1967, he and Fr Vasili, a brother monk, established Christ of the Hills — New Sarov.

Over the next 13 years the community supported itself by building furniture. They purchased the land north of San Antonio near Blanco, where the future monastery would stand.

Also begun was the road to Orthodoxy. A number of remarkable events were to happen along the way. The precipitating factor was change within the Roman Church itself. Vatican II had rocked the Church, and although it opened a door for many, it left the monks feeling spiritually adrift.

They felt a growing need to return to the roots of Christianity and to experience the monastic life as taught by its early fathers. The monks studied the original rule of St Benedict and learned of a monastery in New Mexico which was experimenting on the same level.

In 1980 Fr Benedict traveled there and spent time in solitude in a cave, praying and fasting. He prayed to God: “Lord, take away from me everything that stands between me and Thee.” This turned out to be a devastating prayer because God did just that.

Within a few months the furniture factory incinerated in a burst of flames. No lives were lost, but their livelihood, or what they thought was their livelihood, was totally destroyed.

The community scattered for a while. But on Christmas day of the same year a visitor from Mexico came to attend the Christmas vigil. He told Fr Benedict that he had been sent by his teacher to deliver this message:

“My spiritual father is the one you have been looking for.” Fr Benedict was astounded. He left for Mexico and there he found a teacher who at last filled his spiritual hunger. It was through the teachings and influence of this man, Archbishop Theodore, that Orthodoxy came alive for the monks. And gradually, not as a body, but one by one, they converted.

One thing was obvious to all of them. The destruction of the furniture factory had been God’s way of teaching them to live by God alone — “like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.”

By Easter of 1981, as a further affirmation of faith and surrender, the small group of monks decided to move to the property in Blanco — penniless, with no electricity or water, and completely cut off from the world.

They lived simply and close to nature, spending long hours in prayer and solitude. They began to build their community.

In 1983 they commissioned the Icon of Our Lady of New Sarov from a monk in California. Tradition holds that the original was written (painted) by St Luke the Evangelist on a board from the table in the house of the Holy Family. The Icon of Our Lady of New Sarov was discovered weeping on 7 May, 1985; it wept continuously until October. The monks’ first step was to discern if the manifestation was authentic and to notify immediately their ecclesiastical superiors of the event. All attested to the miracle’s authenticity.

Next they began a time of self-examination to discern the message for themselves. Accompanied by prayer and fasting, the individual examination culminated in the general confession by each monk to his Spiritual Father. Their lives remained quiet for the next few years, with only an occasional visitor. But as the number of pilgrims increased, the monks realized that their monastery was turning into a shrine. More strongly even than their love of solitude did they feel the responsibility to make Christ of the Hills available to the faithful — a prayerful place where peace could be found.

Today, the pilgrims continue to arrive — day by day, from all faiths and all walks of life. Some come looking for miracles, some to pray and reflect, and others from curiosity. All are touched by the hospitality and simple lives of the monks and sisters.

Sister Magdalena gives frequent tours of the temple and anoints each visitor with the sweetly scented myrrh. An icon and book shop help support the community. In the distance, a building is being erected for novitiates entering the order. A sense of mystery and natural silence pervade the grounds.

I spoke with one of the monks, Fr Pangratios, on a sunny summer afternoon. Seven years of seeing people experience the icon has given him many insights into the miraculous.

Share International: As you reflect on the past years, what are your thoughts about the miracles and healings that you have seen?

Fr Pangratios: Before we talk about miracles, we need to talk about: “Why miracles?” This is something that people misunderstand a lot. In our society, we’re used to seeing the flash. We get carried away with the wonder and unusualness of miracles, whether it’s the manifestation of an icon or someone being cured of a dread disease. But that’s not the real point. If someone gets cured of a disease, of course that’s wonderful, but again, it’s not the real point.

The reason that miracles happen is that we may believe. They are a way of getting our attention and calling us to what is really important. And as a result they are supposed to create in us a response. Once we have experienced directly the hand of God in our lives, once we have experienced a miracle in any form, we are responsible from that moment on. We cannot just blithely continue our lives the way they were before.

So a miracle may be a way of calling people’s attention to the message of the spiritual life — the message of love of God and neighbour, prayer, fasting, non-judgement and repentance. This is what the spiritual life is all about. Nothing else really matters.

SI: So what you look for is the continuity of experience, the thread that runs through people’s lives.

FP: Yes, that is what we try to stress to people. Some of the miracles that I’ve seen over the years have been very dramatic. Some of the bigger miracles have not been quite as dramatic as the world might consider them, but they have brought about complete changes in people’s lives, a complete reorienting. These are the miracles I consider to be the bigger miracles.

I saw one man who was cured of a brain tumour. They had done CAT scans on him and had found the exact size and location. Fr Benedict went in to anoint him the night before surgery. When they went in to do the surgery, all they found was scar tissue.

What had shown up on the CAT scan wasn’t there any more. The man was grateful to God for what had happened to him but it didn’t change his life. He continued the same way he was going before.

SI: And you think that after the miracle occurs the real work begins.

FP: That’s right, it’s a beginning. It’s not a culmination. In the Gospels when the wise men brought their gifts to Christ in Bethlehem it says: “They returned home by another way.” The fathers of the Church interpret that verse as having meaning for us today. It’s not just the recounting of an historical fact. It means that those men were for ever changed, that they didn’t go back to their old ways. That’s the way we need to be too.

When we have an experience like this, we have to go back by another way. We have to change our lives.

SI: How has your monastic life changed since the icon began to weep?

FP: It is of course a challenge to keep the balance. We had to make the decision very early that we weren’t going to let it destroy our monastic life. Monasteries have always had the tradition of honouring all guests because monasticism as a vocation does not turn in on itself. We have a duty to the world to share what we have gained.

By and large we always strive to keep in mind why this is happening. This is a pretty out-of-the-way place. This many people coming here couldn’t have happened unless God decided it should. God decided that this is a place for people to come, to have something that will give them faith and hope and education and strength in times which are so barren. People are thirsting and they’re starving to death spiritually.

So if God has decided that this is to be a place where something like this can be accomplished, then we need to let it happen. Monasticism is a vocation, not just for the monastics, but for the whole world.

SI: What are your ideas and Orthodoxy’s ideas about the significance of this day and age — all of the signs and incredible changes that are happening? Why now?

FP: Christianity has always been eschatological or mindful of the last days. For 2,000 years the Church has been expecting that culmination. We believe that Christ will come and all those who have ever lived and who are alive now will stand before His throne.

Yet over and above that, there is something about the present time which makes us feel that it is not just a part of Christian doctrine but it is something that we may see, perhaps not ourselves, perhaps in the next generation. We don’t really know.

The Gospel says that there will be signs, and we believe that we are seeing some of those signs now. Perhaps it will take 100 or 1,000 years for it all to work out before that second coming of Christ, perhaps it will be tomorrow, but many prophecies are being fulfilled just as predicted.

The miraculous manifestations like the weeping icon are a part of this process — a way in which God is reaching out everywhere to everybody to grab our attention and call us back to Himself.

As Fr Benedict says in the pamphlet that we give to all the pilgrims who come here: “We are not worthy to have the spiritual treasure which has been entrusted to our care. However, we are profoundly aware of our deep responsibility to share it with all our brothers and sisters, regardless of their religious background.

The Mother of God calls all to herself. The Mother of God calls all to repentance, prayer, fasting, and an other-worldly way of living. Like Saint John the Baptist, her cry is, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord, Christ is coming again’.”

aus: Share International October 1992

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