'Round Yonder Virgin

BLANCO -- Jesus in a tortilla. The Virgin Mary's shadow in a tree. Elvis at the Rothko Chapel. We Texans are used to seeing holy apparitions in unexpected places. Yet I was unprepared for what I saw, just this month, at a Russian Orthodox monastery/ersatz trailer park deep in the heart of wildflower Hill Country, right outside Johnson City.

Following the "Mother of God Shrine" signs for miles over river crossings and cattle guards and onto an unpaved road, I thought it only natural that a lapsed Catholic (who'd already explored hipper spiritual paths like Tibetan Buddhism, Sufism, Hinduism, even Voudou) would make a three-hour trek to visit a weeping icon of the Virgin Mary. My excitement grew as I neared the Christ of the Hills Monastery, where She's kept.

Finally, there it was, like a late-'60s Bergman movie set: a row of tall, bone-white Orthodox crosses jutting against the sky -- a small hilltop cemetery -- and the white facade of the church, with its black, rectangular windows of different sizes. I quickly twisted out of my jeans and into a long, dark skirt; the brochure specifies that women should wear dresses and that no one should wear shorts. Also, visitors are asked to refrain from speaking loudly, because "monasteries are a quiet place."

I went to the Icon Shop and had Father Pangratios paged. Fax machines, a Web presence, pagers -- these ascetic monks are wired. I thought there'd be miles of pilgrims lined up, a la televangelist Benny Hinn, waiting to enter the trailer/chapel where She is housed. I thought I'd see horribly deformed children hobbling in, emerging moments later to fling their crutches in the air and do little Rocky victory dances. Instead, a few scattered seekers meandered while a handful of monks went about cleaning, cooking, putting in fence posts, leading tours of the grounds.

As I tied a scarf over my head, Father Pangratios blessed the way, and we went inside. Five or six people were quietly sniffling and praying in the dark. Previous visitors had left milagros, photos, jewelry, flowers and candles on the podium where the Icon rests inside a glass case that opens. I regarded Her in silence. According to the literature published by the monks, She's intermittently wept tears of myrrh for about 12 years, during which time "hundreds of thousands" of pilgrims have visited and "thousands of miracles" have occurred as a direct result of contact with Her or Her tears, which are collected for anointing purposes.

I was suffering the pangs of a freshly broken heart, and fully expected Her to projectile-weep the moment I entered the room. She didn't. Nothing. Her face, sticky with myrrh, was unaffected by my self-pity. "She wept yesterday," Father Pangratios explained.

The next morning, I returned with questions. How could Father Pangratios justify isolation from the "real" world for the rest of his life? Couldn't the rest of us benefit from his knowledge? "There is no struggle with going out into the world, because the world comes to us," he said. It's true; the monks enjoy a nonstop flow of believers. They have a school for both kids and adults. They keep bees and make incense.

It occurred to me that they could easily manufacture myrrh oil. And they did seem agitated when a fellow visitor snuck me into their private offices, but I didn't see any telltale giant vats of myrrh or pipes leading to the podium beneath the Icon. And if I had, so what? The Icon phenomenon has created a livelihood for this community, and it's inspired a significant number of people to live in a state of gratitude.

I didn't witness any big, flashy miracles, though I heard firsthand tales of cancer cures, of disappearing holes in children's hearts, of the blind emerging with restored vision, but, as Father Pangratios asked me, "What good is it if your sight is restored if your spiritual sight is not restored?"

No, the only miracle I witnessed was practical and ongoing -- a lesson in the value of humility, commitment and servitude to self and others. And my own heart beating with hope.

-- Liz Belile

The Shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary -- a.k.a. the Weeping Icon -- is located at the Christ of the Hills Monastery; phone (830) 833-5363. An expanded version of this story can be found at www.houstonpress.com/1998/current/nightday.html.

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Liz Belile