On October 27, 1994, I drove to St. Irene Chrysovalantou Cathedral
in Astoria, New York City; I had come to witness a miracle with my
own eyes. A small crowd was gathering on the white steps of the
Greek Orthodox Church. By the time I turned the corner, parked, and
walked back, a line five-abreast and a block long had formed leading
up to the steps. The previous evening, thousands had assembled to
solemnly walk through the portals of the cathedral.
At the altar was an icon of Saint Irene who lived in the age of
Constantinople. About a foot square, it was mounted under glass with
an outside kneeler for a person to pray and express devotion. It was
reported on NBC’s “A Current Affair” the night before that the icon
was shedding tears. Familiar with the curious history of eyewitness
reports of statues, icons, and paintings that weep and bleed, here was
my chance to observe the strange phenomenon with my own eyes.
I had to wait about 45 minutes before climbing the cathedral
steps. The crowd was orderly and pensive, mostly Greeks from the
neighborhood. It is called a cathedral, but once inside I realized how
small and intimate it was compared to most Western churches, the
walls crowded with paintings and icons and the atmosphere suffused
with a warm mystic glow. Celebrants bought candles, thick white
ones about three feet long, lighting them for votive purposes.
At first, I doubted I would see anything, the church being poorly
lit and the icon set in a darkish enclosure. When my turn came, a
woman handed me a candle and I stepped very close. At once I was
able to see—without the candle—that several large drops of transparent
liquid had formed around the eyes and were trickling down the
surface of the icon. There was no question in my mind about the fact
that I saw this. I stepped back and walked around the icon, noting its
wooden enclosure; no pipes or appurtenances were visible that could
account for any accidental leakage.
However, somebody could conceivably have rigged up a device
inside the enclosure, causing drops to seep through the icon’s surface.
A tall, ruddy-faced, bearded young man in monkish garb was
standing beside the icon.
“It’s a bad omen,” he said, shaking his downcast head.
The image had begun to shed tears 10 days previously on
Wednesday, October 17. The icon, which belonged to Saint Irene’s
for 20 years, was at that time lodged in a sister cathedral in Chicago
for the purpose of being blessed. It was during vespers when the congregation
was praying for peace in the Middle East that the phenomenon
began. It was immediately taken by those present to signify
impending catastrophe. Needless to say, the Middle East has been
roiling in wars and chaos ever since the American invasion of Iraq.
I asked the priest if anyone had taken a sample of the tears and
submitted them to chemical analysis.
He looked at me as if I had stabbed him in the back:
“You really want to do that?” he said.
“It would help,” I said.
To the pious young priest, the idea of a scientific test was quite
beside the point. He said the icon had been the subject of reports of
miracles for 14 years, including healings of serious diseases like cancer.
He spoke with enthusiasm of the heroic life of the saintly Irene,
stressing the torments of her daily struggles with diabolic agents,
adding that she had lived to be over a hundred.
A slightly older, plumper man with a stately black beard stepped
up. Bishop Vincent was his name. He was the man I had seen on television.
I asked him about doing a chemical analysis of the liquids; he
agreed it would be a good idea. He said it would be arranged once
the proper authorities were called in. He seemed more than willing to
comply; for once the enclosure was opened, he was confident further
talk of hoaxing would end.
Bishop Vincent explained how the weeping began in Chicago
during a prayer for peace in the Middle East. “Did the icon ever shed
tears before?” I asked. Once, he said, on the feast day of Saint Irene,
August 2, a year ago; it had briefly produced some teardrops. This
time the weeping has been more or less continuous for 10 days. The
Bishop pointed out that on Friday evening, October 26, after the great
crowds had dispersed, the icon became dry. In the morning, the tears
began to flow again. Because of this extraordinary behavior, and because
of the escalating crisis in the Middle East, the officials decided
to parade the icon through the streets of Astoria on Sunday, October
28th. By the way, in Greek the word irene means “peace.”
It rained lightly that morning. I returned to Saint Irene’s Cathedral.
Once again the line leading inside was long and wide. The procession
would start at 11:30, and ABC television was there to record
events. I spoke with a Greek-American man who smiled gently and
expressed his skepticism. Harsh sounding chants and words of peace
for the Middle East piped from inside the cathedral. According to
the doubting Thomas, in 1980 somebody foretold that one day great
crowds of people would come to venerate the Miraculous Icon of the
Saint of Peace, and that this marv el would transpire in Astoria, New
York. (Coincidentally, I was born and raised in Astoria, New York.)
Children in white costumes, nubile lasses and handsome youths
in gay colors, priests and bishops in black robes, all waited till the
icon was presented on the steps. It had been taken out of the kneeling
booth and was raised aloft by two men. The moment the icon,
which had now been weeping for 12 days, was brought into view, a
hush came upon the crowd. The procession of worshipers followed
through the streets and returned to the cathedral steps where the sick
waited in hope of healing.
Was the icon really weeping? Or were the people of Saint Demetrios
right? Did someone rig it to make the drops appear as if from
nowhere? But who? The likely suspects would be the bishops and
priests in charge. But why would they attempt such a scam with a
skeptical press watching them like hawks? I don’t blame the skeptic.
That tears might materialize from a piece of wood certainly seems
incredible. Do statues weep? Do such thoroughly queer anomalies
actually occur in this day or age? What to make of such fantastic
claims? What I saw with my own eyes, was it a trick, an illusion, tears
from Mind at Large—or what?
From Smile of the Universe:
Even if the statue's tears end up having a normal explanation (e.g., condensation, outright fraud), the positive effects (i.e., seemingly miraculous healings) on the faithful who witness or are otherwise connected with such events ought to be fully explored scientifically.
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