Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Weeping madonnas and myrrh-streaming icons

"From thy Holy Icon, O Lady Theotokos, blessed myrrh has flowed abundantly.  Thou hast thereby consoled those, in exile, faithful unto thee, and hast enlighten the unbelievers by thy Son's light.  Therefore O Lady, with tears we bow down to thee.  Be merciful to us in the hour of judgment.  Lest having received thy mercy we be punished as those who have been contemptuous of it.  But grant us through thy prayers to bring forth spiritual fruit, and save our souls." -  Troparion to the Iveron Icon, Tone 7

Maria lactans
One aspect of medieval piety which I've rarely touched on until now is the fascination with signs and wonders. Not street markers or architectural marvels, though those are also certainly worth writing about! I mean visible, tangible marks of the divine, imprinting heaven upon earth in an ever-so-slight way. Christ said that "an evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign". On the other hand, clerics and scholars of the medieval Church have bequeathed to us literally tens of thousands of recorded cases of alleged miracles attributed to the intercession of this or that saint, such-and-such shrine, or by touching a certain powerful relic... and I don't think this is necessarily because the medievals were all such bad, credulous folk. Quite a few of these stories are completely outlandish by modern standards: take, for instance, the Lactation of Saint Bernard. The founder of the Cistercian Order knelt in prayer and saw a vision of Our Lady with the infant Jesus, who then squirted a stream of her breastmilk into St. Bernard's mouth to impart her wisdom and demonstrate her maternal bond to him. Modern psychologists would have (or likely, already had) a field day with this story. Yet, the act of nursing has always been associated with the imparting of wisdom (why else do we call our graduating university an alma mater?), and the nursing Madonna has been consistently a part of the Catholic tradition for many centuries and enshrined in art many times over without betraying hints of hyper-sexualization or fetishization. It is, perhaps, our modern imagination which corrupts us into seeing something that's not there.

The Cistercians were also the first to erect an altar to Mater Dolorosa--Our Lady of Sorrows--in 1221. Among the common folk, this aspect of the Blessed Mother frequently manifested itself in the form of "weeping madonnas": statues that shed tears of sorrow for the suffering of her divine Son upon the cross. Those of my readers who've read Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth, or seen the miniseries, might remember Jack's clever trick with his Marian statue with eyes made of a stone that would secrete water after a temperature shift from hot to cold. But however common these shrines were, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows was not actually put on the general Roman calendar until the 1700's. In 1913, Pope Pius X gave the feast its current date: September 15, quite fittingly the day after the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.

The eastern churches have their own variation of the weeping Madonna, in the form of icons of the Theotokos which purportedly stream myrrh. This phenomenon has exploded in recent years, with a proliferation of myrrh-streaming icons throughout the United States, such as the one in Scranton a few hours north of where I live. The most famous of these is probably the Iveron Icon from Honolulu, now on tour throughout the United States.

Encouraged by some friends who are all about these icons, I made a visit (I hesitate to label getting stuck in Philly traffic for an hour and a half, though annoying and arduous, a "pilgrimage") last night to the local Russian Orthodox cathedral in order to visit the aforementioned Iveron Icon, which conveniently happens to be in my area. Like so many millions of peasants from our medieval past, struggling to see a sign of God's favor, I strove to approach this icon not with a skeptical gaze, but with the eyes of faith. Well before I stepped through the doors of the church, I set myself in a frame of mind to ask not, "is this real?", but rather, "what is the Blessed Mother trying to tell me through this sign?"

Since this particular church seems to serve mostly immigrants from Russia, the liturgy was conducted in Russian. There were no service orders for me to follow along with, so I have no idea what was said (or sung, rather). The priest and his deacon were clad in lovely blue vestments. It was mostly the priest singing, but he had to stop frequently towards the end, as though he were out of breath and struggling to press on. Liturgy is, after all, "work done on behalf of the people"; I've always had a sense of satisfaction by feeling exhausted after serving an unusually long Mass, like last month's pontificals or the Corpus Christi procession before that. After the marathon of prayers to which the priest nearly expired, the many faithful in attendance approached the icon one by one to venerate it. Some were modest in their devotions. Others went whole hog with triple prostrations.

When my turn came at last, I stepped forward and made the sign of the cross in the eastern manner. Gazing at the icon for just a moment, I made my intention, kissed the glass cover, and took a step back again to bow as though I were a courtier gracefully observing protocol. On my way out, I inclined my head before the priest to accept anointing on my forehead with the myrrh, and took a holy card from the deacon before stepping back out into the night of the brutal city in silence. My days at church usually end with a great deal of fellowshipping with co-parishioners, but this night's was a journey I had made alone. You, dear reader, are the first to know my thoughts.

First, as to the question burning in your mind, "is it real?" The answer is... I don't know. Like I said, I wasn't looking for reasons to doubt, but on the other hand, I tend to be skeptical of these phenomena even in my own Catholic tradition. This shouldn't be a surprise, as the type of practicing Catholic least likely to buy into a weeping Madonna statue is a priest. Beyond that, I have a habit of giving pause even to some well-beloved apparitions such as those attributed to Our Lady at Fatima, Portugal: an inauspicious statement for this 100th anniversary of the apparitions, to be sure, but my lingering doubts remain. I hope my Orthodox friends aren't surprised, then, if I come face-to-face with the Iveron Icon and still don't know what to think about it.

For the true believer, though, the question of the icon's authenticity isn't all that important in the long run. As the risen Christ said to Thomas, "because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." I hope I'm not conveying a hint of spiritual pride by simply simply stating that I walked into that church already well-convinced of the truths of the Gospel, and of God's love for mankind. If the icon is authentic, then it's one more manifestation of His love, and perhaps a sign for those of weaker faith or those struggling with sin who need to see a visual manifestation of God's presence in their lives before they snap and give in to the final temptation to despair. God loves these people just as much as He loves those with holy orders, or extensive theological training, or who have read their way into the faith in true millennial fashion.

And so, with that in mind, I thought not so much about the icon itself at all, but about discerning what the Blessed Mother was trying to say to me during this trip. I asked for the gift of wisdom, as she gave to St. Bernard long ago--the guidance to better fulfill my first vocation not as an acolyte, but as husband and father. The answer I got as I walked out was: ite ad Joseph. There is, of course, no better example of husbandship than Our Lady's own betrothed. It's easier said than done, but I hope in some small way to come out of this experience with a first step toward emulating those qualities which St. Joseph used to support Mary and the young Jesus: an imperfect man sustaining, if it were possible, two models of perfection. My family may not be exactly perfect, but I still have a sense of unworthiness for the gifts I've received through them and will strive to do better in the future. And conversion of heart is, I hope, a greater miracle than all the packets and q-tips of miraculous myrrh that could fill the earth.