The Miraculous Discovery of Father Pangratios

THE MIRACLE OF THE MYRRH-WEEPING ICON HAS DRAWN FLOCKS OF BELIEVERS TO A TINY MONASTERY IN SOUTH TEXAS.

Atop a rough and lonely hillock deep in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, something odd happened to the former Walter Christley one day about seven and a half years ago. It was sometime in the morning-he isn’t sure of the precise hour anymore-and the man who even then was known as Father Pangratios. a young Eastern Orthodox monk at the tiny Christ of the Hills Monastery outside Blanco, was dusting the icons. “I noticed that one was wet on the surface,” says Pangratios. a bearded 31-year-old who was raised an Episcopalian in nearby Kerrville and worked odd jobs for years before joining the monastery in 1983. “I wiped off the moisture, and then I smelled that sweet aroma.”

“That.” he says, “was my first inkling.”

The dizzying succession of events that followed that day in May 1985 has fairly swallowed up Christ of the Hills Monastery, a rugged hamlet of half a dozen dusty trailers and outbuildings inhabited by 11 monks, nuns and novices. Every day now, scores of visitors-sometimes hundreds, the monks say, even thousands-make pilgrimages to the monastery. Books, pamphlets, copies of icons and other sacred art, carved wooden crosses, even $1 Jesus pens, are selling like hot cakes from its tiny shop. The blind, the cancer-ridden, those with inoperable diseases or those who are simply sick at heart flood the place. Workers are enlarging the original chapel, an aging mobile home, with a wood and stucco exterior. Although small cells have long been available to outsiders who are seeking a personal retreat or spiritual guidance, would-be guests are finding they now have to reserve weeks and months in advance.

What’s going on in Blanco, Texas? Ask the monks, and they answer with a single voice: It’s the Myrrh-Weeping Icon of New Sarov.

“Who will believe?” asks Father John by way of introduction. Father John spent many years in Latin America before coming to the monastery at New Sarov, named after a famous monastery site in Russia, and is giving a dozen people, most of them Hispanic Catholics, a tour of Christ of me Hills. “People have to see to believe. That’s why Christ performed miracles.”

Then he walks into the trailer chapel.

Father Pangratios’ miracle began here as he gazed at a copy, painted in 1983 by a monk from California, of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God. The legendary original is said to have been painted by St. Luke in the first century. The copy, less than a foot square, seemed to be weeping. What’s more, he says, it was weeping tears of myrrh-an oily, pungent substance, derived from a tree of east Africa and Arabia, with a long biblical history. At first, he thought lamp oil might have spilled on the icon, but each time it was wiped off, the liquid reappeared. Amazed, Pangratios went to other monks, first Father Simeon, then ]Batushka Benedict, the monastery’s “spiritual father.” All agreed: The icon appeared to be weeping.

And weeping. Since that sunny day in May, the monks say their icon has wept- not always directly from the eyes, but from that general area-almost daily.

Eventually, a commission of vérification, including an archbishop and a bishop, was sent by officials of the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia. They checked the underside of the icon for pipes or other trickery. One of them camped out in the chapel to make sure the icon was weeping without human help. “They examined, asked questions, each in his own way,” Pangratios says. “Once they were satisfied, it was blessed for the public to come and pray. Only after that did they come.”

“I myself was there,” says Bishop Hilarion of Manhattan, who oversees Christ of the Hills and notes that another North American “myrrh-streaming” icon, this one in Montreal, began to weep in 1982. “We don’t subject it to any type of scientific experiments [this is considered sacrilegious]. But we see mat there’s nothing wrong with it, nothing suspicious. We believe it’s from God.”

Adds Father John: “This is me message: She’s calling us to a life of daily repentance and more frequent confession. It’s not the first time in the history of the church. But never before in the history of me United States had there been weeping icons. Now we get reports all the time.”

Today, the icon lies slanted in a case in the trailer, ensconced in a bed of rosaries left by pilgrims. At its base, cotton balls collect the liquid that occasionally streams from it, leaving the balls stained slightly yellow and heavily scented with an unusual odor. These balls are used to anoint those who visit New Sarov-to help them gain their own miracles. The men and women of the monastery say there have been so many-although some details seem to change in the telling-that they’re compiling a book.

There were the twins who arrived blind and supposedly left sighted. A woman recently came and prayed for her daughter, who’d just been diagnosed with cancer; surgeons operated a few days later and found no disease. “One that always sticks in my mind,” says Pangratios, “is an Orthodox man from Austin who had a diseased eye. The doctor had scheduled surgery to remove it. But as he was leaving, his sight slowly returned to the eye.”

“When this happens,” Father John says of the healing miracles he has witnessed, “it happens so fast, you’re confused.”

The monastics live a strenuous life, rising daily at 3:30 a.m. to begin a routine that includes seven hours of prayer, fasting, study and hard labor. All have been tonsured-having their hair cut in an initiatory ceremony-which means they will never cut their hair or beards again. Women are almost entirely cloaked. Slowly, they are expanding the monastery, hoping to segregate completely the nuns in a convent that is yet to be built. They silently repeat the “Jesus Prayer”-“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”-hundreds of times a day. And they even have come up with some of their own hymns.

“From thy Holy heavenly scented Myrrh-Weeping Icon,

0 Most Pure Virgin Mother of God

Repentance and succor pour forth abundantly

Upon all who approach thee with faith and love…”

Pangratios, dressed in die black raiment of his calling, shakes his head in wonderment at the series of miracles he says began before his eyes eight Mays ago. “This liquid comes from nowhere,” he says. “It simply appears-and without destroying the balance of the universe.”



THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED

Finding Christ of the Hills Monastery is no mean trick. From Austin, you’ll take U.S. Highway 290 west, then U.S. Highway 281 south to Blanco, a distance of some 60 miles. Turn right just past the self-service laundry on State Highway 102; then bear right immediately, staying on 102, to avoid entering the state park.

You’ll cross the Blanco River and continue for about two miles more before coming to what appears to be a private ranch road, under a gate marked “Clear Spring Ranch.” After two and a half miles and several cattle guards, you’ll come upon the monastery marked with a small sign on your left. Tours are conducted 10 to 6 daily from June through August and every day except Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the rest of me year.

If you’re contemplating a stay at the monastery, be sure to reserve long in advance-there are only five guest cells available. There’s no set fee, but it costs the monks about $19 a day to feed and house guests. (To be assured of a place to stay it’s probably safer to arrange lodging in Austin and drive to the monastery for the tour.) For more information, call (512) 833-5363 or write Christ of the Hills Monastery. New Sarov, Blanco, Texas 78606-1049.

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