by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
A few years ago, when I worked as a counselor at a dusty, wind-swept Church camp, in the hills of Arizona, something remarkable happened. God broke our rules.
We all know the main rule—God only works through holy things. The rules say that God only does holy works through people who have undergone great pains to rid all manner of sin from their lives. The rules say that a “real icon,” one that has been painstakingly painted, with fasting, prayer and great reverence, is the only kind of icon through which God’s grace is present. Somehow however, someone forgot to tell God the rules.
On the second night of camp, a buzz began to resonate among a few staff members. Someone had thumb-tacked a computer printed sheet of paper…a mere photo, once posted-online, of an icon of St Anna (the mother of Mary, the Theotokos)…onto the wall of the girl’s dormitory. And from that sheet of paper the image of St Anna had begun to weep myrrh, dripping down the dorm-wall. But that’s not the end of the story.
After consulting with one of the priests there, we decided to accompany the weeping computer printout in procession to our little makeshift chapel, where it was ceremoniously set upon a humble, black-metal music stand to right side of our altar area, next to a small icon of Christ. On the other side of the altar area, next to a small icon of the Theotokos, another music-stand already held a glossy photograph of the Gospel Book at St Demetrius Church in Tucson. In times past, the actual icon of the crucifixion on the cover of that Gospel Book had been known to drip blood. We simply had a photograph of that event. For some reason, our computer printout of St Anna stopped weeping shortly after arriving there in our makeshift chapel.
Meanwhile, each of the kids at camp had been working on icon-craft-projects, taking their own computer-printouts of various icons and gluing them to pieces of wood. One evening, after completing their icon-projects, the kids were asked to bring them to the chapel for the Vespers service followed by a blessing of the whole group’s icons all-at-once. After Vespers, each of the kids were instructed to hold their icons up over their heads as the celebrating-priest began doing the blessing service. While this was happening, someone noticed that the icon of the crucifixion in the photograph of the bleeding Gospel cover had now, itself, begun to bleed. At the end of the blessing service, we picked it up to examine it. There was nothing happening on the back of the photo, but on the front, from the wounds of Christ, blood kept beading-forth and dripping down the photo. Soon we noticed that the paper printout of St Anna, once again also, began weeping myrrh.
Of course, this made quite an impression on most of the kids in attendance as, one by one, they lined up at the end of the service to venerate the myrrh-streaming computer-printout of St Anna, and the photo of the bleeding Gospel cover. Some left the chapel in awed silence; others couldn’t stop talking about the strange event they’d just personally witnessed. As each of them carried their own icons back to their bunks, a few children noticed something further. Some of their own icons had begun to weep myrrh as well. What was going on?
As one would imagine, many of the kids brought a flurry of questions and comments to the staff members. They sought some interpretation of this unusual, or as some called it “freaky” phenomena. We could only speculate. But I couldn’t help being struck by what I thought was the ordinariness of all of it. First of all, we have a God who created this whole, amazing world…an entire cosmos out of nothing…NOTHING. Compared to all that, myrrh streaming icons simply pale in comparison. Second of all, God is working miracles all around us, all the time. Unfortunately, however, our eyes usually aren’t attuned to see the constant barrage of God’s miracles happening around us. Just meditate for a moment on the fact that, every time we come to the Eucharist we get to experience the actual presence of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Our various sacraments in the life of the Church are filled to overflowing with the very presence of Christ. Thus, the miracles I most long to see are of people’s lives being transformed in Christ (beginning with my own), united with our Lord in His outpouring ministry of love.
St John Chrysostom had a bit to say about such phenomena and spiritual transformation.
“Therefore, don’t seek signs, but the soul’s health. Don’t seek to see a dead man raised; no, since you have learned that the whole world is arising. Don’t seek to see a blind man healed, but behold all now restored to that better and more profitable sight; and you ought to adjust your eye to learn to look with eyes of purity. Because in truth, if we all lived as we ought to live, miracle workers would not be admired as much as we would…” (Homily 32, 11).
On the following day at camp, a reflective young teen sought me out to tell me his story. He said that just two weeks before camp he had come to a dark place of despondency. Feeling that the world was destitute of God’s presence, he’d thrown away his icons and his bible and his various books about the Orthodox Christian Faith…and decided to lean heavily into agnosticism. But after experiencing these events at camp he was repenting of his rash decision. He could no longer deny the loving presence of God, even though he couldn’t even begin to comprehend it. He told me that he was devoting his life to God anew.
There, God broke our rules again. This young teen had not been fasting and praying and showing great reverence to God; he certainly hadn’t been living anything close to “a Christian life.” This rebel had not undergone great pains to rid all manner of sin from his life and seek out God. In fact, he had done just the opposite, a process of trying to rid God from his life. He had only come to Orthodox church-camp to catch up with some friends he hadn’t seen in a while. Yet God, in His merciful grace, condescended to meet that young man in a place from which he could not shrink away in denial. Knowing the heart of this teen, God worked outside our rules, using some mere pieces of paper, printed with meager photographs of icons, not what we would consider to be “real icons.” There, I witnessed the kind of miracle that truly enthuses me…God stepped into the life of a young man who had completely abandoned Him. In spite of that boy’s resistance, God loved him through it…transforming his life into one that would be drawn evermore into His presence.
Who knows how many other children there at camp that week have similar stories of transformed lives? I’d like to think that God left an indelible impression on all of them. But, the thing that impressed me most from my camp experience is how God, in His mercy, broke our rules about icons and about where His grace abounds, in order to regenerate that teen’s life with His great love. Glory to God!