Why Do Icons Weep?
The Word Magazine, September 1994, Page 13-15
DO ICONS WEEP?
Archpriest Paul O’Callaghan
CERTAINLY SEEMS THAT there has been an explosion recently in the frequency of
icons “weeping” in North America.
Several years ago, an icon began weeping in an Albanian Orthodox Church in
Chicago, and the phenomenon received national attention. Pilgrims came from all
over North America, and many miraculous healings were reported. The weeping
icon. “She Who is Quick to Hear,” from the monastery of the Glorious
Ascension in Resaca, Georgia, has been brought in pilgrimage to many North
American Orthodox parishes. Weeping icons have also been reported in Texas and
other states, and one from Russia recently completed a tour of the U.S. One of
the latest and most dramatic cases has been “Our Lady of Cicero,”
(Illinois), an icon on the iconostasis of St. George Antiochian parish in
happens when icons “weep?” In most cases, a moist dew-like substance begins
to form on the icon and then begins to stream down it. On many weeping icons,
the moisture develops in the eyes only, and then wells up like tears do in a
persons eyes, before flowing down the icon in distinct streams. The substance
itself is of an oil-like consistency, and at times has a
distinctly fragrant odor to it. It
is akin to
— myrrh that has flowed from the incorrupt bodies of certain deceased saints.
(i.e.. St. Demetrios the Myrrhstreaming, and others). In the case of the weeping
statues, however, that have occurred in the Roman Catholic tradition, it has
been reported that the “tears” are of a watery consistency like natural
icons are of every conceivable type and origin. Some have been painted icons on
iconstases, i.e., the Albanian and Antiochian
icons in Chicago. Others have been reproductions. Some have been inexpensive
paper prints mounted on wood. Some have
been painted by accomplished iconographers, while others are in the
non-Byzantine “Western” style. In fact, the Resaca icon is a common
reproduction of poor artistic quality marketed by a heterodox monastic group!
The fact of weeping statues in the Roman Catholic world adds to the diversity of
styles in which the phenomenon exhibits itself.
the best of my personal knowledge, all the recent weeping icons have been of the
Theotokos. I have not heard of any of Christ, or of any other saint. If they do
exist, it is certain that they are far less widespread than those of the
are we to account for these facts? Assuming for the moment that the Phenomenon
is a manifestation of the grace of God, the diversity of styles and forms may
well be a reminder to us that God is not in the “art appreciation” business.
While it is important that we decorate our churches with icons written according
to the traditional canons of iconography, we know that God can and does use what
is humble, despised, and unworthy to communicate His grace. This undercuts our
pride, stuffiness, and legalism, and our tendency to draw boundaries outside of
which we presume God cannot be at work.
such an answer must remain tentative, even more so is the one concerning the
question of why weeping icons of the Theotokos are predominant. Certainly, the
Theotokos is presented in the Church’s liturgy as the one who is our most
fervent intercessor in heaven, a well-spring of compassion for the human race,
our helper and aid. That her icons weep could be symbolic of her closeness and
concern for human affairs. However then the following question arises: Would
this not be true of her Son as well? Is He to be thought any less close and
concerned with our affairs?
it would be inappropriate to consider Christ as weeping now, since He has
completed His sufferings once and for all for the sins of the world, and has
entered into the Holy Place and is seated at the right hand of God. (See Hebrews
5:5-9, 10:12). In any case, we are dealing with a mystery, and all attempts at
explanation must be considered provisional at best, (and perhaps impious at
SOURCE OF THE PHENOMENON
I mentioned the assumption that the weeping icons are a manifestation of Divine
Grace. Can this, however, be assumed?
There are skeptics who would have us believe that the whole thing is an exercise
in fakery and trickery. They wish to search for the hidden reservoirs, pumps,
and conduits that would prove it all to be a hoax. However, if such were true,
there would have to be a widespread conspiracy of deception that reaches back
for centuries shielding this arcane technology, as weeping icons have been known
for that long. Such a theory stretches credulity far beyond the weeping icons
themselves! And what would it all accomplish? Anyone who knows the life and
history of the Orthodox Church must know that this is entirely ludicrous.
skeptical theory is that there is some natural process that explains it all.
However, how does one account for the great diversity in materials found in the
weeping icons (and statues). No one process could account for it all, when such
dissimilar materials are involved. And why would the subject be restricted to
the Theotokos? The constitution of her icons is no different than any other. And
of course, such naturalistic theories have even more difficulty in explaining
the healings, heavenly fragrances, and profound spiritual atmosphere many people
experience in the presence of the weeping icons. And what natural theory
explains the myrrhbearing incorrupt bodies of many saints throughout the
explanation of the weeping icons is that they are a counterfeit spiritual
phenomenon produced by demonic spirits. We certainly know from Scripture and the
tradition of the Church that Satan is capable of producing spiritual
manifestations that appear to be holy and good for the purpose of deceiving
people. Could weeping icons be a spiritual deception? Those who would uphold
this theory would argue that the phenomenon itself produces enthusiasm for the
miraculous but few genuine conversions to Christ. They hold that weeping icons
distract people from the real concerns of the Gospel (repentance, faith in
Christ, growth in divine grace, the glorification of God) and amount to nothing
more than a spiritual “sideshow” that cannot be from God.
some of these same objections could have been leveled against the ministry of
Jesus himself His earthly ministry had exactly the effect of generating much
enthusiasm for the miraculous but very few actual conversions to God. Even his
eleven most devoted converts deserted Him when the going became rough! So even
if some people show an hysterical preoccupation with miracles coupled with a
lack of interest in the heart of the Gospel, it does not mean that a particular
spiritual manifestation is not from God.
it is not impossible that a particular manifestation of weeping could be a
demonic counterfeit, such a suggestion must be weighed against the fact that the
tradition of the Church as a whole has accepted this phenomenon as a blessing
from God for centuries. This, together with the fact that the weeping icons have
been a source of spiritual and physical blessings and healings for many
believers, would seem to nullify the assertion that the phenomenon is
it is important to recognize that belief in such manifestations can never be
equated with divine faith (i.e., belief in the central articles of the faith,
trust in Jesus Christ, etc.). Christians may decide to leave aside or even
reject phenomena like weeping icons without imperiling their souls. In such a
case, one may simply miss out on a blessing that is offered by God.
of the most frequently discussed aspects of this topic has been the question of
what the weeping means. One common opinion
is that the Virgin is weeping because of the increase in the sins of the world.
However, the concept that the sins of the world have greatly increased in modern
times is questionable. Is the Theotokos sadder now than when thousands of
Christians were being martyred by the pagan Romans? Do the sins of modern
America eclipse the murderous persecutions of Stalin and Hitler’s genocide
of the 1930’s and 40’s? Is there currently more cause for the Theotokos to
weep than when millions of Orthodox Christians were oppressed by hostile
Islamic rulers for centuries? Or by Communism in recent years? Or to focus again
on the American scene, are our modern sins greater than when millions of African
Americans were forcibly enslaved in our land, or when genocide was being waged
against Native Americans?
sexual immorality (with the resultant AIDS epidemic) has become increasingly
acceptable in recent decades, but the other sins mentioned above were no less
vicious. Perhaps the only other phenomenon that one could argue has uniquely
grieved the heart of God and the Holy Theotokos in our time is the wholesale
apostasy in many of the churches. This indeed should cause anyone who loves
Christ to weep.
immediate association connected with tears of course is sorrow. However, the
fact that what comes from the eyes of the Theotokos is not a watery, tear-like
substance is worthy of note. As mentioned above, the tears are of an oily type
and consistency generally referred to as “myrrh” in the tradition of the
Church. This myrrh is considered a healing balm: the fact that the Virgin weeps
myrrh would then mean she is pouring out mercy and compassion for the human race
in need of healing and grace. So, in this line of interpretation, the weeping is
not so much a statement that the world is in a uniquely evil condition, but a
reminder that the mercy, grace, and healing power of the Holy Spirit are still
with us in the Church, by the intercessions of the Theotokos.
are those who feel that the weeping should be seen in this context as a
manifestation of grace to call those outside to return to the fold of the Orthodox
Church. In the present American scene, the exclusive location of this phenomenon
within the Orthodox Church may be a call to other Christians to recognize that
Orthodoxy has remained grace-hearing, while other communions have been anxious
to rapidly jettison as much of the Christian faith and tradition as they can.
are pivotally associated in the tradition of the Church with the grace of the
Holy Spirit. Those who strive for perfect prayer recognize genuine tears of compunction
(not emotional tears) as a great gift of the Spirit. In this connection, the
weeping icons are a call for all of us to reawaken to the Spirit-filled and
grace-bearing nature of the Orthodox Church.
general examination of the phenomenon of weeping icons leads to the conclusion
that it is a manifestation of grace within the Church. The acceptance of weeping
icons, (and, one must add, many other miraculous phenomena associated with
icons), by the tradition of the Church indicates this is a divine activity and
should generally be received as such. However, this is not to endorse every
absurd and superstitious opinion that may be offered concerning each particular
instance of the phenomenon. The Scriptures warn us to “test all things and to
hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).
the significance of weeping icons must be measured from within the perspective
of the entire tradition of the Church. An unusual preoccupation with such things
cannot be a sign of spiritual health. While huge crowds will flock to view a
weeping icon, many of the same people will be missing from the regular Sunday
celebration of the Eucharist, and will have little or no interest in hearing the
Word of God. Yet in every Liturgy, a greater miracle occurs as the Lord comes to
us as our food and drink in the Eucharist. Moreover, the lives of many are
miraculously transformed every day by the power of the Gospel. Yes these
miracles, although far more significant, receive few headlines and no fanfare.
The weeping icons may indeed be a sign that the grace of God is with us and the
Holy Theotokos cares for us, but if our interest in them eclipses the essentials
of Christian faith, we have strayed into spiritual delusion.
Paul O‘Callaghan is pastor and dean of St. George Cathedral in Wichita,
Kansas. He presently authors “Dialogue” for THE WORD.
Miraculous Lady of Cicero, Illinois