Blanco monks’ fraud a crying shame

Author: Roahn Wynar
Date Published: 02/26/1999
Publication: Daily Texan

The monks of the Christ of the Hills Monastery in Blanco gave us a chance to watch an ancient form of chicanery in action. The big draw of the Blanco monastery is a scam that occasionally pops up in Russian and Greek Orthodox churches. It is the Scam of the Weeping Icon.

The Blanco monks live in the driest part of the Hill Country, about one hour west of Austin, and make due by selling honey and religious material to the Russian orthodox population of Central Texas. They wear black robes and sport long beards and big crosses. The monks incessantly complain about living in the “end times” and beg for our forgiveness because they feel so unworthy.

These guys are Byzantine. The are Texas’ most renowned religious ascetics.

A weeping icon gimmick starts when a priest “notices” one day that one of their icons of the Virgin Mary or some other important person, is crying tears. Because pictures can’t cry, the only explanation is “miracle.” The Christ of the Hills Monastery has put itself on the map using this con and they receive many pilgrims due to the publicity surrounding the weeping icon.

We are familiar with two other weeping icons in the United States, one in Tampa Bay and another in New York City.

A large Icon of St. Irene Chrysovalantou, kept at a Greek Orthodox Church in Queens, began weeping while on loan to Rev. Ieronimos Katseas in 1990. Under his watchful eye yet another icon started weeping; this time in Toronto. Despite his penchant for inspiring inanimate objects to cry, Rev. Katseas was excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox church in 1993. Interestingly the Queens icon was stolen by gunmen who later mailed it back, minus $800,000 worth of gold trimmings. Now that’s worth crying over.

The Tampa Bay story began in 1989 at the Greek Orthodox Shrine of St. Michael. Rev. Christos Matos reported a “miraculous flow” from the eyes of a Madonna icon. It wasn’t long before he was embroiled in an obvious inconsistency regarding photographed tear tracks and general all around stupidity. Matos got into a squabble with another priest at the church and the Atlanta diocese had to arbitrate. Matos was transferred and all discussion of the icon has ceased. Is this
how a miracle should end?

The scam is simple and can be done one of two ways. Method A: the priest puts tears
on the icon when no one is looking. Method B: the priest puts the tears on the icon when everyone is looking. We suspect that the Blanco monks use both methods, but the day we were visiting it is likely Method B was in effect.

The Christ of the Hills’ icon rests nearly flat on a cluttered altar and has many cotton balls positioned on its surface, presumably to catch the tears as they flow. The faithful come forward as the priest picks up a cotton ball. The priest dabs the cotton ball to the crying icon and anoints the spectator who, at this point, is so close to God that any hope of detecting the deceit is gone. One obvious possibility is that the cotton balls already have myrrh (the tears are not real tears, by
the way, they are tears of myrrh, a fragrant plant resin) on them and when the priest dabs the icon he is actually depositing, not absorbing myrrh. But we better stop before we take all the fun out of a very spiritual experience.

Lest you think the Catholic church is somehow more sophisticated regarding supernatural matters, consider the ongoing Massachusetts saga of Audrey Santo. She has been comatose for nearly 10 years after a swimming pool accident at age four. During that time statues of Christ have been bleeding, mysteriously moving, and Virgin Marys have been crying all throughout the family home where they care for her. Audrey has been granting miracles and has been claimed by many to be a “victim soul” who can take your sins upon her suffering body. Needless to say a parade of credulous retired priests and Catholic scientists are attesting to the “mysterious nature” of the oils dripping from statues in the Santo home and communion wafers that bleed real blood. In one sorry incident a mass was held in on a football field and Audrey, the centerpiece of the event, was wheeled out before the crowd. Supposedly people have successfully prayed to Audrey for intercession with the Big Guy.

Rev. Daniel P. Reilly, bishop of Worcester, claims that unexplainable things are going
on in the Santo home. Wrong. I can explain the entire sorry scene with one word: fraud. The bishop has decided to launch a large scientific investigation of the matter, and seems a bit concerned about the notion that a comatose girl can intercede with God on someone’s
behalf. Good point.

The Russian orthodox church is having a hard time in general keeping that meddling stuff called “science” from ruining their mythology. Their latest feat of anti-brainpower was a reluctance to accept the recently discovered bones of Czar Nicholas II, murdered in 1918, as real. Apparently “DNA evidence” is not found anywhere in the New Testament and this caused some confusion among the church leaders.

Last month at least one youth accused the monks of the Christ of the Hills Monastery in Blanco of some form of molestation. Two monks have been accused of indecency with a minor, arrested and are now free on $50,000 bail.

Unfortunately the Blanco monks are not permitted to comment on the molestation allegations that have so shocked their community. We did receive a letter from the monastery, however, saying that they are currently under the “greatest possible demonic attack.” Let’s hope that’s all it is.

Wynar is a physics graduate student.