Writing a news report about an event that lots of people believe is a miracle is a difficult task. This is especially true with reports of healing when, often for legal reasons, the medical professionals linked to the case are not anxious to be interviewed or to provide relevant documentation from tests.
However, it's much easier to write about a phenomenon -- an object for example -- that can be examined by the senses, including the senses of skeptical journalists. That's what I kept thinking about as I read the Chicago Tribune news feature that ran under the headline, "Thousands flock to 'miracle' icon at south suburban church."
First of all, I am glad that the Tribune ran a story hooked to this year's Eastern Orthodox celebration of Pascha (Easter). This May 1 date on the ancient Julian calendar is very late in the spring, in comparison with this year's March 27 Easter date in the modern West.
Second, I was thankful that voices of believers are given quite a bit of space in this piece. However, well, where are the unbelievers? And if the story is going to focus on claims of a miracle then why not talk to some experts, in terms of theology and science? After all, we are talking about a very familiar phenomenon -- an Orthodox icon exuding a mysterious substance. Information on this phenomenon is only a few mouse clicks away. We aren't dealing with a large flour tortilla in Cleveland that appears to contain an image of LeBron James.
OK, let's look at a few pieces of this report, beginning with the overture:
As millions of Orthodox Christians around the world prepare to celebrate Easter this Sunday and the miracle of Jesus Christ's resurrection, thousands across the Chicago area are flocking to a southwest suburban parish to see what they believe to be a different miracle.
Since July, tiny droplets of fragrant oil have trickled down an icon of St. John the Baptist in front of the altar at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Homer Glen. Parishioners believe the oil has healing properties and that its origins are a blessing from God.
"The first thing out of my mouth was 'What do I do?' " said the Rev. Sotirios "Sam" Dimitriou, the parish priest. "You don't expect anything like this. It's breathtaking. It's so powerful to see such an act of God before your eyes."
Whether it's an act of God or a chemical reaction, no one really knows. And frankly, few in the Greek Orthodox community care. A rational explanation is irrelevant if what seems to be a supernatural event draws people toward God, clergy say.
Now wait a minute. Several questions present themselves. Is it true that these believers do not care about the nature of this event? Not really. It would be more accurate to say that this phenomenon is so common -- historically speaking -- that many Orthodox believers no longer think that it's necessary to send a vial of the oil off to a lab.
Also, what kind of "chemical reaction" are we talking about? If that idea is going to be floated, it would really help if the story provided a bit of background information. So something in the air conditioning is interacting with egg tempera and natural pigments (icons are written/created through a very traditional process) and the result is a fragrant oil? That's a logical, rational explanation?
Maybe. But let's have an expert or two make a case for that. Shall we?
At the same time, it would have helped to have had some direct observation of the phenomenon itself. As someone who has faced a weeping icon, (and, yes, I am an Orthodox layman) let me state that one of the first things that hits you is the smell -- which has often been compared to crushed rose petals. It's not something that one often encounters in random condensation on a physical object.
So how does the Tribune team present the actual physical presence of this icon?
The oil, which parishioners believe to be myrrh, exudes from the icon's halo, wings, hands and beard. Collected every week by a reservoir of cotton at the base of the icon, Dimitriou regularly extracts the oil into a pitcher, then saturates cotton balls, which he seals in plastic bags for parishioners to take home and share with their loved ones. So far, he has handed out more than 5,000 samples -- a handy way to track the flow of pilgrims.
While Dimitriou certainly does not mind sharing the oil, he has been reluctant to broadcast its origins. Instead, news of the icon has spread by word of mouth.
OK, can we agree that this is a LOT of random something or another coming out of a piece of wood covered in egg tempera and natural pigments?
The story then discusses the question of whether this oil -- with prayers, of course -- has been linked to any healings. I also appreciated that the story mentioned other cases of this phenomenon in the Chicago area (see the art with this post for one). The story also includes a bit of material from one national-level authority at the level of theology and belief.
In many ways, this is the crucial section of the story:
James Skedros, dean of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Mass., said that although icons don't exude oil every day, similar episodes have taken place across the U.S. There is no formal process in the Orthodox church of authenticating such incidents as miracles, he said, but they are believed to hold significance.
Just as Christians believe God broke into the physical world with his incarnation 2,000 years ago, Orthodox Christians believe that matter can be a conveyor of sanctity, he said.
"We have a very different understanding of matter as a vehicle of holiness so we treat icons in that matter," Skedros said. "We put them on walls, burn candles in front of them, light incense in front of them because they're images of what they represent -- the holy person or image of Christ or the saint."
Could the phenomenon be attributed to a reaction to the church's environment? Of course, Skedros said. But why go there? What bishop wants to question the congregation, discredit a priest or doubt God?
Indeed, Bishop Demetrios sees the rivulets of oil and powerful perfume emanating from the icon as a blessing for a wounded congregation.
Once again, we have a vague, unexamined statement about environmental conditions. What precisely -- in terms of facts -- is being stated here? Is there an expert or two out there who wants to take a shot at offering a rational explanation for what is going on? I'm sincere. If the Tribune team is going to mention this as the RATIONAL option, why not offer someone suggesting a theory and backing it with a few facts? Go for it.
Meanwhile the "healing" mentioned in this case refers to a painful scandal a few years earlier. That's a poignant hook for the story, too. In that paragraph, note that the bishop states as facts the "rivulets of oil and powerful perfume emanating from the icon."
OK, here is my main point: What did the Tribune folks see and smell?
Hey, I am not asking for a theological opinion here. I am not asking a major newspaper to validate a miracle, somehow. I am asking -- to be specific -- what the icon and the oil smelled like to the journalist or journalists who faced it.
So let me ask: yes or no. Did anyone linked to the newspaper actually touch and smell the oil? It would have even have been possible (thinking like a journalist) to smell the oil and, then, compare that smell with the aroma of myrrh. Myrrh is not hard to find, either in Chicago or, yes, by using Amazon Prime.
Come on folks, let's try to be rational about this. Do some additional reporting. Stick your nose into this story.
IMAGES: The weeping Icon at St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church, Chicago Illinois.