[Religion News Service, October 31, 1995]
All day long Eugene Nahum prays in a church on the outskirts of Chicago. At night, he sleeps in the basement below the church offices. "This is my life now," he says. "I have no other life."
Both the man and the church are remarkable. Before moving here permanently, Eugene made several day-trips from his home in Ohio to this church in the grimy suburb of Cicero, Ill., because it is the site of an unusual phenomenon: a weeping icon.
In April 1994, as the Friday-evening services preliminary to Holy Week were about to begin, a priest saw glistening drops on the icon of the Virgin Mary that stands before the altar. The Rev. Doug Wyper, who had come to Orthodoxy from an evangelical Protestant background not long before, figured that during a previous ceremony the image had been spattered with holy water. But as he watched, a tear welled up in the image’s lower eyelid and spilled down her face.
For the next several weeks the St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church was open night and day as tens of thousands of pilgrims streamed through. "For 17 months now, we have been open every day," says the Rev. Nicholas Dahdal, St. George’s pastor.
The church purchased $60,000 worth of candles for the pilgrims. However, all that smoke means that the walls and ceilings had to be repainted — but gray smudges are accumulating again. The carpet also had to be replaced, while access for the disabled underwent an emergency upgrade.
And still the tears trickled down. The wooden icon, which depicts the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child in her left arm, is part of a freestanding row of icons that form a divider between the altar area and the nave. The tears are oily in substance and leave a double shiny trail down the Virgin’s red robe and over the hand of her son, which is raised in blessing. Even when, as now, the episodes of weeping are less frequent, the visible trail of tears remains.
Eugene Nahum first came to the church to pray because his wife, Alina, was dying. Others had been anointed with the tears, and healed. Dahdal displays an enamel cross given in honor of the healing of Dellamarie Parilli, a woman facing renal failure. Doctors asserted that they had no explanation for the reversal of her condition.
But Alina was not healed.
"She was the strongest believer I ever met," says Eugene, a man with a graying beard and a residual Romanian accent. "We were 25 years in a communist country where faith is tested daily, to danger of life even. She would never compromise and never give up."
He goes on, "The last four years she suffered greatly, and the last two years she was paralyzed totally. But she didn’t complain one time. ‘All is God’s will,’ she would say. Our marriage was 40 years and never one single argument. Our love was based on faith.
"Now her end was coming. I expected that I would mourn her the rest of my life. But when she died I was with her, and I didn’t feel any pain in my heart; my heart was calm. I asked myself, didn’t I love her? Yes, I loved her more than myself. I prayed many times that I might take her place. But that was not God’s plan.
"Later in the day she died, a joy began to form in my heart. A priest told me, ‘What a great joy. Now she is with the righteous.’ I could feel that already. Since she fell asleep till now I didn’t mourn. My heart is full of joy.
"For unbelievers, death is a tragedy, because their treasure is here on Earth. In death, they lose everything, including their own souls. For a believer as my wife was, death is a victory because her treasure is in heaven. St. Paul wrote, ‘Love never dies.’ It didn’t die. She didn’t leave me. Her heart beats in my heart."
After her death, Eugene came to St. George’s, worshiping all day and sleeping on a makeshift platform in the basement at night. Dahdal quickly discovered that Eugene had no children, no other family, and did not own his home in Ohio. He prevailed on Eugene to come live at the church.
St. George’s furnished Eugene with a bedroom and nearly drowns him with the warm hospitality typical of Middle East Christians. Eugene provides prayer and counsel to others who are grieving and serves, Dahdal says, as "an inspiration."
"I don’t see how," Eugene says. "If anyone is an inspiration, it’s my wife, not me."
Indeed it doesn’t take long for him to return to the story of his beloved wife. "How could I doubt that Alina is praying for me," he says. "Look what it means to have such a marriage! Look what true love is!"
As I pack up my notes to leave, he has one more request. "If you write this, don’t let the merit be on me. Let it be on Alina."