A reader asked me in e-mail tonight if I had heard about the sex scandal a decade or so ago at a now-shuttered Russian Orthodox monastery in Blanco, Texas. Oh yes indeed, I have — and wrote about it in 2007 for the Dallas Morning News. Here’s that column:
On a scrubby hilltop in the middle of nowhere, amid a squalid trailer park masquerading as a monastery, the life of Samuel Greene – known to his followers as Father Benedict – came this month to an abrupt conclusion.
Suicide? Could be, says the sheriff. Sam Greene was a convicted pedophile, a purported pothead, an audacious blasphemer, a morbidly obese slob and a thoroughgoing fraud. He was, quite simply, a wretch.
And yet I owe to his life more than I can say.
In 1981, Mr. Greene, a TV real-estate pitchman, declared himself an Eastern Orthodox monk and founded Christ of the Hills monastery – mostly mobile homes near a wooden chapel – in the countryside outside the Hill Country town of Blanco.
Four years later, Father Benedict, as he now called himself, acquired an icon of the Virgin Mary. He and his followers soon claimed the icon was miraculously “weeping” myrrh. Word spread, and soon the multitudes were making their way to the isolated monastery to venerate the icon and pray for miracles of their own.
I was one of them. In the early 1990s, an Austin friend who shared my newfound Catholic faith and interest in mysticism took me to see the icon. Every time I’d go visit him, we’d make a pilgrimage to Blanco. By the middle of the decade, having wearied of the single life, I asked God for a wife. I prayed the rosary fervently for this intention, petitioning the Virgin for her help. In Blanco, I would pray likewise before the weeping Mother of God.
I didn’t worry much about the icon’s validity. Why would monks lie? But I was young and naive in my faith then, credulous and childishly enthusiastic about signs and wonders.
In the autumn of 1996, I flew from my home in Florida to Austin to meet Frederica Mathewes-Green, an Orthodox writer friend in town for a conference. We would go to Blanco together. At Frederica’s bookstore presentation, I met a University of Texas journalism student. I was instantly thunderstruck and, before parting, invited her to go with us to see the weeping icon the next day. The student accepted, and the next morning, I once again stood before the miraculous image, praying silently that if this girl was The One, I would know it in my heart.
Four months and many flights to Austin later, I made my final visit to the Blanco monastery. Inside the chapel, I asked that student to marry me. She said yes. My prayers were answered. Nearly 11 years and three children later, I remain the most blessed of men.
My wife and I hadn’t been married long before the Blanco monastic community began to collapse. In 1999, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia severed ties with the monks after allegations of sexual abuse there. Father Benedict pleaded guilty to indecency with a child and received probation. Another monk was convicted and sent to prison.
By then, I figured the icon was fake. Did I feel a fool for believing in it? Sure. But I had faith that my prayers, sincerely offered, had been heard and that heaven had said yes. That was enough, though I winced at the stain on that cherished courtship memory.
Subsequent arrests revealed that the monastery was, in fact, a snake pit. Last year, in secretly taped conversations, Mr. Greene admitted he’d been molesting kids since the 1970s, smoking dope, engaging in reported “deviant sexual contact” and otherwise violating terms of his probation. He also confessed that he’d faked the icon.
Because of all this, Father Benedict faced the prospect of prison. Whether by fate or by his own hand, Sam Greene’s last con was cheating justice. In this life, anyway.
I am glad it is not given to me to judge him. By one standard, Father Benedict deserves a millstone lashed to his neck for eternity. That’s what I’d have given the old buzzard, but God’s a better Christian than I am. And yet, I’m forced to admit that from Sam Greene’s wicked deeds, my beloved family sprung. I can’t help wondering: no fake icon, no visit to Austin, no meeting my true love.
This mystery throws everything off balance. It offends my sense of order and righteousness to recognize it, but the mere existence of my children is evidence that however miserable and mean and degraded, that dirty old monk, probably in spite of himself, was once an instrument of grace.
Did other good fruit emerge from this poisoned vineyard? Who knows, and who can say whether it counts for anything? But when Sam Greene is judged, there my little family stands, however reluctantly, as silent witnesses for the defense, pleading on his behalf for the same thing every one of us will one day need: mercy.
I keep saying: don’t you dare think that there’s a completely safe place within any particular church or religion. Sin will find its way in. “And the crack in the tea-cup opens/A lane to the land of the dead.”
I find it hard to read that column today, for a couple of reasons. First, I hate that there’s a stain on the memories of my courtship of my wife. Second, I find it very hard to have anything good to say about that horrible man, Sam Greene. And yet.
A Catholic writer friend and I were talking today about the model of Graham Greene’s “whisky priest,” the protagonist of his novel The Power and the Glory. The whisky priest is a drunk on the run from anti-Catholic authorities in Mexico. Despite his terrible flaws, the whisky priest manages to be a vessel of grace to those in desperate need of it.
The Whisky Priest is a character who appeals to the romantic in many Christians. And yet, as my friend said today, at what point does a Whisky Priest figure cross the line from being an icon of grace working through brokenness, and instead ends up as the kind of person who defiles religion and murders the capacity for others to see and receive divine grace? We might call these priests, pastors, and religious figures “Cyanide Clerics.”
What do you think? I do not believe that Sam Greene was any kind of Whisky Priest, in the sense that he tried to do good, though haunted by his demons. I can’t see any good in him. Whatever good came from his wretched life emerged in spite of it. On evidence, he was a Cyanide Cleric.
However, if Sam Greene had never existed, where would I be today? Would I have married? Would I have had these beautiful kids, who I love more than my own life? It’s impossible to say, and I would love to edit Sam Greene and his snake pit monastery out of my life history, but I can’t. This is not to say that the good things that came to me were worth the suffering that others endured at the hands of Sam Greene and his fraudulent monks. But good came out of it. I read a story once about a woman who became pregnant from a rape, and who chose to bear the child of her rapist. The little boy became the light of her life. This happens. In that case, the rapist is certainly no romantic Whisky Priest figure, but the woman who suffered, by cooperating with divine grace, allowed good to come out of evil.
The fact that this kind of thing is very hard to understand doesn’t make it false. It makes it a mystery. I was talking earlier tonight with a Christian friend who suffered terrible things as an innocent child, things that make one doubt the existence of a loving God. Where was He when she was being hurt? Where was He when that little boy at the Blanco monastery was being molested by Sam Greene, “Father Benedict,” an evil Orthodox monk?
Sorry, I’m rambling. It’s late, and this is all weighing heavily on my mind. I’d like to know what you readers think about what separates Whisky Priests from clerics who are just flat-out evil.