Most of us dread the shedding of tears – particularly in front of other people. There are many reasons why we hold back. We don’t want to feel weak or vulnerable. We fear rejection. We fear losing control, perhaps even fear that if we start sobbing, we will never stop. Whether we realize it or not, we probably learned these lessons from word or example in family life. Whether spoken or unspoken, it was against the rules. The shedding of tears comes so spontaneously and naturally to little children. Then, rather than being guided and directed and nurtured, it comes to be seen as a threat.
I have come to learn that tears can be a precious gift from God.
I am by no means the first to make this observation. Many authors in contemporary charismatic circles talk about “the gift of tears” as a charism (a “spiritual gift” of the Holy Spirit along the lines of tongues, interpretation, prophecy, healing, etc.). True, there are individuals who experience weeping as an outward manifestation of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. This was all the rage in sixteenth-century Spain – to the point that authentic mystics like John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, or Ignatius of Loyola had to warn against the faking of tears as a false expression of piety, even showing off. That risk is still there for some today, but I much more frequently find a false toughness that holds back tears.
More commonly over the centuries, tears are an expression of repentance and conversion, opening us up to love God and neighbor with fuller freedom. Examples abound in Scripture. King David weeps over his sins (Psalm 51). The prophet Jeremiah allows his eyes to stream day and night over the great ruination which overwhelms God’s people (Jeremiah 14). Nehemiah’s tears over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem move the heart of the Persian King Artaxerxes. This pagan ruler is so touched with empathy that he sends Nehemiah with full funding and an armed force to go to Jerusalem to fight and rebuild (Nehemiah 1-2).
In the New Testament there is the marvelous story of Saint Peter. The very moment he denies Jesus a third time, Peter experiences a gaze of mercy from him (Luke 22). The Lord turns to look upon him with full knowledge AND full love. Peter knows that he is known and knows that he is loved. He goes out and weeps bitterly. According to many Christian legends and stories, it was by no means the last time Peter would weep. His tears went on to captivate the imagination and heart of Christian mystics and artists for centuries.
What a journey of lifelong conversion Peter undergoes! From the beginning he is drawn to follow the Lord Jesus. He leaves his nets behind. He believes from day one, and never falters in his faith, even when he repeatedly falters in loving Jesus. He denies Jesus; his actions show us time and again that his understanding is only partial. The growth is prolonged and slow. Even after the Resurrection, when Peter joins Jesus on the seashore, there is still much conversion needed. Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him – offering three renewals of love to the man who three times denied him. But there is more in the Greek. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him with agape – that self-emptying, sacrificial love that Jesus showed on the Cross. Peter answers that he loves Jesus with philia – brotherly love. Jesus is inviting Peter to confess the full truth of his present condition. There is almost a sense of playfulness about it, certainly gentleness. Jesus is not disappointed in Peter; rather, he is encouraging him, inviting him farther and farther along the path of conversion. He doesn’t expect Peter to get there all at once, yet he speaks the truth to him with love. He encourages Peter that he will one day be strong enough to lay down his life with a full agape love. For now, Peter is not yet ready, and that is okay. Jesus just invites him “Follow me.” The rest will come in due time.
I am guessing Peter had tears in his eyes at that moment as well. It is easy to imagine him shedding tears at all the key moments of his conversion. The mercy of God unleashes our tears, and our tears unleash his mercy. It’s a wonderful, virtuous cycle.
The Desert Fathers, those mighty monks of the early centuries, often discussed tears as a marvelous gift of God. They saw tears as a powerful remedy against the evil spirit of acedia – one of the subtlest and most formidable foes we will ever face.
[If you are unfamiliar with the sin of acedia I highly recommend reading Fr. Jean-Charles Nault’s book The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of our Times]
The deadly sin of acedia is difficult to translate. Calling it “sloth” or “laziness” can be misleading. That is just one of many possible manifestations. Indeed, in today’s world this sin is more likely to manifest itself in boredom or busyness or burnout. Our restless hearts resist staying present in the moment, seeking any alternative than abiding in God’s presence. How sad indeed to be repulsed by divine goodness and prefer our self-created madhouse of busyness and comforts, even when that madhouse becomes an unbearable hell for us. Yet how common to our human experience!
Literally, acedia is from the Greek a + kēdos – “not caring” or “not feeling.” John Climacus describes its first steps: a numbness in our soul, a forgetfulness of heavenly promises, and an aversion to the present moment as to a great burden. How many today, I wonder, are in the throes this spiritual sickness?
The Desert Fathers fought it. Their era was very much like our own. They saw the decline and fall of a once great civilization. The Greeks and Romans, plunged into pleasures, had worn themselves out. The early monks discovered that tears are a saving remedy for acedia.
First of all, our tears allow us – like King David and like Saint Peter – to be truly humble and recognize our need for a savior. In our tears, we confess that we cannot save ourselves. Like a child in the presence of its parents, we are crying out in our need. The Lord hears the cry of the poor, and delights in those who are willing to become like little children.
Secondly, tears unthaw our frozen hearts and allow us to feel again. They lead us out of our numbness and free us to be vulnerable and dependent. Fr. Nault, in his book, offers the image of our falling tears carving out a notch in our stony hearts – a notch through which God’s mercy can pour into our sin-sick soul.
Evagrius was one of the wisest of those desert monks. We can close with his words about the gift of tears aiding us in our spiritual struggles: “Sadness is hard to bear and acedia is hard to resist – but tears shed in God’s presence are stronger than both.”