The Gift of Tears

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.”

Gradualness: Lessons from John

Some Scripture passages make conversion sound so simple, like a one-and-done deal: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Matthew 4:20). Would that it were so easy! John’s Gospel, by contrast, is filled with encounters and dialogues that tell the story of a gradual and lifelong conversion in the heart of the disciple.

The encounters are many: Andrew (John 1:35-41), Nathanael (John 1:45-51), Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:3-26), the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), and of course Simon Peter (John 21:15-19).

Each encounter is unique, yet there is a common pattern. We might called it the S.A.L.A.D. method: (1) See, (2) Attune, (3) Love, (4) Awaken, and (5) a Difficulty Directly addressed, or even a Dart thrown by Jesus.

There are also opposite encounters and dialogues – interactions that evoke a hardness of heart, diminishing receptivity, and ultimately a rejection of Christ. Consider the disciples who cease following Jesus when he declares himself to be the Bread of Life and urges them to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:25-66), or the Jewish leaders who gradually turn against him (John 8:12-59), or the intriguing Good Friday dialogue with Pontius Pilate (John 18:28-40).

Let’s now take a look at the S.A.L.A.D. acronym and the gradualness that Jesus models for us.

See. First, Jesus sees. He looks attentively at the person in front of him. I hope that we have all experienced this kind of seeing. We all need it, especially in our younger years, but throughout our life. It’s a look of love, one that says “I am interested in getting to know you.” It’s a look that desires to understand, to accept, and to encourage. It is a look that is free from expectations or demands. We just get to be ourselves in the presence of that gaze.

Think of what that look must have been like, for example, to the woman at the well or the woman caught in adultery. There were many other looks that they knew quite well: looks of judgment or condemnation, looks of leering or lust – or perhaps all of these at the same time! Jesus begins just by seeing the person in front of him, as one made by God, worth getting to know.

Attune. Secondly, Jesus attunes. He looks deeply into the heart of the individuals in front of him. He gets to know their story, their deepest desires and needs, their greatest joys and most painful heartaches, and so forth. You can tell from each of these encounters that each person felt profoundly understood by Jesus.

Unfortunately, not all of the characters in John’s Gospel are interested in being understood in this way. Some put up defenses. Others insist on wearing a mask and pretending. The same is true of many of us. Not all of us allow ourselves to be understood, even though we all desire it in the depths of our being. It is so easy to feel threatened. Then comes the pride, self-reliance, self-protection, control, power, anger, or blame. I am personally familiar with all of them! Thankfully, God has given me plenty of chances, and in his mercy has allowed my defenses to crack and crumble and collapse.

Love. Jesus loves the person in front of him. It is not a superficial or sentimental love. It is a love that sees right through people – and loves them anyway. Just one experience of love in this way can change one’s whole life. Shame is such an oppressive burden. Many of us are convinced that if others really got to know us, they would want nothing to do with us. The love of Jesus truly proclaims Good News in these dark places of the human heart.

These first three steps of seeing, attuning, and loving are far from a “Pollyanna” approach. Jesus is well aware of the faults of every person he encounters. Just as we have seen in Gregory, Alcuin, and Paul, Jesus chooses to tolerate the evils that still need reforming. The relationship comes first. Unconditional love comes first. First we must be free to be who we are; then we can become free in our acting and doing. Repentance and conversion will come in due time.

Awaken. Jesus awakens desire in the heart of his hearers. Now that they have experienced understanding and love, they once again dare to hope, and the real growth begins. Once desire is awakened, it can catch fire quickly. The Greek word is eros (cf. “erotic”) and it is not uncommon for a convert to “fall in love” with the Lord and show all the eagerness of a lover in a romance. Not only does a lover do anything and everything he can to get to know the beloved and to fall more and more in love, he also feels the urge to proclaim to all the world the wonders of his beloved. I have seen the same when people have a genuine conversion experience. Certainly we see it in John’s Gospel: Andrew rushes off to tell the Good News to his brother Simon. The woman at the well tells anyone who will hear about this man who unlocked the mystery of her entire life.

Difficulties Addressed. Finally – and this point is crucial in John’s Gospel – Jesus addresses difficulties. He waits until the right moment, when he knows the person is ready. Then he hurls a dart or a real zinger. It happens every time.

With the woman at the well, Jesus invites her, “Go, call your husband, and come back” (John 4:16). He first saw her, attuned to her, loved her, and awakened her spiritual thirst. Then he confronts her with the truth. She is ready. She confesses the truth. She has no husband. The man she is with is not her husband because she has been married five times. Note that Jesus does not make concessions to the hard life and harsh treatment that she has almost certainly endured, leading her to the point of making these choices. He does not rationalize or downplay her sin. Nor does she! He has gently and gradually brought her to a moment of conversion, so that she can receive the spiritual water for which she so desperately thirsts.

There are other examples of darts and zingers, of confronting the difficulty head on. Jesus exhorts the woman caught in adultery, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11). He jabs at Nicodemus: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10). He reminds Pilate that he would have no authority whatsoever if it were not granted him from on high (John 19:11).

With Nathanael it is a bit different. When Jesus “sees” Nathanael, he perceives one who is ready right away. Jesus is immediately blunt, in an almost playful way: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit … I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you” (John 1:47-48). We never know what Jesus “saw” under the fig tree, but can assume it was something deeply personal and not entirely edifying. Yet Jesus affectionately accepts Nathanael for who he is, promising him much greater things. Nathanael eagerly follows.

Then there is Simon Peter, the ultimate example of gradual conversion. Peter is the epitome of two steps forward, one step back. The interesting thing in John’s Gospel is that the “dart” comes at the very end, after the Resurrection, when Peter encounters Jesus on the seashore, after the catch of 153 fish.

First there is the gentle invitation to Peter to admit and repent of his threefold denial. He who warmed himself and three times denied his master by a charcoal fire on Holy Thursday is now allowed to affirm his love three times by a charcoal fire, drawing near to true warmth.

But there is more. In the original Greek of John’s Gospel, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him with agape – the ultimate gift of self in sacrifice (which Jesus had just shown in his Passion). Peter sheepishly responds that he “loves” Jesus with philia – brotherly love – and is told to feed Christ’s sheep. Peter has come so far, and still has so far to go. Jesus gently but painfully invites him to tell the full truth about his conversion. He truly loves Jesus, but is not yet ready to lay his life down for Jesus. One day he will be. He will grow stronger in due time, and will truly become the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. For now, Peter’s love of Jesus is still a work in progress.  It is enough. Jesus invites him, “Follow me.”

Thus in John’s Gospel we see the human capacity to go either direction in an encounter with Jesus. Some of the characters allow themselves to be seen and understood and loved; they grow gradually in their desire and respond step by step. Others react or resist or retreat. In every case John leaves “the rest of the story” untold. We remain free to go in either direction. One thing is certain: We are either drawing closer or distancing ourselves. In such encounters with the God’s love and truth in the flesh, there is no standing still.