The Gift of Tears

Then Nehemiah, that is, His Excellency, and Ezra the priest-scribe and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all the people: “Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep” — for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law.

Nehemiah 8: 9

As I begin to write this morning, a message emerged on the computer screen with the news that Kazuo Ishiguro had been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. In their statement the Nobel Committee says that the work of Ishiguro uncovers “the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” Our illusions are the way we evade that abyss that we are always sensing beneath us. The spiritual path is the way in which, in faith, hope, and love, we face and dismantle our illusions and open ourselves to encounter the abyss of mystery that we know lies beneath them.

Today we read of how the people of Israel, confronted by the word of God and the instruction they were receiving, weep at those words. In response, Nehemiah tells the people not to weep but rather to celebrate for “the Lord must be your strength.” We are told that the people then went to celebrate “with great joy, for they understood the words that had been expounded to them.” In the spiritual life sadness and joy are somehow complements. If we are to know real joy, we must also, perhaps first, know and enter into the experience of sadness and tears. The people come to realize that they must rejoice because the day is holy, but that holiness first enters their awareness in the form of tearful repentance.

Why is it that the word of God and the experience of the truth of God’s love evokes tears in us? Very many years ago now, there was a television commercial that featured a Native American looking over a landscape that had been devastated by unmindful development. No words were spoken, but rather the camera focused on a single teardrop as it flowed down the man’s cheek.  The brief video piece was very affecting and evocative in its representation of the depth of the man’s connection and presence to the land, to the segment of the world to which he was present. He was moved to tears at what we as a race had done to our common home.

The spirituality of the Native Americans is one of a profound sense of connection and communion with the world. It never forgets what we in our tradition often do: namely, that each of us is only in relationship to the rest of creation. As sensible and responsible, we bear responsibility for the benefit and cost on the world of our presence. In the commercial video, the man at its center is sad and weeps at the human race’s irresponsibility and ignorance that has led us to damage the earth in this way.

St. Edith Stein converted to Catholicism after an experience of reading, in a single night, the Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. When she finished reading, she declared to herself: “This is the truth.” When we really hear and attend to the word of God, in the manifold ways it comes to us, we are encountering the truth, the truth of creation, the truth of God, and the truth of ourselves. While the truth about God’s mercy and love and creative design evokes joy in us, the truth of ourselves and of the world we have created in disconnection from that design saddens us. When the depth of our disconnection from God’s truth and love becomes known to our hearts, we weep.

Human life is life in relationship. In Christianity we speak much of love. Adrian van Kaam prefers to use the word consonance, that is a “sounding with.” We are living in consonance when we are sounding with the truth of ourselves, as well as the truth of others, of the world, and of God. Love, then, is truthful relationship to ourselves, to other persons, to the world as our common home, and to God. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke famously writes: “To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation . . . .” We long for consonance with others; we long to share love with others. Yet, unless we choose to permanently live in self-delusion, we are constantly confronted with the reality of the difficulty we have with loving another. For all our desires and attempts to love even those closest to us, we know that we are constantly living on the edge of the abyss between and under us.

To undertake “the most difficult of all our tasks” is inevitably to fail at it. For all our efforts to love another, we shall, in our limits, inevitably at times fail them. We shall because of our differences be for the other at times a source of discord rather than harmony. If we are developing our hearts and souls, if we are truly on the way, then the experience of the hurt we inflict on one we love will be a deep and painful sadness. Our sadness and our tears can become the source of our reconnection, of our realization with the other that the love that is ours is greater than the limits of each of us, that the abyss of mystery which at the time of failure can seem so dark and threatening to us is also a place of transcendence, a place that is not threatening but rather is merciful and forgiving. For us to come to know this reality, however, we must first dare to spend our lives to and beyond their limits in the love of the other. We in spirit and in truth give what we have in love to the other, knowing that doing so and forsaking those illusions that we employ to protect us from mystery will expose us to the darkness of our own limits, delusions, and selfishness. Then, we must learn to cry, to mourn our inability to love and so be brought into the abyss which we discover to be a transcendent love that enfolds us both and all, poor creatures that we are.

One of the difficulties we have in our day in understanding “the gift of tears” in the spiritual sense is that crying is quite ubiquitous in our culture. In any disaster or tragedy, reporters seem to think it is their duty to evoke tears from those they are interviewing. On daily television there are programs in which self-revelation and inner resentments become sensationalized through the tearful expressions of the participants. We can cry for many reasons. The tears of an infant come from a sense of threat and need to be attended to and cared for. Often tears are a sign of one’s disappointment and rage at one’s sense of lack of recognition by others. Very often we cry out of a sense of our impotence in the world. As such, these tears are a plea to those outside of us to attend to us and take care of us. The tears of which the spiritual traditions speak, however, are tears born not of impotence but the realization of responsibility. They arise in us when we have heard and recognized a truth that we have been evading in our lives.  They are a means of purification because through them we are coming to see that of which we have been willfully blind.

At present, we are experiencing on our planet unmistakable signs of our failure to relate appropriately and responsibly to the gift it is to us. The poorest among us are already becoming the victims of the misuse of creation by the powerful and wealthy for their own benefit. And yet, despite the clarity of these signs, signs which were precisely predicted by scientists decades ago, many still refuse to see. A teacher of ours used to tell us that ignorance was the passion to ignore. We live, more often than not, with an illusory connection to the world. The basis of that illusion is that we ourselves are the center of things and that all else exists to support our deluded sense of our own reality. When, in a moment, the word becomes the medium of reality breaking in to our lives, we will find ourselves awakened and saddened. It is our denial and refusal of the truth of things, our fear of the abyss that is so much more than we feel we can bear, that sources the pain and damage we inflict on each other and the world. To even glimpse that all is a gift to us and that our task is to receive in gratitude and appreciation and to enjoy that gift, is enough to make us cry for all the ways we refuse and damage that gift.

The religious congregation to which I belong has begun a process of renewal and re-foundation through a process of reformation and transformation. Naturally enough many among us raise the question of what this somewhat ethereal notion of transformation is about. We may also ask why is this necessary. The answer of why we need reformation and transformation is the same in every context. We have been given a gift. In the course of our lives and our history, we have faithfully received, responded to, and served that gift, but we have also ignored it, refused it, and failed it. Because we are sinful and limited, we have at times and in ways been obstacles to God’s love and creative design for that gift. Until, in this respect as in all others, we can be sad, we can weep for what we have been unable or unwilling to do, a call to change, to reformation, to transformation will remain merely an abstraction, an idea rather than a matter of the heart. It is hearts that have been touched that give form to our lives. The joy that lies beyond the sadness can only be known to us when mouths begin to speak not our ideas but “what the heart is full of” (Luke 6: 45).

In an age where ego is central in our self-understanding, the spiritual teaching on the connection between tears and joy can seem quite remote and inaccessible. Yet, our hearts have not forgotten its truth. Our inability to see and “to feel” our connection to the earth, as represented in the old television commercial, has brought our entire race and planet to a perilous point. Our fear of knowing in the heart our love, need and desire for others leads us to ways of living marked by domination and manipulation. Our fear of the sadness that comes from knowing our deepest desires and aspirations based on our own unique life call leads us to  live lives of social conformity and spiritual death. Yet, the word, in all the ways it is offered, is continually calling us back to the truth; it is constantly trying to awaken our hearts. When we allow it to, we shall find no shortage of tears for our refusals of life and love and no end to the joy of realizing the transcendent love of the Mystery that as a mother holds us, as her children, in the palm of her hand.

It must be understood that one struggling towards perfection is not oneself aware of the progress which one makes on the path. One toils with the sweat of one’s brow, but (so far as one can see) one’s labor bears no fruit. This is because grace words secretly. The eye of human vision does not discern the good which one is doing. The only thing that the person can see is one’s own worthlessness. The way to perfection is through the realization that we are blind, poor, and naked. This sense of nakedness is closely linked with contrition of the spirit, when in unceasing repentance we pour out before God our grief and sorrow at our impurity. Penitent feelings are an essential element of true spiritual progress, and whoever evades them is deviating from the right way. Repentance is the starting point and foundation stone of our new life in Christ; and it must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance. On reaching spiritual maturity one becomes acutely aware of one’s sinfulness and corruption, and one’s sense of contrition and repentance grows ever more profound. Tears are the measure of progress, and unceasing tears are a sign of coming purification.

Theophan the Recluse, The Art of Prayer, pp. 225-6

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