The Gift of Tears
In my last article in Public Orthodoxy, I shared a reflection on the Jesus Prayer.
An important facet of the prayer—one that I often overlook or speed past—is acknowledging in humility and truth before God that I am a sinner.
We are often afraid to acknowledge our fallen areas and our need for growth. When we are not mindful of the portion of the Jesus Prayer that precedes the word sinner—mercy—our guilt from past wrongs can lead us to shame. We believe that not only did we commit bad actions, but that we are our bad actions and therefore are bad.
The Holy Spirit, however, has a very different trajectory when it comes to sin.
The Spirit reminded me of two occasions in elementary school when I was harmful to a fellow schoolmate. I experienced tremendous regret for those actions, but the Spirit prevented me from going down the path of discouragement. Instead, I began spontaneously to shed tears for these past wrongs, tears that did not promote sadness but healing, renewal, and gratitude.
The Desert Fathers offer us much insight into the experience of tears in the spiritual life, even going so far as to name these a gift from God.
According to the Fathers, tears are gratuitously given by God, and allow us to experience conversion by passing from contrition (penthos) into enlightenment.
Reflecting on the Fathers’ spirituality on tears, Father George Maloney, SJ wrote:
…the Christian is able to reach by the gift of the Holy Spirit a state of conversion that makes the penitent break down in tears. To weep tears of purification was a duty for anyone serious about greater union with God through mystical contemplation. It was a sign of a complete “cracking” of the false-ego, moving one into new enlightenment and which would be confirmed by the state of constant joyful humility, incessant living consciously out of love for God that we have been calling the “prayer of the heart.” (Inward Stillness, 108-109)
The gift of tears brings healing from the harm caused by sin, and leads us from sorrow to joy. Through this gift, God pours forth Divine grace into our brokenness and beings forth healing and renewal in our very being.
The Fathers believed this gift of tears was instrumental in penetrating the hardness of our hearts. Evagrius Ponticus exhorted, “Before all else, pray to be given tears, that weeping may soften the savage hardness which is in your soul and, having acknowledged your sin unto the Lord (Psalm 31:5), you may receive from Him the remission of sins” (De Oratione 79, #5, 1168D).
I believe the Holy Spirit gave me the grace to recall these past harms to lead me to greater conversion and healing. The sorrow I experienced was not only for the harm I inflicted on those two schoolmates, but the harm that my own actions inflicted on me.
Brokenness leads us to hurt one another, which in turn further divides our hearts. God’s healing grace fills us with Divine love and mends our brokenness so that we can grow in loving others as God does.
Tears lead us to become like little children, whom Jesus calls us to become in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Matthew 18:3). Saint John Climacus states that when we experience tears, our souls become like babies (Scalae Perfectionis Gradus 7, 88).
As any parent knows firsthand, when our children come to us in tears, we cease what we are doing and open our hearts undividedly to attend to them. How much more, therefore, does our God attend to us? When we are in this state, John Climacus expresses that “the Spirit rejoices and expresses this joy even on its face” (ibid.).
Continuing with the analogy of infancy, as babies many of us were baptized. The Desert Fathers call the gift of tears a second Baptism. Climacus makes a bold claim in this regard:
Greater than Baptism itself is the fountain of tears after Baptism, even though it is somewhat audacious to say so. For Baptism is the washing away of evils that were in us before, but sins committed after Baptism are washed away by tears. As Baptism is received in infancy we have all defiled it, but we cleanse it anew in tears. And if God in His love for humanity had not given us tears, few indeed and hard to find would be those in the state of grace. (Ibid. 804B)
Tears therefore purify the soul and enable us, by the grace of God, to be filled with and enlightened by the Holy Spirit.
Approximately 25 years ago during a charismatic prayer meeting, I experienced a gift of tears when people laid hands on me in prayer. I became flooded with the love of God and the warmth of the Spirit.
While my reading of the Desert Fathers indicates that their naming of the gift of tears is specific to an experience of repentance and conversion—a gulf of sorrow for one’s sin that leads to tears—both have the same effect of healing, an experience of God’s closeness, and an outpouring of Divine love.
Additionally, both instances of the gift of tears fulfill the call from Christ to become like children born again in the Holy Spirit (cf. John 3:3-8).
After reflecting on two instances from my childhood that needed repair, by the grace of God I experienced the gift of tears, which brought forth reconciliation, healing and conversion. The Spirit called upon me not only to re-enter those memories from childhood, but to become born again as a new creation (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17).
Therefore, let us pray with and through the intercession of the Desert Fathers that we may be disposed to God’s gratuitous gift of healing and conversion, marked at times by tears that lead us to enlightenment and new life in the Spirit.
Matt Kappadakunnel is a finance professional who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two young children. He is from the Syro-Malabar Eastern Catholic Rite and has ancestral ties to the Malankara Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church. Previously, Matt spent a few years studying to be a Catholic priest, culminating in graduate studies at Fordham University. He is a graduate of Creighton University and is a CFA Charter holder.