29 January 2017

Some Thoughts on Receiving the Gift of Tears

[[Dear Sister,
     You wrote recently about some experiences of crying in ways you had not done before. Were you saying you had received what is sometimes called "the gift of tears"? Is this a real thing?]]

     Thanks for your questions. I was kind of hoping no one would ask these very questions because I had not answered for myself until very recently --- and then, only very provisionally. But here they are! So let me first give you an extended introduction to my answer:

This last Thursday I met for spiritual direction and/or accompaniment with my director and of course my experience over the previous two weeks was at the center of our work together. As a result we had one of the most profoundly holy conversations we have ever had --- and I say that recognizing that much of what we deal with regularly is profoundly sacred. We talked about things which were directly of and from God and at the same time, while perhaps rare, may simply be so deeply personal that folks do not speak of them outside the SD relationship. "The gift of tears" per se was a central piece and even the core of our conversation. Since Sister Marietta is much more experienced in all of this than I am and in so many ways (not least because of the breadth of her work in spiritual direction, her experience of doing deep inner work with others, or her academic specialization in applied spirituality) and because she was looking at the forest while I was still bumping my nose into various trees from within that forest, I asked her about her own knowledge and understanding of the gift of tears.

You see I wondered if what I had experienced (and in fact was still experiencing) was in some way or other what the early Church Fathers, especially the Syriac Fathers (e.g., Ephrem, Isaac of Nineveh (Isaac of Syria), John Klimakis (Climacus), et al) were speaking of when they wrote about penthos (πενθος) or the weeping associated with compunction (κατανυξις, katanuxis), that is, the tears associated with the piercing or puncture of one's heart by the grace or mercy of God.

These are the tears some have called "joy-bearing grief" (Hunt; 2001). They are the tears I see represented and celebrated almost every day of my life when I look at Bro Emmaus O'Herlihy's*** painting of St Romuald receiving the gift of tears --- Romuald seated in ecstatic prayer with tears streaming down his cheeks, his face upturned in a mixture of joy, awe, and perhaps grief, and his hands raised to God in praise and gratitude. It is from these tears that the Camaldolese charism and Institute (Order) was born and these are the tears central to Cistercian spirituality (Louf, The Cistercian Way, p.93).**** These are the tears associated with the active work of the desert we call "repentance." They are the tears of the second beatitude: [[blessed are those who weep]] while Hebrews refers to these same tears when it speaks of being pierced by the Word of God (Heb 4:12). And they are the tears of the sinful woman who, in a similar mixture of grief, regret, joy, love and gratitude washed Jesus' feet with her own tears according to the gospel stories. I have never known anyone given this gift in my own life, but I knew (or thought) my director had known someone and so we talked about what this gift is like when received in greater fullness. With that in mind let me answer you more directly.

First I have to say the crying I have been moved to was absolutely a gift of God and something inspired by the Holy Spirit in the sense of NT charisma. My tears were not merely about grief, or profound regret, or my own woundedness  --- though all of these and more were certainly involved. As I noted in my earlier post, it was much more about joy and gratitude to God for all God had done and continues to do in my life, especially in calling me to what canon 603 refers to as "the silence of solitude". It was a profoundly and pervasively healing reality, something which involved the whole of my Self, but especially, something which mobilized spirit, body, emotions, and intellect in a single encompassing act of grief, gratitude, love, and praise.

Moreover, my experience was that these periods of weeping involved and thus connected every period of my life from infancy onwards; as a result the kinds of divisions and compartmentalization or dissociation (used here in a non-pathological sense) occasioned by the woundedness incurred throughout my life were transformed into a more coherent and conscious whole. This penthos constituted these pieces as a greater and essential unity, a living history revitalized as (more) single and whole. As it effected this healing or reconciliation it freed and empowered me to love and praise God in ways I had been unable to do before this. In other words, these tears glorified God (made God real in space and time) and transformed my own life into something which does the same and serves as a promise of continuing transformation to the degree I commit to obedience in this.

That said, and realizing it is FAR too soon to say how else this gift has changed me for the present when I compare my recent experience of these tears to what else the Scriptures say about them and what else my director described having come to know about this gift, I have to underscore the fact that I have not in any sense received the gift of tears in fullness! Like other gifts or charisma of the Holy Spirit one must grow in one's reception of them. (As Friday's reading from Hebrews reminded us we [[need endurance to do the will of God and receive what he has promised.]]) We must also watch the growth of such a gift's reception in order to discern its authenticity: "By their fruits you shall know them!" And what are the real fruits of this gift? In Christ one incarnates the very life of God; one comes to see with God's eyes, to love with God's heart, to touch with God's own touch, and so forth. One is transformed in Christ into the compassionate enfleshment of Love-in-act. Nothing less.

When one thinks of this in  Scriptural terms it involves a true conversion of mind and heart which fulfills the profoundest nature and call of every human being: to be entirely transparent to the will and life of God. In Christ it is a conversion so radical that as with Jesus' own life, where one meets true human being one quite literally meets the merciful God who would live in and through us. When one receives this gift in greater fullness, one meets (sees and embraces) our world quite literally with the compassion of the suffering and risen Christ; when this is true one is moved to tears regularly and persistently in a way that is reminiscent of the Jesus who stood on the hill as he looked on the Jerusalem he loved --- would love if only he were allowed --- and wept! Bearing this in mind I have to say again that yes, this gift is real. What I have been experiencing is what the Church Fathers refer to as penthos or the gift of tears. But at the same time I cannot even begin to say what some are reported to say they know with indisputable clarity and undeniable humility, namely, that they truly see with the eyes of Jesus and feel a compassion for all they see or meet which, again, is literally the compassion of Jesus. This regularly moves them to tears as it defines their entire lives!

*** Brother Emmaus transferred from the Camaldolese Benedictines to the Benedictines of Glenstal and is now several-years solemnly professed there at Glenstal. His referenced painting will be familiar to readers here and is seen at the top of this article.

****Those wishing to read on the gift of tears can check out Hunt's Joy-bearing Grief --- a bit pricey but the best and most contemporary book out there on the topic I think. They can also check out the reprint of Hausherr's early 20th C. book simply called Penthos. The book is criticized today as being overly Scholastic and unclear in a number of ways but it is now out in paper, falls within the price range of most readers, and is one of few books available on the topic per se. A third option is Maggie Ross's, The Fountain and the Furnace, the Way of Tears and Fire  another hard to find book but one which is worth locating. I don't always agree with Ms Ross on the relation of the hermit to the institutional Church, but she is extremely knowledgeable and a very fine writer.

References to the gift of tears can be found throughout the literature of desert spirituality, especially in the literature of the Syriac Fathers, John Climacus, and as noted above in references to Cistercian and Camaldolese spiritualities. Meanwhile, a particularly interesting chapter on the gift of tears as it applies to a contemporary contemplative ecology is found in Douglas Christie's, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind, Notes for a Contemporary Ecology. Christie, who is knowledgeable about the desert Fathers and Mothers references to penthos, treats the gift of tears as the beginning of a profound and intersubjective way of knowing which relinquishes "illusions of detachment and control". His purpose is to suggest this as a way of coming to know the natural world, but also ourselves and God, which is more appropriate for contemplative living than ways which are more dualistic.