The Way of Tears

Around 40 years ago I was having a conversation with one of the then leaders of the charismatic movement, John Richards. We were discussing the place of feelings and emotion in church and in particular the feelings experienced during worship. Somehow the conversation got on to the subject of tears and the way that worship sometimes evokes tears. I mentioned to him that there was a famous article (for me at any rate!) on the subject of tears in the early Greek Fathers. I sent him a reference to this article about tears and spirituality. For my effort, I found that our conversation was mentioned in a footnote for an article that was written by John shortly afterwards.

I mention this conversation because one of the positive features of the charismatic spirituality for me is that there is a place for expressing feelings. So often Christianity is seemingly presented as being about a dry adherence to a number of statements about God and what he has done. A mention of tears within Christian experience is able to take us well away from matters of intellect into the realm of feelings and the heart. The popularity of endless repetition of choruses (something we criticise in this blog), can be seen to perform the function of stirring feelings. But clearly the evocation of feeling and tears within an ancient spiritual tradition will undoubtedly be something deeper than this. All of us share having our human feelings aroused through participation in music or drama. This is a daily part of the way that life is enriched for most of us. How often these feelings rise above what we would call superficial sentiment is another question. In practice, we are all aware of the difference between a merely pleasant sensation and a profoundly moving experience which may change us at a deep level. In addressing the role played by tears for these early Christian writers, we are clearly moving to a place much more significant than anything we normally experience.

The tradition of a spirituality beginning with an experience of tears goes back to the early centuries of Greek spiritual writings. An author known as Isaac the Syrian, writing in the sixth century, believed that tears were the sign of a spiritual breakthrough. He said of the mystic way that when ‘grace begins to open your eyes so that they see things in their essence, it is then that your eyes begin to fill with tears’. St Simeon the New Theologian, an 11th century writer based in Constantinople, speaks of a vision that he had. Writing of himself in the third person Simeon says that when he came to following a vision, ‘he was prey to joy and amazement …he wept from the bottom of his heart and his tears were accompanied by sweetness.’

When these early Fathers speak of tears, they are not talking about sobbing or any contraction of the muscles. They are referring to an outpouring of deep feeling which they perceived as spiritual in nature. Most of us will have had experiences, perhaps spiritual in nature, which has brought us to the point of tears. Sometimes something takes place which is of great beauty, such as a moment of reconciliation between two people. Perhaps it is the climax or moment of triumph for someone after months or years of effort. It was hard not to feel a lump as we watched the athlete helping another runner over the finishing line at the London Marathon at the week-end. Such tears represent are being moved something profoundly beautiful. In the same way, the monastic tradition in the East recognised that tears might be experienced by a Christian as they come forward to receive the sacrament. Indeed, Simeon suggested that ‘no one should communicate without tears’.

Tears in the face of beauty or wonder are also to be placed alongside another cause for weeping as understood by the Fathers. These are tears of compunction. This last word is not a commonly used one in English. It refers to the way that we recognise how sin and evil doing have polluted our human identity. Compunction is the sorrow we feel as part of this sense of repentance. In a powerful metaphor, Simeon describes how the tears of repentance help to water the dry earth in which we try to grow our virtues. Such a moral reformation is accompanied by a successful warding off of demonic attack as well as developing the humility to live a good life. To quote from Simeon’s writing, ‘it is an inexpressible marvel that he whose eyes shed sensible tears washes his soul spiritually from the mud of faults; that that which falls to the ground burns and crushes the demons, and renders the soul free from the invisible bonds of sin.’

I realise in revisiting this long-forgotten tradition within Christian spirituality that it provides a strong antidote to a temptation to exercise manipulative power. Even if a tradition of tears as part of Christian spirituality seems strange to us, at least we can begin to see within it an utter humility and refusal to control. The one who weeps before God at the beauty of his presence or the one who feels deep sorrow for their sins is never the one who longs for power. In this rapid description of the way of tears. I would like to suggest that there is one further area for recognising the possibility of spiritual tears which Simeon does not speak about. In a world which is full of suffering, homelessness, slavery and sudden death, to name a few, it is hard not to be touched emotionally by the sheer volume of the world’s pain. I wonder if our intercessions might not, at least on some occasions, allow to feel deeply in our acts of identification with our objects of concern. In summary, is not truly felt intercession an occasion for tears, at least sometimes? Should not our caring for the world be an invitation to weep for that world? Because we know so much more about what is going on in the world our compassion should in theory be so much greater. Tears may have no value in themselves, but they do have the effect of opening up the heart to greater awareness and sensitivity as to what is going on in ourselves, other people and the wider world. This heightened sensitivity is surely needed in a world that shuts itself off from pain, fear and reality itself. The way of tears, as taught by the early Fathers, may be a path that Christians can learn to follow. This in turn may help to melt the hatreds, the power games and the exploitation that infect our churches and wider society. Compassion, the ability to suffer with others, both near and far, is something that Christians need to experience and then teach to all. Tears of compassion along with tears that lead to humility are important gifts to be offered to our world where such things are not apparent or easily understood.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

8 thoughts on “The Way of Tears

  1. Yes, very good points. But can I play devil’s advocate? Sometimes tears are no more real than fake joy. And the fruits of the spirit after all do include joy, so that is a perfectly authentic expression of feelings.

    And I think you have a word missing at the beginning of your penultimate paragraph. “… to be placed…. “?

  2. Thanks Stephen, this just happens to come very timely for me. I used to shed tears more often years ago, but really not much any more. However just a few days I had a strong inner experience of the kind you describe involving reconciliation, of forgiveness for both others and myself. This brought some tears and was indeed a beautiful moment, which I believe has significantly opened my heart to fuller participation in love and a bit more of casting out fear.

  3. I used to sing quite a bit in church, especially at Easter and Christmas. When I walked away from my Shepherding Discipleship sect, I felt like all opportunity for such things was gone for good. And I always made it a habit to only sing things with which I identified so that I could open my heart to them honestly. I ended up reviving the tradition by just performing alone for my audience of One, and I sang a more modern song on Easter morning. And I wept when I got to the bridge in the song which I ended up singing to myself.

    >>>And to all the things that have kept you away
    That keep you defeated day after day after day
    The heartache that nobody sees
    That eats at your soul like a cruel disease
    He who set the captives free
    It is He, it is He who holds your keys

    (chorus)
    For He holds the keys
    He holds the keys
    And though we’ve been held captive
    At long last we are free
    For He holds the keys<<<

    I realized that I'd forgotten just why I loved to sing to encourage others and was so deeply convicted that in so much recent grief, I'd forgotten to take heed to my own message. And so the healing tears did flow. I've been focusing on the short-term elements of things that don't make sense to me which I've turned into something of idols if one just considers my focus on them. So I was given an unexpected, sweet reminder that I am free indeed.

    Thank you so much for this sweet reminder, too. It is lovely.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgM8Wy4SXGg

  4. It’s good to hear that people are experiencing healing tears. It’s yet to happen to me I’m afraid. I am still treated with the same indifference as ever. As I’ve said before, it seems that only retired clergy will come out and talk about bullying. Those who could help, don’t.

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