“Another trait of Catherine’s spirituality is linked to the gift of tears. They express an exquisite, profound sensitivity, a capacity for being moved and for tenderness. Many Saints have had the gift of tears, renewing the emotion of Jesus himself who did not hold back or hide his tears at the tomb of his friend Lazarus and at the grief of Mary and Martha or at the sight of Jerusalem during his last days on this earth. “ – Pope Benedict XVI on St. Catherine of Siena
We are used to seeing only sadness in tears, and that often at the blunt end of life’s troubles. Loneliness and disappointment, loss and death – these things strike us like car accidents, and leave mourning and weeping as evidence of the trauma.
The gift of tears is something else, but let us say something more about these worldly sorrows. We have no need to diminish them by comparison.
For the Christian, they are echoes of the Fall; and somehow, everyone senses that things are not quite right, that life ought to be better than it is. The world was once a fairy tale, but it has been cut short. Not “happily ever after”, but something nostalgic, like “we were happy once, but no longer.”
Else, why does death sting? It is a plain fact, one never avoided, but we are hushed and dumbstruck when it visits us.
The gift of tears is not without sadness. The sadness may be yet more profound, since it is a response not to natural events, but to supernatural significances.
Consider the sadness of Christ, when he cries at the death of Lazarus. It is clear that Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead; he was not crying over the finality of this particular death, as Mary and Martha did.
Why does he cry, then?
Consider the sadness of the penitent woman: “As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.” (Luke 7:38)
If she was weeping over natural things lost, why approach Jesus about it? Even if someone had died, why does she not say anything, but content herself to an act of abject adoration? What does she want from him?
“Your sins are forgiven,” he says. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
It might have been difficult even for her to say what she wanted, but it appears to have been a spiritual mercy. But listen – even this, if accurate, is only a crude way to express the “exquisite, profound sensitivity” that she possessed.
And this woman is a bridge to the Christian experience of the gift of tears; St. Gregory of Nazianzus observed that the gift of tears was a kind of baptism:
“Yes, and I know of a Fifth [Baptism] also, which is that of tears, and is much more laborious, received by him who washes his bed every night and his couch with tears; whose bruises stink through his wickedness; and who goes mourning and of a sad countenance; who imitates the repentance of Manasseh (2 Chronicles 38:12) and the humiliation of the Ninevites (Jonah 3:7-10) upon which God had mercy; who utters the words of the Publican in the Temple, and is justified rather than the stiff-necked Pharisee; (Luke 18:13) who like the Canaanite woman bends down and asks for mercy and crumbs, the food of a dog that is very hungry.”
Centuries later, St. Ignatius of Loyola would find himself overcome with saying Mass, sometimes unable to speak the words because of his tears – “He sometimes cried so much at Mass that he could not go on, nor even talk for some time, and he was afraid that his gift of tears might cause him to lose his eyesight.” *
St. Thomas Aquinas is said to have experienced the same thing, sometimes coupled with visions. And of course we have the example of St. Catherine as told to us by Pope Benedict above.
Weeping at Mass – if it’s not a wedding or a funeral – may seem odd, like voluntary poverty. It’s not impossible to imagine, but we only think very strange – or else, very holy – people could really do it. But we have the woman washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, and I said she would be our bridge.
The gift of tears is marked by deep, almost unfathomable penitence. The woman did not just mess up, but realized she had made a most deplorable mistake, a real tragedy. She had done something perhaps millions of other people have done - Luke does not say exactly what – but she, uniquely, saw the spiritual meaning of it, and it reduced her to uncontrollable sobbing. She may have approached Jesus without any assurance that he would forgive her, yet she was compelled to humble herself anyway. There was nothing else, nothing at all, that she could do except weep for mercy.
Ordinarily, we think that penitence does not feel good, and one does not see how it can be a gift. At least with the natural sorrows, we see how they are unavoidable; they are the cost of being alive. Why compound this with spiritual sorrows?
Oh, dear friend. I would pray for you to know the gift of tears. If I knew the gift of tears was at the end, I would want for you to endure every hardship life brings, and neither you nor I would regret it.
Because, at bottom, the gift of tears marks the presence of Joy. To be so moved is to catch a glimpse of the face of God; you could never know such sorrow without encountering Him. Yet what joy, because you are facing Him!
The experience of Sorrow and Joy both, not in some dilution but each at full strength, it presses the heart, wrings it out until it yields tears. There is Sorrow, yes, but the Joy is unspeakable. The only possible expression of it is in weeping, in a total breach of emotional control.
I give you one example, and I give it so that no one will think the gift of tears only comes to the holy ones. It occurred when I was younger, and more spiritually immature. You will see: It is a very simple experience.
We were on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and I was walking with the group through a church – I want to say in Capernaum, but I am not sure.
Anyway, as we entered the church from the outside, and made our way through a winding vestibule, I could faintly hear a voice, singing. We walked on, and the voice became clearer.
When we finally entered into the sanctuary, the voice broke on me like a waterfall. My legs felt weak, as though under a physical burden, so I found the last row of chairs and fell to my knees.
It was a beautiful voice dancing in a cavernous church, a cantor practicing for the next day’s liturgy. And there is much about a beautiful voice that anyone could understand, which might cause anyone to weep.
That is not what moved me. Rather, somehow, the voice pointed me not to its own beauty, but to Beauty itself. The voice was not the object of my admiration but the vehicle of my adoration. I did not – I could not – simply sit and enjoy the voice, but I begged for understanding. What did this mean? What am I supposed to do with this? Even, if faintly – why me? Why should I be so blessed?
And that was all. I have, since then, wept more profoundly at the touch of even simpler things. I have sobbed because of the elegance of a shadow.
I suggested a breach, because that’s what it is. You are traveling about in your body, in your self-image, in your conception of what the world is about and why you are here. And then you are seized by the least tincture of some pure thing, like Beauty or Intelligence, and it’s all over. Nothing you thought is quite right; nor are any of those things which threaten or impose on you real or true.
Something else – the Transcendentals, the attributes of God – reveals itself as fully real, as being the only true thing. No argument is plausible, no capture of the moment is possible.
*Passages regarding St. Gregory and St. Ignatius taken from Dr. Taylor Marshall’s blog.