The Gift of Tears — Center for Action and Contemplation

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The Gift of Tears

Everybody Grieves

The Gift of Tears
Tuesday, August 3, 2021

The human instinct is to block suffering and pain. This is especially true in the West where we have been influenced by the “rationalism” of the Enlightenment. As anyone who has experienced grief can attest, it isn’t rational. We really don’t know how to hurt! We simply do not know what to do with our pain.

The great wisdom traditions are trying to teach us that grief isn’t something from which to run. It’s a liminal space, a time of transformation. In fact, we can’t risk getting rid of the pain until we’ve learned what it has to teach us and it—grief, suffering, loss, pain—always has something to teach us! Unfortunately, most of us, men especially, have been taught that grief and sadness are something to repress, deny, or avoid. We would much rather be angry than sad.

Perhaps the simplest and most inclusive definition of grief is “unfinished hurt.” It feels like a demon spinning around inside of us and it hurts too much, so we immediately look for someone else to blame. We have to learn to remain open to our grief, to wait in patient expectation for what it has to teach us. When we close in too tightly around our sadness or our grief, when we try to fix it, control it, or understand it, we only deny ourselves its lessons.

Saint Ephrem the Syrian (303–373), a Doctor of the Church, considered tears to be sacramental signs of divine mercy. He instructs: “Give God weeping, and increase the tears in your eyes; through your tears and [God’s] goodness the soul which has been dead will be restored.” [1] What a different kind of human being than most of us! In the charismatic circles in which I participated in my early years of ministry, holy tears were a common experience. Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi reportedly wept all the time—for days on end!

The “weeping mode” really is a different way of being in the world. It’s different than the fixing, explaining, or controlling mode. We are finally free to feel the tragedy of things, the sadness of things. Tears cleanse the lens of the eyes so we can begin to see more clearly. Sometimes we have to cry for a very long time because our eyes are so dirty that we’re not seeing truthfully or well at all. Tears only come when we realize we can’t fix it and we can’t change it. The situation is absurd, it’s unjust, it’s wrong, it’s impossible. She should not have died; he should not have died. How could this happen? Only when we are led to the edges of our own resources are we finally free to move to the weeping mode.

The way we can tell our tears have cleansed us is that afterwards we don’t need to blame anybody, even ourselves. It’s an utter transformation and cleansing of the soul, and we know it came from God. It is what it is, and somehow God is in it.

[1] Ephrem, sermon on Isaiah 26:10, in Penthos: The Doctrine of Compunction in the Christian East, by Irénée Hausherr, trans. Anselm Hufstader (Cistercian Publications: 1982), 29.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Beloved Sons Series: Men and Grief (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2005), CD, MP3 audio.

Story from Our Community:
In March 2019, my 40-year-old daughter passed away suddenly. It felt as though I had been flung over a rocky cliff and fell headlong into a dark abyss of grief. Then came the realization that all attempts at controlling this temporal life are fallacy. Slowly too, came the sense of being held by both death and resurrection, that which is unknowable but still somehow known, and awakened to the eternality of God, whom I call the Present Now of all Love. —Linda C.

Image credit: Dennis Cowals, Upland Taiga (detail), 1973, photograph, Alaska, National Archives.
Image inspiration: Grief can feel like a wilderness—the vastness and depth of it overwhelming. We enter this wilderness to find the keys for healing, bit by bit, tree by tree, discovering and knowing our own grief spaces.
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