Let’s face it, tears are powerful. When someone starts bawling in public, people will inevitably look down and shuffle their feet. As if by weeping, these individuals have somehow violated some unspoken social contract. To quote Elsa from Frozen, “Conceal! Don’t feel!” That’s all society is asking of us, and if you really need to express your emotions, please do it with detached irony.
In contrast to memes about mental health (or lack therefore), I recently attended a retreat where a young woman choked back tears. “I don’t like to be a burden to my family, or my friends,” she said. “And I don’t want to be a burden to God.” It was a powerful reminder of the expectations we put on ourselves and the barriers we imagine between us and God.
As I witnessed this young woman, I was reminded of Jesus. Jesus wept. What sorrow and anger he must have felt for losing his friend Lazarus! What love he must have had for his friend! Oftentimes, when I have experienced profound loss, I have not been able to reach that same emotional place. Following the death of his friend, Jesus is completely vulnerable, showing all his hurt to the world.
God calls us to that same kind of vulnerability. Can we be vulnerable with God and show him our hurts and our failings? For me, it has become easier because I have learned to rely on his love more. I may be broken, but I am loved. In the recognition or experience of my own brokenness, Jesus weeps for me and I move towards him and we see each other like never before.
Through such realizations, we also learn to communicate better with God; this is what St. Ignatius of Loyola calls spiritual consolation. In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius talks about the gift of tears as a spiritual consolation, placing them among things like courage, strength, devotion, intense love, inspirations, and quiet.
St. John of the Ladder, a 6th and 7th-century Christian monk, calls prayer “the mother and daughter of tears.” This is because oftentimes our attempt to communicate with God is a response to our emotions, be it joy or sorrow. In this way, our tears are the mother of our prayer, leading us to God. However, prayer often leads us to tears. As I pray my examen in the evenings and think of the people who have helped me or who have opened up to me, my eyes begin to water in joyful gratitude. These tears are like children born of my prayer.
In the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches, Lent is described as a season of joyful sorrow. This is because we are invited to rely more on God, to see our limitedness. In the Roman Church, Ash Wednesday also reminds us that we are creatures, destined to return to the Earth out of which we are fashioned. Because we become aware of our own mortality and the ways in which we have ignored God’s unconditional love, we are often led to sorrow.
However, the time is joyful because we also remain aware of God’s particular love for us as individuals. In this season of prayer, we recall the ways God has responded generously to us. As we begin to recognize every good thing in our life as a precious gift, our tears become bitter-sweet.