Prayer is not a disembodied exercise of the mind or intellect. At the deeper levels of prayer, the body and its senses are involved, and prayer becomes an experience of the total person. “Becoming prayer” is a favourite patristic expression. Tears, as an expression of the “sensible” experience, have always been associated with deep compassionate prayer. When the ascetic tradition speaks about “the gift of tears” (charisma ton dakuron), it is not as an expression of sentiments, but as a special charism of the Holy Spirit that induces an incessant flow of tears that “make the flesh bloom” (Isaac the Syrian) in joy and compassion.
In a civilization dominated by the objectivity of cold reason, tears are a matter of shame, vulnerability and the expression of subjective and irrational sentiments. So they are censored from public display and banished from all serious intellectual discourse. Christian theology has followed other scientific disciplines in ignoring the value of tears as signs of metanoia and signals of a compassionate transcendence. Although tears retain a central place in Eastern Christian spirituality, very few people speak about this openly, as they belong to the hidden side of the spiritual life.
Tears originate at different levels. There are tears of sorrow and grief occurring to every human being sometime or other. This is the primary level of tears springing from our fundamental experience. The new-born child cries (though without tears) at the breaking of the umbilical cord, as it comes out of the cosy womb of the mother. The tear glands begin to secrete later on, about the third month. The cry of the baby signals its need of food or warmth or simply the presence of another. Tears here invoke the profound and invisible links the human baby has with other persons and with its surroundings.
In spiritual practice one speaks of the tears of contrition or repentance. This is the phenomenon of tears transformed to the spiritual plane. Sin alienates us and breaks the umbilical cord from God and fellow human beings, and the repenting person weeps in sorrow over this separation.
There is another level of tears in the spiritual tradition of the Christian East: tears of compassion. God’s tender mercy and love enter the whole being of a person and that person melts into tears which continually flow in compassionate love for God’s creation.
“The gift of tears” is not necessarily reserved for a spiritual elite but, as Gregory of Nazianzus affirms, is open to all, though everyone has his or her special gifts. For Gregory tears are a fifth baptism, “a more laborious one” than the baptism of Moses in the Red Sea, of John in the Jordan, of Jesus in the Spirit or of martyrs by blood.
For Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), tears carry a profound baptismal significance for spiritual regeneration, which purifies and illumines the inner person. In tears “one drinks the grace of the Holy Spirit who unites us in Christ.” As a second baptism it washes away the dirt that accumulates in us after baptism.
Tears can be a sign of deep repentance, but great discernment is needed to judge the level of the inner state of the spiritual seeker. Tears can appear in a beginner as well as one who is advanced in spiritual life. Deep penitence (penthos) is not simply an act of will, but is intimately connected to bodily sensibility. J. Hausherr points out that penitence as an act of will is not necessarily a physical experience, while penthos in the Eastern tradition is always linked to the shedding of tears, a profound bodily sensation. Isaac the Syrian places tears at the border line between our physical and spiritual natures. Tears mediate between the material and the spiritual and signify the stage of transition from one to the other.
Although tears in a spiritual person begin with compunction, repentance for one’s sins, sadness over the alienation from God, terror of coming judgement and fear of God, they rise to the higher levels of compassion and genuine love. John Climacus contrasts tears of love with tears of fear. In Isaac the Syrian, compassion and tears of love open up to embrace the whole of created reality, including those elements which are usually thought to be inimical to human life. In a celebrated passage, the bishop of Nineveh is asked: “What is a compassionate heart?” He answers:
The heart that is inflamed in this way embraces the entire creation – man, birds, animals and even demons. At the recollection of them, and at the sight of them, such a man’s eyes fill with tears that arise from the great compassion which presses on his heart. The heart grows tender and cannot endure to hear of or look upon any injury or even the smallest suffering inflicted upon anything in creation. For this reason such a man prays increasingly with tears even for irrational animals and for the enemies of truth and for all who harm it, that they may be guarded and be forgiven. The compassion which pours out from his heart without measure, like God’s, extends even to reptiles.
K.M. George, The Silent Roots: Orthodox Perspectives on Christian Spirituality (Risk book series) (Geneva, WCC Publications, 1994) 62-65.