The third chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition is entitled “Manners of Praying” and in it Father Gabriel (Bunge) is concerned with the disposition of those who pray which is reflected in the manner in which we pray. And the first “manner” that he discusses is that reflected by the tears that are to accompany our prayers (Heb 5:7).
For both Scripture and the Fathers, tears and prayer were intimately connected. These tears “belong to the “practical manner” of prayer, for they are part of the labours of praktike, that is the first stage of the spiritual life. (97)
Why this insistence on the necessity of tears, which appears so strange to modern men? Is the Christian not supposed to be joyful instead? Certainly, by the Fathers viewed the human condition more realistically perhaps than we do.
Abba Longinus had great contrition when he prayed and recited the psalms. One day his disciple asked him, “Abba, is this a spiritual rule, that a monk should weep all the time he is praying his office?” And the elder answered, “Yes, my Child, this is the rule that God now demands of us. For in the God did not create man so that he might weep, but rather so that he might rejoice and be glad and might glorify him, as pure and sinless as the angels. Once he fell into sin, however, he needed tears. And all who have fallen need them just the same. For where there are no sins, no tears will be necessary.” (99)
While the first stage of the spiritual life is marked by repentance, conversion and a change of heart,
The very thought of such a conversion, however , is met with unexpected interior resistance. Evagrius speaks in this regard about a certain interior “wildness” (ἀναισθησια) and dullness, which is overcome only with the help of tears of spiritual “sorrow” (πένθος).
Pray first for the gift of tears, so as to soften through contrition the wildness that dwells in your soul, so that by “confessing your transgressions to the LORD”, you may obtain forgiveness from him. [Evagrius](100)
Tears are a particularly effective remedy against that oppressiveness of soul that the Fathers refer to as acedia, or taedium cordis – weariness of soul, boredom and empty indifference.
However, tears should never become an end in themselves. As Evagrius says:
Even if you shed streams of tears as you pray, do not therefore become at all presumptuous in your heart, as though you stood high above the crowd. For your prayer has simply received [divine] assistance, which enables you to confess your sins eagerly and makes the Lord favourably inclined toward you through these tears. (101)
Therefore do not turn the defense against the passions into a passion itself, lest you anger the Giver of grace even more.
It is also a mistake to think that a proficient soul no longer has need of tears. Indeed
Even when a man has attained the goal of the “practical life”, the state of interior peace of soul, tears do not just vanish! At this stage, however, they are the expression of humility and as such are a guarantee that this state of peace is genuine (as opposed to the many forms of demonic counterfeits). Therefore the Fathers consider tears to be in fact a sign of a man’s nearness to God …
“The nearer a man is to God, the more he feels that he is a sinner”, one of the Fathers has said, because only God’s holiness makes our sinfulness truly visible. Hence tears are not only found at the beginning of the spiritual path of conversion, but also accompany the penitent as far as his goal, where they are transformed into “spiritual tears and a certain joy of heart”, which the Fathers esteemed as a sign of the immediate action of the Holy Spirit and thus of nearness to God. (102-103)