Christ died once. He was buried once. Nevertheless he wants ointment to be poured on his feet each day. What are the feet of Christ on which we pour ointment? They are the feet of Christ of whom he himself says, “What you have done for one of the least of these, you have done to me.” The woman in the Gospel refreshes these feet. She moistens them with her tears when sin is forgiven of the lowest of persons, guilt is washed away, and pardon is granted. The one who loves even the least of God’s people kisses these feet. The one who makes known the favour of his gentleness to those who are frail annoints these feet with ointment. The Lord Jesus himself declares that he is honoured in these martyrs and apostles.

St Ambrose of Milan, Letter 22, quoted in Arthur A. Just (ed). Luke (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture) 129.

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)

Question  What are the exact tokens and accurate signs that the fruit which is hidden in the soul has begun to appear from a man’s labour?

Answer   When a man is deemed worthy to receive the gift of abundant tears which come over him without effort. For tears are established for the mind as a kind of boundary between what is bodily and what is spiritual and between passionateness and purity. Until a man receives this gift, the activity of his work is still in the outer man and he has not yet at all perceived the activity of the hidden things of the spiritual man. But when a man begins to relinquish the corporeal things of the present age and crosses this boundary to that which lies inside of visible nature, then straightaway he will attain to the grace of tears. And from the first hospice of this hidden discipline tears begin to flow and they lead a man to perfection in the love of God. The more he progresses in this discipline, the more he is enriched with love, until by reason of his constant converse with tears he imbibes them with his food and drink. …

There are tears that burn and there are tears that anoint as with oil. All tears that flow out of contrition and anguish of heart on account of sins dry up and burn the body, and often even the governing faculty feels the injury caused by their outflow. At first a man must necessarily come to this order of tears and through them a door is opened unto him to enter into the second order, which is superior to the first; this is the realm wherein a man receives mercy. These are the tears that are shed because of insight; they make the body comely and anoint it as if with oil, and they pour forth by themselves without compulsion. Not only do they anoint the body with oil, but they also alter a man’s countenance.

St. Isaac the Syrian,The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (I, 37), translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984. p. 174-175.

If my blog stats are anything to go by, it would appear that my quote from Father K.M. George on The gift of tears is one of the most popular posts on this blog. Given this interest, it seemed worth sharing these words of Abba Isaac that I read this morning. (On a totally unrelated note, Wei Hsien reports that the aforementioned Father George was an observer at the recent Catholic Synod of Bishops).

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.