The Blessing of Tears

Why there is healing power in weeping.

I have just finished reading the late Alice Miller’s book The Drama of the Gifted Child. In it she explores the lifetime damage adults may cause infants and children by abusing and disrespecting them, either physically or psychologically.

A detail of a weeping woman from the painting “The Brawl” by Georges de la Tour (1593-1652).

This abuse can be very subtle. It occurs, she says, whenever parents manipulate their children to meet the parents’ emotional needs rather than the child’s. As a protection, children learn to stifle their own emotions, emotions that create anxiety in their parents. Those stifled emotions get stored in the body. As the child grows into adulthood, the repressed feelings can then feed both grandiosity and depression.

The aim of therapy, she writes, is not to correct the past, but to enable the patient both to confront his history and grieve over it.* That can free us from troubling emotions. What is freeing is facing and accepting the truth about our lives.

What caught my special attention in this book is the emphasis Miller places on the healing power of mourning. We cannot go back and change the past. What has happened in the past, especially if it represents a deep loss or something profoundly damaging, has happened. We cannot change that. What we as adults can do is mourn. This can release us from the emotions that our loss has caused.

The Theme of Mourning in the Bible

I found this an insight. It brought to mind the frequent references to mourning that we find throughout the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. One of the most vivid is the story of King David mourning the death of his son Absalom told in 2 Samuel 18.

His son has attempted a coup d’état against his father. David’s general Joab slays Absalom after battle. A messenger brings the good news to David. To the dismay of his court, David sinks into an inconsolable lament:

O my son Absalom,

my son, my Absalom!

Would I have died instead of you,

O Absalom, my son, my son! (2 Samuel 18:33)**

The Old Testament book of Lamentations is one long poetic lament over the Babylonian destruction of the city of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The poet says of the city:

She weeps bitterly in the night,

with tears on her cheeks…. (Lamentations 1:2)

The Psalms are also filled with songs of lament. They in fact outnumber psalms of praise and joy. They carry many references to weeping, like these lines from Psalm 126:

Restore our fortunes, O LORD,

            like the watercourses in the Negeb.

May those who sow in tears

            reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping,

            bearing the seed for sowing,

shall come home with shouts of joy,

            carrying their sheaves. (Psalm 126:4-6)

And when we come to the gospels, we come upon the amazing passage in John 11 when Jesus stands outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus. At that moment, the gospel says: Jesus wept (John 11:35). Bible handbooks will tell us this is the shortest verse in English Bibles. What that item of tidbit information does not convey is the power of these two words. They express the depth of Jesus’ own sorrow in the face of death.

The Healing Power of Tears

These passages show how the Biblical writers do not shy away from sorrow and their accompanying tears. There may be a reason why they do so. They, like Alice Miller, see them not only as a reality of life, but also as having healing power.

Crying becomes a way the body releases the deep emotions that result from loss, tragedy, and trauma. Our bodies and our emotions are intimately interconnected. Instead of storing up the emotions, the body begins to wash them away through the flow of tears. Tears then become a form of blessing.

This suggests there is something very counterproductive in the old cultural bias that big boys don’t cry. In so teaching our boys and young men, we may be nurturing the repression of feelings that will later emerge as perversions and destructive violence. How many of our mass shootings come from angry young men who are often remembered as silent in their rage.

The Role of Tears in Christian Spirituality

Writers on the spiritual life often talk about the gift of tears as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit at work. As we grow more mature in our spiritual lives, our hearts are transformed from hard to soft.

The emphasis on the spiritual gift of tears begins to become prominent in Christian spirituality with the desert fathers and mothers. These are the ascetics who fled civilized life to live lives of prayer and penitence in the Egyptian and Syrian deserts in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries. In their ascetic communities the gift of tears was understood as an accompaniment to true conversion.

Writing about their attitude, Billy Kangas has said:

The desert fathers saw salvation as a more holistic sense of healing. Forgiveness is part of being saved, but there is a great deal more to it than that. The desert fathers read through the Bible and discovered the language of salvation and the language of healing are interwoven. As we are healed, we are saved…In the minds of the desert fathers healing begins in the heart, and tears are a powerful balm.***

This emphasis that begins with the desert fathers and mothers has continued as a theme in Christian spirituality ever since. It holds an especially prominent place in Eastern Orthodox spirituality.

The God Who Weeps

What is so healing about tears? For one, in our mourning we begin to shed illusions about our life. As Alice Miller says, we begin to face the truth about our lives. But also in tears we shed some of the pernicious emotions that nest in our bodies, emotions like anger, jealousy, and despair.

Our tears are part of the process of transformation. They help flush out our negativity. They water our receptivity to the Holy Spirit. This in turn nurtures fertility in our spirits so that the fruits of the Spirit, like love, joy, and compassion, are given space to grow and flourish.

So we need not be alarmed when as we advance on our spiritual journey, we find ourselves sometimes overcome with weeping. It may be a sign that we are entering into the very heart of God. For an amazing passage in the prophet Hosea (Hosea 11) suggests that God himself weeps.

In this passage God speaks to Israel (Ephraim) about the destruction and exile that is coming upon their kingdom. God is abandoning them in this catastrophe because of their faithlessness. But this rips at the very heart of God, as expressed in these moving sentences:

How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! How can I make you like Admah! How can I treat you like Zeboiim! My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy. (Hosea 11:8-9)

 The passage makes no explicit mention of tears, but it pulls back the veil so that we can see into the broken heart of God.

* Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self. Basic Books, 2007. Page 106.

** A number of composers have set this lament to music. One of my favorites is a setting by the Renaissance English composer Orlando Gibbons.

*** Billy Kangas, The Role of Tears in the Spiritual Life: Lessons from the Desert Fathers, a blog posted May 2, 2011 on the Catholic Channel of Patheos. This posting provides a good discussion on the role of tears in the ascetic theology of the Desert Fathers and Mothers and in Eastern Orthodox spirituality. Another good online discussion is by Macrina Walker, The gift of tears, a blog posted July 30, 2008 on her blog site A Vow of Conversation.