Monday, March 10, 2014

The Gift of Tears

"A River in the Wilderness"
-in a desert canyon-

The other day I had a chance to watch the award-winning movie, "12 Years a Slave" -such a powerful depiction of the very worst and also the very best of the human condition. As I watched the movie, I was so appalled by the incredible cruelty and reprehensible violence human beings are capable of inflicting on other human beings; and at the same time, I had a powerful sense of the incredibly beautiful love, loyalty and tender compassion we are also capable of giving to one another. 

In the last scene of the movie, having been freed from his unjust slavery, the main character is finally re-united with his family.  In an excruciatingly tender moment, the now-freed man embraces his family remembering the lashes, the chains and the humiliation that had been inflicted upon him, remembering also the courage and compassion of others who set him free, now in the embrace of those he loves,  - his only possible response is "tears." He weeps -  tears of profound pain, tears of deep sorrow, tears of unbridled joy. There was no other possible response - only "tears."

As I watched this incredibly beautiful final scene of that movie, I found that I was weeping also. I was more than just watching the last scene of a good movie, I was weeping with that man, weeping at the horrors of our human condition and weeping over how tremendously beautiful we all can be.

I live in a desert, and I write this daily blog post as a spiritual reflection from a desert perspective. Oftentimes I refer to the wisdom of my spiritual ancestors who also dwelt in a desert much like the one where I live. The 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers moved away from the culture of their own day in order to live a simple existence in desert caves and huts in community with each other as faithful followers of Jesus.

My spiritual ancestors, those ancient  monastics, were particularly known for the way in which  they cherished "tears." For them weeping was a spiritual act and tears were a gift.  

There is a Greek word "Penthos" that was used by those ancient monastics to describe their spirituality of weeping.  "Penthos"is  translated  as "a profound piercing of the heart that wells up into tears."  

This kind of weeping (Penthos) cannot be engineered or manufactured or planned. These kind of tears come up unexpectedly and mysteriously.  For those ancient monastics tears were a gift. Tears bubble up from the very core of humanity like a spring of refreshing water gushing up into the dry arid desert.  Tears come from the most intimate, fragile and vulnerable places in the human heart. 

Those ancient monastics saw the gift of tears as a language of the "thin places" in life where the veil between humanity and divinity is porous and so very paper thin. 

The desert monastics welcomed "tears." They were grateful when they were able to weep out of the very depths of their souls, and they encouraged one another to accept and to be grateful for this beautiful gift. 

We live in a culture in which tears are not so highly regarded. 

When we see someone weeping at the death of a loved one, we often "comfort" them by saying, "Here, here now, don't cry."  We are taught not to be overly emotional, and so we learn to "hold back the tears" and wipe them away so as not to be embarrassed by them (especially in public). We are taught that tears and weeping are signs of weakness and emotional instability. In this culture, men are particularly discouraged from weeping - not a manly thing to do, so "stiff upper lip" and move on.

I want to reclaim the tears that my culture has so long denied me. I have moved out to the desert. I align myself with my spiritual ancestors and reclaim the gift of "Penthos." I want my heart to be pierced in its deepest places. I welcome weeping as a spiritual act. 

And so I watch a movie about slavery. The tears well up and I let them freely flow. I sit at a coffee shop and watch a grandpa tenderly kiss his infant grandchild. The tears well up and I let them freely flow.

I wake up this morning. It's springtime in the desert and the sun is just about to rise. When it finally does come up over the eastern mountains, the darkness of the early dawn is instantly transformed, bathed in brilliant sunshine, setting the heavens and earth all aglow. I can barely take it in. 
It happens like this every morning,  and every morning it's as if I am seeing it all for the for the very first time - such a "thin place."

The tears well up in me and I let them freely flow, ever so grateful for the gift. 


  1. My nephew aged a month away from 34.
    Died of Cardiac arrest on friday.
    While his wife was about to take a lady look before they moved his body to the morgue. I told her to cry her heart out. Cry it out.! I told her.
    I felt tears flowing profusely incessantly and embarrassingly enough in a public bus. -as a kind of spiritual release. A mystical experience but at the same time a wringing of the flesh.
    I had boarded that bus while on a pilgrimage to a famous Hindu temple atop a Hillock. As the bus slowly whined and wound around the hill ,inching closer and closer to my Lords abode.Tears started welling and then it just started flowing and flowing .. and I was standing in the bus hanging onto the railing and I just did not care. And the rest of the crowd they looked at me - and it seemd that they understood.
    they did not care either.
    Ive never done that on my life.
    I thought I was crazy and forgot about it - this was in ' 96.
    Till I read your post and realized how fortunate was I.
    I thank you for opening my eyes.

  2. Nandu--beautiful coment.
    Thanks so much

  3. Terribly sorry for the typos .I miss my blackberry

  4. I also watched that movie last night. People think they have it bad now, it's hard to imagine the lives that lived and died during those times. When did humans start acting like humans? It must be a recent phenomenon.