Thursday, January 7, 2016

Holy Tears

"A Rainbow in Winter" 
- At the Desert Retreat House -

The other day the President of the United States broke into tears while announcing his plan for “executive action” to curb gun violence in this country. When he got to the part in his speech in which he referred to the “little kids” so brutally massacred over the past few years, his tears began to flow. He had to stop his speech and wipe his eyes as he silently wept for those innocent victims of senseless violence.

As might be expected, many of the President’s opponents derided his tears as “signs of weakness,” a display unbefitting the person who is supposedly the most powerful man in the world.  But, when I saw the President break into tears it struck me that I was witnessing a very sacred moment and those tears were holy tears.

Today as I looked out into the wilderness around my house I reflected on something the 4th century Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers used to say -  for them, weeping was a spiritual act and tears were a gift.

The Greek word penthos can be found in many of the writings of these ancient desert monks, reflecting a spirituality of weeping by which the monks embraced their common life. The word penthos is best translated as:

A profound piercing of the heart that wells up into tears.

The desert monks embraced “tears” as a holy gift, they saw tears as the language of transcendence, the currency of the thin places in life. When the veil between humanity and divinity is so porous and so paper thin, it pierces the heart and wells up into tears.

This kind of holy weeping cannot be engineered, manufactured or planned- holy tears come unexpectedly and mysteriously. The tears of penthos bubble up from the very core of one’s humanity. They come from the most intimate, fragile and vulnerable places of the human heart. Holy tears are like a spring of refreshing water gushing up into the dry and arid desert soil.

This reminds me of a Native American proverb:

The soul would have no rainbow if the eyes had no tears.

We live in a culture in which weeping is not highly regarded and tears are symptoms of weakness, to be avoided at all costs. When we see someone weeping over the death of a loved one we often comfort them with the admonition “Don’t cry, it will be all right.” We are taught to hold back our tears especially in public. We learn that tears are a sign of emotional instability, and men in particular (especially men in power) are strongly discouraged from weeping.

When we suppress our tears we block “transcendence” from bubbling up and rob ourselves of the language of the thin places in life.

When I saw the President weeping the other day it was a sacred moment that made me want to reclaim the holiness of tears once again on any path of truth. I welcome the gift of penthos in my own spiritual journey. I open my heart that it might be pierced so deeply that it will well up into tears.

Author and poet, Paul Coelho, put it this way:

Be aware of the places where you are brought to tears,
that’s where your treasure is.


  1. I recall a lady telling me that as she got older her propensity to cry 'got worse', whereas I felt that perhaps she was getting better. Getting better at being fully alive :-) xx