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Friday, February 01, 2008

A Lenten Discipline: Where are your tears?

I've been thinking about a Lenten Discipline for this year, my last one concerning regular exercise having been so successful. No, really. I am now a regular fixture at my local YW/MCA. It's been the best thing I've ever done for myself in a very long time.

It's hard to top that, so you understand my dilemma. Well, here's one that is probably just as difficult as getting into a regular pattern of physical exercise. I found this wonderful piece written by one of my favorite authors over at one of my favorite morning stops, Episcopal Cafe.

The gift of tears
By Martin L. Smith

I have a standing joke with a friend ever since he asked me about a sermon I was preparing: “Which bodily fluid will you be mentioning this time?” He had picked up on my tendency to gravitate toward symbols that derive from the body. So during Lent, long before we arrive once again in Holy Week to confront the primal imagery of the cross and “the water and the blood” which the evangelist John tells us to notice, we can think about tears.

What place do tears have in our spiritual lives? Tradition speaks of the gift of tears. Lent is supposed to be a time for reflecting on our own religious experience, and a rewarding discipline might be to question ourselves about our own tears, the tears we permit and the tears we repress. Here is an experiment: During Lent set aside half an hour each week, sit quietly in a private place with notepad and think where your tears are. Which are the kinds of tears that connect us with God and ourselves and one another? Do I ever allow any of these tears to flow?

I can already think of some of the headings I could use to help me focus on different aspects. Perhaps the first would be Forbidden Tears. Many of us have gone through life with unshed tears pent up inside us because some authority figures forbade us to cry. I’ve lost count of the men whom I have had to help release the tears their parents shamed them into suppressing. It is one thing for parents to stop us whining in self-pity. It is another to censor the expression of grief and loss. The terrible truth is that many adults have been trained not to cry. So many griefs turned to ice in the deep freeze of the heart’s recesses! Many of us will never warm up, or become open and free, until those tears have thawed and we allow them to flow. The old hymn Veni Creator Spiritus prays “what is frozen warmly tend…” There is an entire spirituality of healing contained in that petition. Imagine what a breakthrough might begin if we had the courage to confess before God that we don’t know how to mourn, and need help.

Another category might be Tears of Truth. Here we venture into the territory of discernment. Tears tell us different things. Some tears expose our shallow sentimentality. We sob in spite of ourselves at tear-jerking movie scenes. We choke up at martial music and mawkish songs. Other tears reveal our vulnerability to manipulation. How easy it is for so-called evangelists and political orators to work us. The lump-in-the throat tears they stimulate warn us that hackers know exactly how to get into our emotions for their own ends.

But we also cry because we have allowed truth though our defenses. These are different tears that cleanse and heal us. They tell us that we don’t have hearts of stone after all, and that makes us grateful. We can be moved by what is true, what is good and what is beautiful. Tears can assure that we are touched by truth, braced by its painful realism, inspired to embrace its integrity, and honor its demands. Sometimes when I play songs by two artists who have touched my life, Mili Bermejo and Abby Lincoln, I weep, but not from sentimentality. These songs bring tears because they remind me what these women taught me about passion, and the wholeness that can only be discovered by honoring loss and desire, grief and yearning, fierce anger and tenderness.

And there are Tears of Connection. Paul sums up our spirituality of mutual service succinctly: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Rom. 12:15) And the shortest sentence in scripture is, “Jesus wept.” Tears of self-pity water make seeds of resentment germinate. Tears of empathy join us to each other. A heart that is open to God’s Spirit allows us to shed tears of joy at the successes and delights that come to others. (Saints even shed tears of joy at blessings given to those they don’t even like.) Tears of compassion allow us to share the burdens of others. Tears of intercession might even be ways we can cry on behalf of others, so that thanks to our connectedness in the Spirit, they might not have to cry as much.

Our list of tears can get longer. Tears of Compunction through we which we admit our own brokenness and surrender denial. Tears of Bliss. Tears of Relief. Above all, Tears of sheer gratitude. Think about them. It won’t be long before we realize why the spiritual masters spoke of the gift of tears. Most of us in our very emotionally controlled Episcopalian milieu haven’t opened that gift up yet. We need to ask God very simply and sincerely for that gift.

The Rev. Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.

1 comment:

Bill said...

There was a time when I didn’t allow myself to cry. You’re right, I was taught from the time I was a little boy that boys don’t cry. You have to be brave. You can’t show weakness and crying is weakness. “There’s no crying in baseball.” I know that I cried back in 1970 when my cousin Bobby was killed in a military plane crash. People must have thought it was ok because we grew up almost as brothers. But that was the last time for a good long while. I never got to cry when my Grandmother died. I was in the military and didn’t know about it until I got back from Korea and my mail caught up with me. They didn’t think that a grandmother was a close enough relationship to warrant bringing me home. The next time I cried was about ten years ago when my Mom passed away. It wasn’t until I had a nervous breakdown, tried suicide and ended up in a psychiatric hospital that I realized it was ok to cry. It was ok to show emotion. Now I can’t watch the movie “Rent” without blubbering, and I don’t care. Crying is about releasing all those emotions you’re trying to hide and just letting them go. Sometimes a good cry is all you need to get on with your life.

Women, from the time they are little, are better able to deal with emotions. It’s expected. How often have you heard the expression, “just have a good cry”. They go to the movies and they bring tissues. They come expecting to have a good cry and they come prepared. When was the last time a guy brought tissues to a movie unless he had a head cold.

I started to cry last week at a funeral service. We were serving at the altar and had to be stoic for the family. But being up there and watching four grand-daughters grieve in the front pew while their mothers delivered the eulogy was almost too much. For me and for other reasons it was a relief. I wasn’t able to be there for the last days of my Mom’s life and being there for my friend Eleanor was cathartic.

So, I think crying is a good thing. Get yourself a box of tissues and go at it.