Tears as Prayers

My latest in the Christian Courier. (October 11th edition.)

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Have you cried lately? If so, do you know the meaning of your tears?

It’s a complicated question. We humans are not fully transparent to ourselves—we are not fully aware of the experiences or realities that shape our emotional lives. Our tears in any situation may result from past experiences, diverse sensitivities, hormonal realities, and even how much sleep we’ve been getting. We may know there are tears running down our cheeks, but never fully know why.

This is to say nothing of the deeper biological and evolutionary bases of our tears. Perhaps human tears have been selected for because they invite sympathy and promote community well-being. Or perhaps our tears are a way of moderating anger in those who perceive them. Or maybe our tears relieve tension and allow us to function well in daily lives defined by stress.

There is so much going on when we cry. This means it is always a question of interpreting our tears, in the same way that we interpret scripture or other texts. We can do our best to explain our tears, but we likely will never fully understand them or have a definitive answer for their meaning.

My three teenage kids wonder whether their dad has ever cried! As much as I may assure them that I cried at their births (and have shed tears since!) I’m not sure they are convinced.

I can also assure them that tears were shed when the eldest left home for university this year (which is what got me thinking about tears). It strikes me that sometimes our tears are a deeply felt acknowledgement of the goodness of others. To miss someone, and to shed tears at their departure or absence, is to express through our bodies the goodness and beauty we have seen in them and their lives. This is the same reason we might cry in reading a novel or watching a film where such goodness is on display, particularly when expressed in the face of adversity. To cry, in these moments, is to have been struck deeply by the grace, kindness, and gifts we perceive.

I notice something else in my tears, and maybe this reflects a Calvinist streak in me. Or maybe it is more universal than that. I notice that I have not earned this proximity to goodness; that it is sheer gift. There is nothing I have done to earn this sharing in life with others who exhibit wisdom and kindness and strength and grace. How could this realization not make your eyes well up?

It is just here that I realize our tears are prayers. Whether they result from physical pain, from emotional pain, or from an encounter with goodness and beauty, one of the gifts of tears is precisely that we pray through them. All of our tears have been taken into the divine life by Jesus, the one who has wept with us. And even when we cannot understand our own tears, the Spirit lifts them up to the Father, together with all our wordless prayers.

In the case of tears spurred by the goodness and beauty of lives around us, this joyful sorrow translates as prayerful thankfulness. If our tears are a deeply felt acknowledgment of the grace in others’ lives, this acknowledgment takes place before our generous God. Perhaps there are words that can be added to our tears, as they become a prayer, but perhaps not. Perhaps our tears say as much to God as needs to be said.

The full meaning of our crying may always escape us, but there is no question about where we are in our weeping. We are in blessed proximity to the God who embraces us and who embraces those whose goodness astonishes us and touches our souls.

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