CBC Times Special Edition: The Gift of Tears

Divine help is the renewal of a soul bowed by grief in such a way that painful tears are marvelously transformed into painless ones
— St. John Climacus

I’m not sure exactly, but I believe the first time I cried myself to sleep must have been when I was ten years old.  I was a shy child, and not popular with my schoolmates, and though I was never truly a social outcast, I always felt I was such.  I’m not sure what triggered it, but it was caused no doubt by some sort of slight which my vulnerable adolescent mind magnified into the grand, unspoken theme of my subconscious ever since: you are worthless; you are unlovable. I became increasingly withdrawn as I grew into manhood, and so became ever more isolated within my poisonous thoughts about my lack of self-worth.  Over time, it became impossible to control my emotional states; the slightest provocation would send me into a fit of sadness and trigger an uncontrollable cascade of despair that often ended in tears.  The worst part of this was that I had no control over the overwhelming force afflicting me.  My efforts to combat it just seemed to make things worse.  It is like getting your car stuck in the mud:  the more you hit the gas, the more the wheels sink deeper into the ground.  You think you are doing the right things, but nothing you do reverses this overwhelming sense of despair, and isolation; everything seems futile, pointless.   It was only much later in my adult life that I was formally diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and started to receive treatment, as these episodes became so frequent I could no longer deal with them on my own, as I had always managed to do.  And since that time I have continued to receive treatment for these disorders.

    There is a tradition in the Church which extols the “gift of tears”:  the tears of the penitent sinner, overwhelmed by an experience of God, expressing sorrow at their sin but also hope and comfort at the possibility of God’s forgiveness and restoration of His presence.  Pope Francis actually mentioned this charism in one of his early homilies shortly after his election.  Many of the Desert Fathers and later mystical writers, such as Teresa of Avila, wrote about or even experienced this gift.  There is no direct mention of this in it, but tears play a prominent part in the Bible:  Jesus weeps in the Gospel of John, upon hearing of Lazarus’ death; the woman washes Jesus’ feet with her tears; Peter, realizing his betrayal of Jesus, weeps bitterly.  In John, Jesus tells his disciples that “you shall weep while the world rejoices.” And there are the many anticipations of salvation in the Old Testament, from the Psalms (“those who go forth weeping, shall return with shouts of joy”) to the Prophetic books (“the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces”), which speak of tears.  And as John’s Gospel makes clear, the fact that Jesus weeps is proof that God can suffer with his creatures, even though he is God.  His Resurrection is the guarantee that our tears will be turned to joy as well.  

If anyone had spoken to me about “the gift of tears” before I entered the Church (I am an adult convert), I’m not sure what I would have made of it.  There could be no greater contrast between the tears of repentance, whose cause is our sin, and the anguished, involuntary weeping of depressive disorder, precisely because it feels so underserved, so unjust.  And of course I am using tears as a short-hand way of describing an experience that is often difficult for those who have not suffered it to understand.  The shedding of tears alone doesn’t even begin to describe what we call “depression.”  When every encounter with another person, no matter how close to you, is fraught with terror at the possibility one might be found wanting in their eyes; when every passing comment can seem like a condemnation of your entire being; when you feel you can trust absolutely no one with any sort of knowledge of any sort of weakness or imperfection on your part, because you fear they will reject you; when the cumulative effect of all this is to reinforce the belief that you are completely alone in your despair; when the mixture of emotions that these disorders force upon  you—fear and sadness, yes, but also resentment of others, who seem happy themselves and indifferent to your suffering, even the paranoid suspicion that those who are closest to you want you to suffer—makes you cling ever more firmly to the idea that you are worthless, because its seems like the only objective truth in a world which otherwise appears completely chaotic, because of the fear and despair that people inspire in you; and when all of this issues in, among other things, bouts of uncontrollable sobbing, sometimes lasting more than a half hour—the whole idea of the “gift of tears” sounds like pious nonsense to me.  

I don’t pretend to have an answer to this sort of clash of experience with faith, or to the perennial question of the problem of suffering.  I do not believe you can answer such questions, intellectually speaking.  You can only respond with faith to say that there are tears that can be healing, that suffering can bring about good in a supernatural way.  But in order to experience this, one must be willing to.  One of the things I have learned since becoming Catholic is how suffering can both result from and increase a narrow, selfish outlook on the world.  Those who suffer have a tendency to reduce the whole world to their own misery; this is, in essence, the charge that God makes against Job:  when God answered Job’s complaint by detailing the vast and inscrutable nature of the universe he has created, he is not being cruel, or indifferent, but reminding Job that there is more in the world than his suffering.  In my life as a Catholic, I have come to realize that I have this tendency as well.  I am a proud, stubborn person.  I value my independence almost above all things.  And this is what depression robs you of most perfectly.  For a person to whom emotional self-control is paramount, fits of uncontrollable weeping and despair are utterly humiliating.  It feels as if some demonic force has robbed you of the one aspect of your being that is not worthless.  From a Christian point of view, this is as it should be.  The physician cannot heal himself; he must receive healing from others.   All suffer, all need to be loved, and for it to be real, love must be shared; this is why God must be a Trinity, for he is Love, revealed to us as a communion of persons.  And in an analogous way his creatures can only learn this love in community with others, in the Church.  It is only in community with other faithful Catholics that I have begun to learn what the Desert Fathers knew so well:  that to live in communion with others, as God intended us to, requires you to humble yourself before others, to be willing to appear before them with all of your sins and faults honestly, in order to love one another truly.   Only then can our dependence upon others become a gift which we return by allowing them to be dependent upon us, just as Christ made himself dependent on us by becoming human.  

I wish I could tell you that I have fully embraced this openness, and have come to terms with my dependence completely, that the joys of my life now outweigh its sorrows, that the tears of nature have been replaced by the tears of grace.  But I cannot.  I often cease to pray for long stretches of time; in the worst of my bouts of depression I once went seven months without taking communion, or the sacrament of reconciliation.  I can easily foresee that I might do so again.  I still struggle with the sorts of thoughts that I described above, every day.  I believe it likely I will have struggle with depression all my life.  In saying all this, I do not mean to over-dramatize my experience, or claim I have greater cause than anyone else to complain of my sufferings; I am acutely aware of having been greatly (and undeservedly) blessed, as others have not.  Furthermore, my efforts to seek help have already borne some fruit, and I believe the worst of my ordeals are past.

I say all this not because I believe my experience is unique but because I believe it is common—at least more common than most of us care to admit.  No one wants to admit they are vulnerable in this way, or to be known as someone who is sad all the time and no fun to be around.  There is a reason our social media feeds are filled with only happy pictures, not sad ones.  These air-brushed versions of ourselves are a defense mechanism against the rejection that we all fear.  But this can lead us to cultivate relationships that are superficial, and fail to address our deeper need for love and affirmation.  I have found that even in the best Catholic communities I have known, this tendency is present, as much as in any secular community I am familiar with.  This is in some ways understandable, as we naturally seek relief and enjoyment in our friends from the cares of the world.  And to be sure, sharing in the joy of fellowship is a necessary part of healing for anyone, not just those suffering from depression.  But it also means it is difficult for us to not only to seek the deeper intimacy that we desire, but also to realize when those around us are suffering, and to offer such intimacy to them in their need.  We don’t do this because it involves emotional risk, and possible rejection.  But it is only through such emotionally fraught attempts to connect at a deeper level with each other that we can be healed, and help others to heal.  In my case, it was a dear friend who reached out to me when I was at my lowest point, and through his willingness to share his own vulnerabilities with me was able to penetrate my defensive exterior to find the wounded, broken person that I really am, and embrace him.  Without this person’s intervention, I am certain I would have abandoned the Catholic faith, perhaps permanently.  It is only through such friendships—through the faith that allows us to share our vulnerabilities with others, that goes beyond enjoying each other’s company—that true community can be sustained.  In this way, we can become the image of Christ to each other—broken and disfigured, but capable of being healed by a loving Father.  On his death bed, the artist Vincent Van Gogh uttered the words “la tristesse durera toujours”—the sadness will last forever.  It is our faith to affirm that this is not so, that sadness and despair will not have the last word for all eternity.  It is my prayer that I and everyone who claims to follow Christ will become more like my friend, and dare to be an ambassador of grace and gift of God to those who suffer, so that we all may become the means by which He “will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”