Have you ever cried over your children? St. Monica did, shedding tears over her wild-living and unrepentant son, Augustine. Augustine of Hippo later became one of the church’s great saints. (His mother is also a saint. Her feast is Aug. 27 and his on Aug. 28.)
St. Monica spent much of her life praying for her family, especially Augustine. She often
wept about him. Her spiritual advisor, St. Ambrose of Milan, once consoled her with the words: “No son of tears (like yours) could ever be lost.” (Ambrose eventually baptized Augustine.)
The spiritual gift of tears is not heard of often today, but many saints possessed this gift: from St. Monica to St. Ignatius of Loyola, to St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Sienna.
Pope Francis has also spoken about the gift of tears.
“All of us have felt joy, sadness and sorrow in our lives,” the pope said in an April 2013 homily. “(But) have we wept during the darkest moment? Have we had that gift of tears that prepare the eyes to look, to see the Lord?”
At a meeting with youth in Manila in January 2015, Pope Francis told them, “In today’s world there is a great lack of capacity of knowing how to cry. … Certain realities in life we only see through eyes that are cleansed through our tears.”
A good Jesuit
In speaking of tears, the pope shows himself to be a good Jesuit. St. Ignatius of Loyola, co-founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), spoke of the gift of tears in his “Spiritual Exercises.” He called it one of God’s “most holy gifts.” Stories say that Ignatius experienced this gift so often in his life that he feared for his eyesight.
Spiritual directors also know the “gift of tears.” It is part of both the 30 days of Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exercises” as well as other spiritual experiences such as during an examination of conscience or charismatic prayer. Tears are considered a gift of the Holy Spirit. As such, they are not something that can be turned on or off. We can pray for it, but more often the gift of tears comes unexpectedly — and goes away just as unexpectedly.
Not all receive the gift
The gift of tears can be brought on by sorrow, repentance, joy or compassion. (Not everyone who feels these emotions will receive the gift of tears.) The tears are not necessarily a sign that someone is particularly holy, either, even though many saints received this gift. Nor is every tear a sign of the gift of tears.
For example, St. Teresa of Avila said that crying “at every little thing” was not good and she cautioned the sisters in her convent that this could pull them away from God.
“It is easy to know when tears come from this source (God), for they are soothing and gentle rather than stormy and rarely do any harm,” she wrote in “The Interior Castle.
She advised “leaving tears to fall when God sends them, without trying to force ourselves to shed them. Then, if we do not take too much notice of them, they will leave the parched soil of our souls well-watered, making it fertile in good fruit; for this is the water which falls from heaven.”
In Eastern Orthodox tradition, the gift of tears is sometimes called “the second baptism” because sins are washed away with the tears. St. John Climacus (7th century), honored by both Catholics and Orthodox Christians, even dared to teach that “tears that come after baptism are greater than baptism itself, though it may be rash to say so. Baptism washes off those evils that were previously within us, whereas the sins committed after baptism are washed away by tears.”
Closer to God
The gift of tears draws us closer to God.
Oblate of Mary Fr. Daniel Renaud writes that “tears are an outward manifestation of a deep inner call towards greater union to be in a relationship with Jesus and his Father.” He adds that, while many saints and mystics had such experiences, “not all tears lead us to conversion.”
Xavierian Brother John Hamilton notes that the gift of tears is not like experiencing tears of pain, disappointment or sorrow. “The tears of which the spiritual traditions speak,” he wrote, “are tears born not of impotence but the realization of responsibility. … They are a means of purification because through them we are coming to see that of which we have been willfully blind.”
Like all gifts of the Spirit, as St. Paul reminds us, the gift of tears is given for a reason: “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. … The same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes” (1 Cor 12:7-11).
The reason this gift is given is not always known. Perhaps the gift of tears moves one to act in justice. Perhaps it moves another to repentance. Or perhaps it has come for a hidden reason. As St. Padre Pio said, “Your tears are collected by the angels and are placed in a gold chalice and you will find them when you present yourself before God.”
Whatever the reason for receiving, or not receiving, the gift of tears, we should remember what Pope Francis said: “It is a beautiful grace … to weep praying for everything: for what is good, for our sins, for graces, for joy itself. … [It] prepares us to see Jesus.”
Sources: Zenit.org; Oblate School of Theology at ost.edu; twocatholicguys.com; helpofchristians.co.uk; classicalchristianity.com; raggionline.com; the Ignatian Volunteer Corps at ivcusa.org; Catholic News Service; livingthecharism.com; and “The Interior Castle” at sacred-texts.com