Sally Leroy cries whenever she hears her favorite song at Mass. The Arizona native also cries most mornings as she sits quietly in her prayer corner pondering heartaches and family issues or in gratitude for blessings received. Yet, Leroy wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I truly believe it’s a gift to have the tears flow down my cheeks,” Leroy said. “A friend of mine told me that I was blessed to cry, as she cannot. I couldn’t believe her when she said she hasn’t cried in years. I’m grateful tears dribble down my cheeks any time it happens. I love tears. I know that they are graces from our merciful Father.”
The tears that Leroy experiences are what Pope Francis has referred to as “the gift of tears.”
Grace of God
In a homily at Casa Santa Marta on April 2, 2013, the pope spoke of “the gift of tears as a charism often attributed to the saints,” and he encouraged those present to weep like Mary Magdalene did at Christ’s tomb.
“All of us have felt joy, sadness and sorrow in our lives, [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?” he asked. “We, too, can ask the Lord for the gift of tears. 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.”
With the phrase, “the gift tears,” which he has used many times since, Pope Francis is referring to passages in St. Ignatius’ spiritual diary, in which he describes having an overwhelming sense of the consolation of God. The saint often became tearful while celebrating Mass because he was overcome by the beauty of the worship and the profundity of God’s love. His tears arose from his relationship with God, which was deeply intimate. He wrote about these experiences in his Spiritual Exercises.
“For Pope Francis, the gift of tears is similarly an experience of God’s grace — an overwhelming experience of being cared for and loved by the One who has created us and called us to himself,” said theologian and author Tim Muldoon. “Its a coming-to-awareness of the profundity of that love that floods one’s emotions and leaves a person able only to express that sense of flood through tears. It is an experience of excess, rooted in neither intellect nor emotion, but rather deep, preconscious conviction of the presence of the Holy One. It is a mystical experience, in the sense of being hidden or secret (mystikos in Greek) from one’s clear understanding.”
While tears can rightfully be seen as a gift, they also frequently are an embarrassment. Deacon Greg Kandra has experienced both sides of that coin. Deacon Kandra is a deacon of the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, and executive editor of ONE Magazine, published by Catholic Near East Welfare Association. He realized that while giving a homily about his recent trip to Rome and meeting Pope Francis during the Jubilee for Deacons in May. He was moved to tears, and was grateful that his pastor, Bishop Paul Sanchez, later warmly mentioned his tearfulness as “the gift of tears.”
“Some people, I’m sure, consider becoming teary a sign of weakness,” he said. “But I think our faith tells us otherwise. Very often, it is a sign of something else — empathy, compassion, vulnerability. It can even be a sign of mercy. We live in a cynical and often spiteful age, when people are often more comfortable being snarky or ‘ironic’ than being genuine. Tears remind us that we are called to share life on a deeper level — one that is authentic and maybe just a little bit soulful.”
Deacon Kandra sees a great deal of this kind of soulfulness in his work with CNEWA. He believes that “the gift of tears” is the result of being open to the Holy Spirit stirring the heart, “not with easy emotionalism or cheap sentimentalism, but with something that strikes deep at the core of our humanity.”
“I travel around the country very often speaking on behalf of CNEWA, and most of my talks are about the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Though I’ve given essentially the same talk dozens of times, there are still moments that can bring me to the brink of tears, when I describe what Iraqi and Syrian Christians are going through, and the deep faith that sustains them, and I think some people in the pews are surprised to see that kind of empathy and emotion,” he said.
Empathy of Christ
Some people cry so often that they are known for their tears. Kelly Wahlquist, evangelist and founder of Women In the New Evangelization, is one of them. She so easily is moved to tears that her family watches her rather than the screen in the movie theater or during a family event. They’re waiting for the tears to begin.
Wahlquist believed that her tendency to cry meant that she was just overly emotional, and she’d make excuses for herself. Then, she read something that Pope Benedict XVI said when speaking about St. Catherine of Siena, and it was then that she saw beauty in what she thought was a flaw.
He said, “Another trait of Catherine’s spirituality is linked to the gift of tears. They express an exquisite, profound sensitivity, a capacity for being moved and for tenderness. Many saints have had the gift of tears, renewing the emotion of Jesus himself, who did not hold back or hide his tears at the tomb of his friend Lazarus and at the grief of Mary and Martha or at the sight of Jerusalem during his last days on this earth.”
“How beautiful to think that God would give me a gift, a gift not given to everyone, a gift to help me connect in a special way with his Son,” she said. “Suddenly, my view of ‘the gift of tears’ was changed from burden to blessing. I stopped caring who was looking at me when I cried during movies, I rejoiced at the fact that the beautiful harmony of my family singing moved me so, and I no longer fought to hold back the tears when I felt them welling up during my talks.”
Sharing the gift
“Gift” is certainly an appropriate term for the tears born of God’s love and mercy, since it’s something that is given to us and that we cannot take for ourselves, according to Mark Shea, a Catholic speaker and author of “The Work of Mercy” (Servant Books, $14.99).
“‘The gift of tears’ is like the gift of health,” he said. “You can’t get it by trying to get it. It can’t be forced, and you can’t make it happen. Of course, we’re encouraged to ask, but we have to wait for it to be given to us.”
Shea draws a parallel between “the gift of tears” and the beatitudes.
“When you think about it, they’re all things that nobody really wants. Who wants to be poor? Who wants to be hungry and thirsty? Who wants to mourn? And yet these things are gifts,” he said.
He also points out another dimension of “the gift of tears” that is especially poignant during this Year of Mercy. Mercy is itself part of the gift.
“Many times in the confessional, I’m ashamed to tears,” he said. “That’s why I’m so grateful for David. He did some terrible things, and yet he found the grace of God and experienced his mercy. Then he went on to do great things. It’s like this: They comfort with the comfort they themselves have been comforted with.”
Peter is an exceptional example of this because he himself experienced Jesus’s mercy and “the gift of tears,” according to Shea.
Unlike Judas, who committed suicide after having denied Christ, Peter went on, in repentance and hope in God’s mercy. Jesus demonstrated his mercy for Peter when he asked him three times, “Do you love me?”
“The gift of tears” is needed now more than ever, given the tides of the modern age toward hostility and away from love.
“‘The gift of tears’ is important because, in the words of Dostoevsky, beauty will save the world,” Muldoon said. “Our capacity for beauty — whether aesthetic, moral or spiritual — is a reflection of our being capax Dei, or capable of God. Being moved to tears is the proper response to beauty because we are creatures capable of discerning it even in surprising ways. It is a reflection of the very reality of being human in a world that a loving God has made.”
Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.