Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Tears and Fire: Recovering a Neglected Tradition I

[First published in Sobornost, Spring 1987, pp. 14-23]

In the earliest days of the Church, tears had an integral place in Christian life, and we find their most eloquent champions in the early Syrian tradition, especially in Ephrem and Isaac. Like so many insights of the early Church, teaching on tears has fallen prey to theological reductionism, and what is communicated to us today is not profound insight into human nature, but spiritual imperative. As a result, especially in the West, tears have been relegated to the spiritual museum where they are regarded as quaint, embarrassing and even shameful.

There is, however, a growing realisation that something is radically wrong with this view. The first attempt to recover the theology of tears was made in 1947 by Irenée Hauscher in his Penthos. [1] Ironically, contemporary efforts at recovery have been primarily in the secular arena in biochemical research on tears, recently summarised in Crying: The Mystery of Tears by William Frey (1985).

Tears: the basic Christian experience

Early writers on tears had a profound understanding of the human person. They intuitively mapped out its fragmentation through human sin and its integration accomplished by the grace of tears. This term referred to actual weeping, but it was also a euphemism for an organic transformation of the person. it is my thesis that tears are absolutely central to Christian experience, and that we need to recover them toay. Tears signify losing one's life—or what one thinks is one's life; one's pseudo-life—in order to gain true life; tears are at the core of receiving and mirroring the outpouring of God's love in kenosis, which begins with creation and reaches its culmination in Jesus the Christ.

"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, and became obedient until death, even death on a cross." (Phil. 2:5-9 RSV)

[1] English translation by Anselm Hufstader (Kalamazoo 1982). On the subject of this article see Maggie Ross, The Fountain and the Furnace: The Way of Tears and Fire (Ramsey NJ, 1986)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was still trying to munch your texts and then came across with these lines from the writings of John Cassian thanks to the Christian Classics library: "I sought out Abbot Moses, who was eminent amid those splendid flowers, not only in practical but also in contemplative excellence, in my anxiety to be grounded by his instruction: and together we implored him to give us a discourse for our edification; not without tears, for we knew full well his determination never to consent to open the gate of perfection, except to those who desired it with all faithfulness, and sought it with all sorrow of heart; for fear lest if he showed it at random to those who cared nothing for it, or only desired it in a half-hearted way, by opening what is necessary, and what ought only to be discovered to those seeking perfection, to unworthy persons, and such as accepted it with scorn, he might appear to lay himself open either to the charge of bragging, or to the sin of betraying his trust; and at last being overcome by our prayers he thus began."
John's tears provided a solid image of their earnest desire for God.

6:21 am, September 03, 2008  

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