In the Academy Award-winning animated film Spirited Away, a little girl gets lost in an abandoned theme park. She is befriended by a boy who gives her a cake that he says will give her back her strength. When she eats it, she starts crying.
There is strength in tears. We weep with gratitude over all the amazing gifts from God that come our way. We cry when we share moments of great elation with others. Tears enable us to get in touch with our deepest feelings. They help us express our grief at endings and the loss of those who are precious to us.
Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. He also wept over the city of Jerusalem and in our time, we weep over Jerusalem and Baghdad and New Orleans. A Yiddish proverb says, "What soap is for the baby, tears are for the soul."
The early Christian desert fathers and mothers had the highest regard for what they called "the gift of tears." Alan Jones, dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, says these drops "are like the breaking of the waters of the womb before the birth of a child." That's a wonderful way to describe the connection between pain and joy.
Tears are a gift of grace from God, and their fruit is always joy. Weeping arises from the heart and signifies an open and softened heart. Perhaps that is why so many people are embarrassed to cry; they do not want to reveal their vulnerability. Yet many of us have felt the rich communal dimensions of crying with others. Think of the great global funerals of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana where millions around the world were united in a common experience of grief.
The religious traditions honor the gift of tears and have found ways to ritualize it. During the Passover Seder, when Jews remember their escape from Egypt, they bring salt water to their lips to symbolize the tears of bondage. When a person died in ancient times, mourners put their tears in bottles and sometimes even wore them around their necks. Over the ages, the weeping of tears has been a sign of the mystical experiences of saints and repentant sinners. These transcendent moments go beyond what the mind can comprehend.
It is no wonder, then, that Jelaluddin Rumi, the great Persian mystical poet, lifts up the value of tears.
Crying out loud and weeping are great resources.
A nursing mother, all she does
is wait to hear her child.
Just a little beginning-whimper,
and she's there.
God created the child, that is, your wanting,
so that it might cry out, so that milk might come.
Cry out! Don't be stolid and silent
with your pain. Lament! And let the milk
of Loving flow into you.
From Mathnawi, translated by Coleman Barks
In another poem, Rumi advises, "Cry easily like a little child." Tears are a response of the heart, and they summon God's consoling grace. They are sacraments -- reminders -- of our love for our neighbors and God's love for us.
We have been comforted by this understanding of the gift of tears as we have watched the television coverage of Hurricane Katrina. We have found ourselves crying easily and often, so much so that for days crying has seemed to be our primary spiritual practice.
We have cried for the lives lost and the bodies floating in the flood waters.
We have cried for the people of the Gulf Coast who have lost homes, livelihoods, and in some cases hope during the hurricane.
We have shed tears for the victims left unrescued for days in New Orleans and other communities.
We have cried for the elderly men and women who have had to be carried from their homes.
We have cried for the children who have been evacuated far from familiar places, schools, toys, and friends.
We have cried for the dogs, cats, and other companion animals left stranded on porches and upstairs rooms.
We have cried for the lovingly tended gardens now submerged in fetid waters.
We have cried for the many cherished homes and businesses destroyed.
Our tears have mingled with the tears of victims and now they mingle with your tears. God has brought us all together as one community through the gift of tears.