“Give me tears, O God”
“I want to wash away with tears the record of my sins, O Lord” (Lenten Sunday Vespers, Stichera of repentance, Tone Four)
With this spiritual hymn we welcome Great and Holy Lent. And with the sinful woman, we say in the prayer of Sunday Vespers, “Give me tears, O God, as once thou gavest them to the woman that had sinned; and count me worthy to wash thy feet that have delivered me from the way of error. As sweet-smelling ointment let me offer thee a pure life, created in me by repentance; and may I also hear those words for which I long: `Thy faith has saved thee, go in peace.´” (Lenten Sunday Vespers, Stichera of Repentance, Tone 8)
Beloved, I should like to contemplate with you the power of tears of repentance, along the way of the Fast that leads us to the joy of the Resurrection.
That is why I am setting out for you in this letter, through the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Holy Fathers, stations to help us stand before the Lord Jesus, who addresses us thus: “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” (Matthew 6: 6)
Jesus himself shed tears several times during his earthly life; tears which were expressions of his compassion, love, tenderness and sympathy.
Tears in the Psalms
The holy books invite us to an intimate encounter with God, by giving us some examples of repentance by means of tears, including the tears of David, who expressed his repentance by Psalm 50 (LXX), after these two sins: murder and adultery.
Expressions of repentance are repeatedly mixed with tears on several occasions in the psalms: “I am wearied with my groaning; I shall wash my bed every night; I shall water my couch with my tears.” (Ps. 6: 6, LXX) And in Psalm 101, he expresses the pain of his heart thus: “By reason of the voice of my groaning, my bone has cleaved to my flesh. I am like a pelican of the wilderness … I have … mingled my drink with weeping.” (Ps. 101: 5-6 and 9b, LXX)
In Psalm 30 (LXX), the psalmist exclaims, “For my life is spent with grief, and my years with groanings.” (v. 10); in the end, he sighs, saying: “…When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been bread to me day and night.” (Ps. 41: 2b-3a LXX) “For I have eaten ashes as if they were bread.” (Psalm 101: 9a LXX)
Tears in the Prophecies
In the Book of Joel, and through the voice of the prophet, God invites people to weep,
“Turn to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping and with lamentation; and rend your hearts, and not your garments, and turn to the Lord your God…Between the porch and the altar let the priests that minister to the Lord weep and say, `Lord, have pity on your people!…Spare thy people, O Lord, and give not thine heritage to reproach, that the heathen should rule over them!´” (Joel 2: 12-13a and 17)
Prophet Malachi tells the priests, “Ye covered with tears the altar of the Lord, and with weeping and groaning.” (Malachi 2: 13) “So the prayers of them both were heard before the majesty of God.” (Tobit 3: 16). The holy books describe in detail encounters and reconciliations occurring through tears and embraces.
Tears lead us to God, bring adversaries closer together and express repentance and reconciliation.
Tears in the New Testament
In the New Testament, we see Jesus weep twice: on the death of his friend, Lazarus, “Jesus wept;” (John 11: 35) and over Jerusalem, “And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it.” (Luke 19: 41)
Tears are an expression of gratitude and repentance, “And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, ´Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief;`” (Mark 9: 24) the sinful woman too “… stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment;” (Luke 7: 38) and Saint “Peter went out and wept bitterly,” (Luke 22: 62) after having thrice denied Jesus before his death.
Jesus promises the apostles that their sadness will change to joy, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, that ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.” (John 16: 20)
Saint Paul, in tears, exhorts the Christian community, saying, “Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears;” (Acts 20: 31) “[It was he] who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, … was heard in that he feared.” (Hebrews 5: 7)
In the Revelation of John, God dries the tears of the faithful, “For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes;” (Revelation 7: 17) “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Revelation 21: 4)
We should also mention tears shed because of others’ sin, “Your soul shall weep in secret because of pride, and your eyes shall pour down tears, because the Lord’s flock is sorely bruised;” (Jeremiah 13: 17, LXX) ; Saint Paul also writes to the Corinthians, “I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned before and have not repented of the impurity, immorality and licentiousness which they have practised;” (2 Corinthians 12: 21) and Saint James exhorts Christians in his letter, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners… Be wretched and mourn and weep.” (James 4: 8-9)
Tears in hymnography
In the prayers preparing the faithful for the great feasts (of the Nativity and Theophany), we find several invitations to weep: “Emptying out our tears like myrrh for Christ, who is brought to birth for us in flesh, let us purify the stains of the flesh.” (Compline, 22 December, Ode 8, Irmos) The expressions encouraging tears are repeated in Matins. These prayers have their origin in the readings from the Psalter (or staseis of the kathisma) that are also recited during the Presanctified.
We find almost every day mentions of tears in the Octoechos. Here are some passages: “Beholding thee hanging upon the cross, thou Sun of Righteousness, the Church in her order stood, crying as is meet, `Glory to thy might, O Lord.´”(Sunday Matins, Ode 4) Several times the tears of Saint Peter and those of the sinful woman are particularly mentioned, as is the phrase “tears of repentance.” “Because I have sunk in the deep ocean of my transgressions, Saviour, and have been dreadfully overwhelmed by my offences, give me thy hand, O God, as to Peter, and save me. Because I have been condemned by evil ideas and deeds, O Saviour, grant me the thought of returning, O God, that I may cry, ‘Good Benefactor, save me, and have mercy on me,’” (Sunday Vespers, Aposticha)
The services of Monday and Tuesday are especially rich in prayers of repentance, which is why they are called the school of piety and repentance. Prayers are addressed to John the Baptist for him to obtain tears for the penitent: “John, who of old baptized in Jordan’s streams the Purification of all the world, draw me out, who am drowned by many offences, and wash me clean of every kind of stain, as you ever entreat the Lover of humankind as an acceptable intercessor.” (Tuesday Matins, Kathisma)
The Triodion, the special book of Lent, is another school of the spirituality of tears.
On the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, we read, “Let us all humble ourselves, brethren; groaning and lamenting, let us beat our conscience.” (Matins, Ikos) And there is repeated the invitation to follow the publican’s example, “God accepted the groaning of the publican and justified him; and so he showed to us all that he is turned to mercy by the groanings and the tears of those who beg forgiveness of sins.” (ibid. Ode 8)
The Prodigal Son is the greatest model of repentance and tears. On the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, we read, “Behold, O Christ, the affliction of my heart; behold my turning back; behold my tears, O Saviour, and despise me not.” (Matins, Ode 9)
During Cheesefare Week, we read, “Fasting, prayer and weeping and our humble demeanour are the gifts we bear to him who condescended for us, that he might, in the Lenten season, grant us the forgiveness of our sins.” (Friday Matins of Cheesefare, Second Canon, Ode 5)
On Cheesefare Sunday, we read, “Entering upon the Lenten season, let us strive to humble our flesh through temperance, in prayer and tears let us seek the Lord our Saviour and implore him to annul our transgressions;” (Cheesefare Sunday, Vespers). The invitation to mingle tears with prayer is repeated, reminding us of the fall of Adam and Eve. The prayers describe Adam as being in tears, and we read, “Come, my wretched soul, and weep today over thine acts, remembering how once thou wast stripped…;” (Matins, Ode 1) “Let us keep the fast, offering tears, contrition and alms-giving.” (Sessional hymn) The prayers also invite the whole of creation to weep, “O ranks of angels, O beauty of Paradise and all the glory of the garden: weep for me…;” (Ode 4) “O blessed meadow, trees and flowers planted by God, O sweetness of Paradise: let your leaves, like eyes, shed tears on my behalf, for I am naked and a stranger to God’s glory;” (ibid.) “I weep and lament in soul, and with mine eyes I shed abundant tears, when I reflect upon the nakedness that is mine through the transgression;” (Ode 5) “Banished from the joys of Paradise, Adam sat outside and wept, and beating his hands upon his face, he said: I am fallen, in thy compassion have mercy on me.” (Ikos)
From this Cheesefare Sunday, I add this beautiful prayer, said in the name of Adam: “Woe is me, Adam cried lamenting: for the serpent and the woman have deprived me of my boldness before God, and through eating from the tree I have become an exile from the joy of Paradise. Woe is me! No more can I endure the shame. I who was once king of all God’s creatures upon earth have now become a prisoner, led astray by evil counsel. I who was once clothed in the glory of immortality must now, as one condemned to die, wrap myself miserably in the skins of mortality. Woe is me! Who will share my sorrow with me? But, O Lord who lovest mankind, who hast fashioned me from the earth and art clothed in compassion, call me back from the bondage of the enemy and save me.” (Lauds 1)
The Stichera of Repentance are sung throughout Lent at Sunday Vespers. “I want to wash away with tears the record of my sins, O Lord, and through the rest of my life to please thee by repentance; but the enemy deceives me and fights against my soul.” (Sunday Vespers, Stichera of Repentance, Tone Four) “Wash me with my tears, O Saviour, for I am defiled by many sins.” (ibid.) “I have no repentance and no tears. Therefore I entreat thee, O Saviour…” (ibid. Tone Six)
Again we read, “How shall I lament my fall? Where shall I begin the work of my salvation?” (Monday of the First Week, Matins, Ode 1) and again, “O Christ, at this beginning of Lent, grant me tears of compunction to wipe out the stain of my passions, so that I may appear purified.” (First Week, Monday Vespers, Lamplighting psalms)
The Great Canon of St Andrew, which is recited in the Fifth Week of Lent, is characterised by the invitation to weep. We read, “Where shall I begin to weep for the actions of my wretched life? What first-fruit shall I offer, O Christ, in this my lamentation?” (Thursday of the Great Canon, Ode 1) “O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of all, take from me the heavy yoke of sin, and in Thy compassion grant me remission of sins;” (ibid.) “Like the Harlot I cry to Thee: I have sinned, I alone have sinned against Thee. Accept my tears also as sweet ointment, O Saviour;” (ibid., Ode 2) “Like David, I have fallen into lust and I am covered with filth; but wash me clean, O Saviour, by my tears;” (ibid.) “I have no tears, no repentance, no compunction; but as God do Thou Thyself, O Saviour, bestow them on me;” (ibid.) “Give ear to the groaning of my soul, and accept the tears that fall from mine eyes: O Saviour, save me.” (ibid.)
In the Menaion, the prayers contain a wealth of description of the tears and repentance of the saints, including the apolytikion of the Ascetics, “The barren wilderness thou didst make fertile with the streams of thy tears; and by thy deep sighing, thou hast yielded fruit through thy sufferings a hundredfold.” The hymns address Paul of Thebes, the first ascetic, “Having spent thy whole life in distress and weeping, venerable Father whom God hath glorified, thou dost now enjoy divine consolation and endless bliss.” (15 January, Vespers)
Tears in the ascetic tradition
I prepared this letter during my annual stay in Egypt. Having visited the monastery of St Makarios, I took one of the books, entitled “Orthodox Prayer Life: the Interior Way,” of the celebrated monk, Matthew the Poor (Matta El-Meskeen, 1919-2006). Chapter 7 is entitled “Tears.” It seemed very useful to me to quote here some extracts relating to the theme of my letter:
It is difficult to talk about tears. Are they not the sign of lack of speech? When the tongue is incapable of expressing itself, the heart does so and the eyes speak with tears.
Who is able to interpret this language wherein feelings are all mingled in a single drop! It is a tongue that speaks all languages, a soul-talk that pours out the overflow of its sincerest feelings!
Tears are the consolation of the oppressed, the homeland of the foreigner, the parents of the orphan, the rest of the exhausted, the atonement of mistakes, the sign of repentance and the pledge of conversion.
They wash the heart, purify the limbs and heal the sick soul.
They are the language of the mind, the prayer of the silent, the contempt of the world, the tender nostalgia of heaven, the awaiting of death.
And though tears may arouse irony in some hearts bound fast by chains of harshness, when they encounter merciful hearts, they make them literally melt.
Even if they cannot soften the harshness of leaders, they may earn the mercy of God. “Turn away thine eyes from me, for they have overcome me.” (Song of Solomon 6: 5)
Tears! How contemptible you appear in the eyes of the wise and the academics who have turned you into the sign of weakness and lack of personality! Yet on the contrary, how great is your glory, since the Lord himself has beatified the eyes that adorn themselves with you, “Blessed are ye who weep.” (Luke 6: 21)
Saint John Climacus, speaking to us of his experience, says that prayer is “the mother and also the daughter of tears,” (Saint John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 28, 1) and it is indeed true that tears compel us to withdraw to our room to pray and there the living well-springs of tears are entrusted to us for us to draw on at will. “Who will give water to my head and a fountain of tears to my eyes? Then would I weep for this my people day and night.” (Jeremiah 9: 1, LXX)
We can summarise thus the most important principles developed by Isaac the Syrian:
1. Tears are intimately linked to the real motives for prayer that suddenly spring from the depths of the soul, permeate and fill it with a vast feeling which cannot be contained, nor expressed before God, except precisely by abundant and spontaneous tears.
2. Just as various motives for prayer exist, so of course do different kinds of tears.
3. Among the various motives for prayer, Abba Isaac enumerates five that are accompanied by fruitful tears:
a) Tears provoked by remembrance of sin are tears that break the heart and cause sadness.
b) Tears of contemplation of God’s perfection and the glories to come that are prepared for us, spring abundantly, enlarge the heart and bring hope.
c) Tears caused by fear of hell and judgment differ from tears caused by remembrance of sin.
d) Tears about others are full of sadness and concern (on condition that they contain neither judgment nor vindictive feelings).
e) Tears of embarrassment and wretchedness are experienced by God’s poor due to the world’s hardness of heart of the world and oppression. (cf. Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003)
Matta El-Meskeen then cites the saying of Isaac the Syrian on the topic of tears during prayer:
“[They are] a sign that the solitary has been deemed worthy of God’s mercy on account of his mournfulness to pass beyond this place of affections, and to reach the plain of limpid purity of soul.” (Ascetical Homilies, Treatise XXXV (253))
My friends, God does not ask or desire that man should mourn from sorrow of heart, but rather that out of love for Him he should rejoice with spiritual laughter. Remove sin, and the tear of sorrow is superfluous for your eyes of sense. …Before his transgression, Adam had no tears, just as there will be none after the resurrection when sin will be abolished; for pain, sorrow and sighing will then have fled away. (St John Climacus Step 7:45)
The spirituality of liturgical rites
This Lenten Letter of mine is the fruit of my relationship with our liturgical prayers. Regretfully, I note a separation between the spirituality of liturgical prayers and personal spirituality. We no longer live the spirituality of our liturgies. We consider our liturgical prayers and rites as foreign to our spirituality and life. That is why unfortunately, many do not pray with liturgical prayers, but pray with prayers that are special to them. Our Fathers are our masters in faith and piety. Our liturgical prayers are our spiritual books, our daily spiritual reading. Furthermore, our daily liturgical prayers are the easiest way to become acquainted with the writings of the Fathers, the history of the saints and examples of their lives. Indeed, the hymnographers read the books of the monks and saints, and drew inspiration through their meditations on these books for composing their poetry and liturgical hymns, which have come down to us.
Liturgical prayer is a meeting with the Saints
The above applies to the theme of my Lent Letter on the topic of tears. That is why I resume and repeat my appeal to the sons and daughters of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church, especially to parish clergy, monks and nuns, for them not to neglect daily liturgical prayers, and to encourage the participation of the faithful during the Feasts of the Lord and the holy monastics and Church Fathers. Liturgical prayers are a sort of daily reading of Holy Scripture, the Old and New Testaments, as well as the books and writings of the Holy Fathers.
The language of tears
Weeping is a language. It is a silent, eloquent and deep expression of a person’s intimate feelings. So it is with the tears of the sinful woman, or the tears of Peter. When words are unable to express feelings, then tears gush from the eyes like a spring, in an activity at once physical and spiritual. The eyes weep. The heart weeps. The whole person weeps. Prayer is the most suitable time to express the deepest feelings through tears.
Weep with those who weep
Saint Paul exhorts us in these terms: “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.” (Romains 12: 15) How many are they who weep, who mourn, are wounded, sick, suffering, hungry, thirsty, in our society, especially today in our Middle East, weighed down by the yoke of emigration, terrorism, violence, war, takfirism, death and crime.
Faced with this world of violence, we need a great fund of tears, as if we were the mothers of Bethlehem who would not be consoled after the massacre of their children, the Innocents.
Lent is a holy period, pleasing to God, a good time for weeping with others, as well as doing good works, especially those of solidarity with those who weep, through our love, giving, service and sacrifices. May our tears be those of penitence, encounter with God and love! May they be our way towards our neighbour in difficulty!
Pope Francis encourages us to this in his Message for Lent 2017, “Lent is a favourable season for opening the doors to all those in need and recognizing in them the face of Christ. Each of us meets people like this every day. Each life that we encounter is a gift deserving acceptance, respect and love.”
Our liturgical prayers call us to this through the weeks of Lent, to join tears to repentance and conversion (metanoia), drawing near to God and encounter with him, and join to all that works of charity and mercy. We read, “Come, let us purify ourselves by sharing with the poor, without trumpeting our charity or publishing our good deeds. Let our left hand not know what our right hand is doing lest vainglory snatch their fruit from us! But in secret, let us tell him who knows our secrets, Father, forgive us our trespasses, in thy goodness for mankind.” (First Sunday of Lent, Vespers, aposticha) ; “Let us fast with a spiritual fast and break with all hypocrisy, let us also flee the snares of sin, and forgive our brethren their trespasses, so that our sins may be forgiven and thus we shall be able to sing ; let our prayer arise, O Lord our God, as incense in thy sight!” (Second Week of Lent, Monday Vespers, aposticha)
The period of Lent was, originally, a time of immediate preparation for celebration of the Feast of Pascha and the glorious Resurrection, and the reception of holy baptism. The time of fasting is therefore a period of preparation for the Feast of Feasts, the season of seasons, the greatest spiritual joy, which rouses a spiritual intoxication in us when we announce: Christ is risen!
Our crying is preparation for joy: the joy of penance, the joy of repentance, the joy of confession of our sins, the joy of the encounter with Jesus and our neighbour, joy which is the fruit of tears. It is a joy that is described thus by Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness…The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.” (1 and 2)
In this letter, I am pleased to offer you a plentiful Lenten digest, with a quadragesimal spiritual flavour, garnered for you in the beautiful Paradise to which we return through fasting and good works: that is, the Paradise of the Word of God, monastic cells and centres, and fragrant incense from our churches, where our prayers arise most specially during Great and Holy Lent.
I wish each and every one of you a blessed Lent, which will lead all of us to the joys of the glorious Resurrection that Christians of East and West are going to celebrate together. We hope that the joint celebration of Pascha this year will be the prelude to celebrating the Paschal Feast on a fixed common date for all Christians.
We ask for the intercession of our Mother, the blessed Virgin. May she bless our fast! We pray to her for ourselves and for everyone who needs joy, in the beautiful prayers of the Paraclesis: “The streams of my many tears, reject not, Holy Virgin; for thou gavest birth to the One who dried every tear from the faces of all people - Christ who was born of thee.
“With gladness fill my heart, most holy Virgin Lady, for thou art she who received abundant joy; take the grief of my sinfulness, and make it disappear.” (Ninth Ode)
Holy and blessed Lent! May Lent guide us through tears towards the joys of the Resurrection!
+ Gregorios III
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem