The Gift of Tears

Fr. Daniel Renaud, OMI

Originally Published on the Oblate School of Theology Blog

Tears have a predominant role in the spiritual life. This statement seems a little strange at first. Let me explain. I was listening to an Oblate, Fr. Sylvester David, OMI, a member of our religious community, who was visiting from South Africa. He said something striking to us: “our religious congregation was born in a pool of tears.” Indeed, it was!! Eugene de Mazenod’s tears of contrition in front of the Crucified Christ on Easter Friday, constitute the birthplace of his conversion which powered his apostolic zeal and later inspired him to found the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Eugene was touched to the core by Jesus’ gift of his own life. He wanted his consolation to be felt and experienced by all. He wanted to share it, most of all with the poor, so that they knew how loved they are by the Redeemer.

Contrition or compunction is like a sting, a blow, shocking us out of complacency and temptations. It is as if our soul is pressed by God who wants us to experience his desire to be with Him more fully. The tears are an outward manifestation of a deep inner call towards greater union to be in a relationship with Jesus and his Father. Many mystics, saints, and prophets have had such experiences. Gregory the Great, as the doctor of desire, saw tears as directly related to the sting of God’s love inviting us to conversion by turning back towards God. He believed two types of tears symbolized two kinds of compunction: the lower tears or irriguum inferius is the stream of repentance and the higher flood, irriguum superius, was the stream of desire. Both always end to be tears of spiritual joy. In his journals, Ignatius of Loyola saw tears as a way to notice how God, through movements toward consolation or desolation, was gracing him towards greater freedom and love. However, early in his conversion, it is said he was warned by a doctor to stop crying so much. He was developing eye infection that severely impaired his eyesight from too many tears!

Of course,not all tears lead us to conversion. We can cry out of a self-centered pity,thinking the world is against us or ignores our pain, we might cry because we grieve or are experiencing clinical depression or after a gripping ordeal. I am told that after heart surgery, many feel utterly vulnerable; moved to tears by the slightest expression of affection or movement of emotional pain. In spiritual direction and counseling, I have had people who deplored not being able to cry or who felt weak when crying; some even said they thought they cried too much or too often. I also had people who were deeply moved to tears of love and repentance after sharing powerful moments of prayer or encounter with Jesus. As people were recalling these experiences, they often had tears o joy and gratitude. During those times, tears had the ability to soften hearts and help people see the world in a different way. As my confrere Sylvester David said: “Some things can only be properly seen through eyes that have shed tears.”

Scientifically tears are categorized into three different types: tears of joy and sadness, tiny tears that continually lubricate the cornea and tears as an automatic reflex to purify irritated eyes. Every kind of tears, as the photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher showed in extreme detail in her 2013 exhibit “Topography of Tears,”contain a difference that is visibly clear in its molecular make-up. Emotional tears contain protein-based hormones including the neurotransmitter leu-enkephalin, a natural painkiller that is released when the body is under stress. It could explain why we feel better after a good cry.

Recently, I have grieved a family member with my friends and family at a mass of the resurrection. The tears and sobs of people of all ages leveled us back to our common humanity. Much like authentic laughter, tears became a place of deep knowing and communion. Something was liberating as we cried and grieved together.It strengthened our bond with one another, and it revealed deep humanity and solidarity.Such tears remind us how interconnected we all are. After all, we are the only creatures on the planet capable of expressing distress or joy through tears!

Finding tears or crying with others who cry or suffer is controversial in professional circles: many believe you should not cry with your clients, patients or directees. It can keep you from being objective by becoming entangled in their problems. Our tears may well be the response we need, provided they are focused on other than self, to understand subjectively what no skill or intellectual effort can bring. There we can find compassion and the will to act to alleviate suffering. It led Eugene de Mazenod to a zealous love and genuine care for the poor. May we be blessed with a pool of tears shed in repentance and love. There God can give birth to serving our neighbor with joy in the name of his Son Jesus Christ.


Fr. Daniel Renaud, OMI is a priest, religious and itinerant preacher with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate of the US province. Mentored by Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, OMI he ministers from the campus of the Oblate School of Theology (OST) in San Antonio, Texas. Fr. Renaud has degrees and training in drama education, theology, pastoral ministry, psychodrama and spiritual direction. He has preached retreats to priests, men and women religious, deacons and wives and lay people on desire and mysticism, 12 steps recovery, Ignatian spirituality and Jungian shadow work, ecological conversion, the Beatitudes and human development and grief and life transitions. Fr. Renaud is a member of Spiritual Director International (SDI). His areas of interest are resilience, finding one’s mission and purpose in life, spiritual healing of traumatic relationships and everyday mysticism.