Moved to tears

Published on 01 Aug 2018
Teresa McCaffery reflects on the meaning of tears, and how St Ignatius frequently refers to his own tears in his writings. What can we learn from this?

You go on retreat, you meet your director and settle down at the appointed time, ready to talk and listen. Discretely placed by your chair you notice a box of tissues and a waste paper basket. You may decide, as I did, that you won’t be needing those, and you may be right, but Ignatius did a huge amount of weeping and even asks us to pray for the grace of tears. So where do tears fit into my life?

I cried as a baby when I was hungry or uncomfortable.
I cried as a teenager because I felt lonely and out of place.
I cried as a young adult because I was exhausted by lack of sleep.
I cried in fury and frustration when it seemed that I would not get the place at college I wanted.
I cried, a little, when my partner died.

These things are behind me and I have learned not to waste energy on this response to life’s circumstances, but clearly, tears are important.

I read a book about tears and crying.  The author, a social worker, used the examples of hospital and prison.  Both institutions contain a clientele that is desperately unhappy; the staff equally uncomfortable with the situations they deal with.  In prison crying would be a sign of weakness to be avoided at all costs; in hospital the patients need to be brave, and the staff strong in their support.  Suppressed grief is recognised as a source of anger and aggression.  Violence is rife in prisons and harsh words and gestures are surprisingly common in hospitals.  Ignatius lived the first seven years of his life with foster parents at the blacksmith’s home in the village at the foot of the hill.  He was then brought up to the castle at the top of the hill to start living the life of refined courtesy of the aristocracy.  It is hard to believe that the child did not miss his foster parents and the life of the village; equally hard to believe that his family would understand his grief or tolerate outward signs of grieving.  We know that Ignatius was a particularly violent young adult…

We are all expected to feel and express sorrow for our sins, but this is not a s simple as it sounds.  In a high-risk profession like medicine it is possible to do incalculable harm through lack of diligence.  How many of my patients would be alive, or very much better today if I had studied harder, practiced skills more assiduously, spent more of my spare time on research, developed better relationships with colleagues…  I cannot afford to take full responsibility for harm done, I would collapse under the weight, and besides I don’t know how much or little harm was done.  Others corrected my mistakes, relatives forgave me, lessons were learned. There is an element of pride in the claim to be a great sinner; to have done an immense amount of harm.

It is true that Ignatius had a great deal to cry over.  The church was corrupt, and vulnerable to attack at its many points of weakness; his beloved fellow Jesuits were being sent to places from which they would probably not return and the news that came back will have included torture and death.  He would also have been desperately tired and frustrated.  But I don’t think he cried over things like that.  Have I missed something?

Have you ever been ‘moved to tears’?  I think this happens whenever we are confronted with something that is particularly good, beautiful or true.  We weep when we see a poor child caring for a younger sibling with love; we weep over a wonderful painting or sculpture; the wonders of the universe, or the integrity of a flower can also move us to tears.  Ignatius clearly was crying about the wonder of the creator of these things.  He saw that tears were a sign of closeness to God in prayer, an affirmation of the rightness of a decision and began to worry, just a little, if the tears did not come.  On the 13th of March 1544 he wrote in his Spiritual diary 'During Mass I conformed my will to t he Divine, to have no tears: it would be like a setting aside of my labours and a rest for me if I stopped searching and considering about possessing or not possessing (the grace of tears, my interpretation).'

This commitment brought him consolation and the next day (Friday) he was once more weeping with devotion over all the good things of heaven, but he realised that the tears are a sign of something else.  During all this time, before, during and after mass, I was inspired by the thought, which penetrated to my very soul, of how much reverence and submission should be shown on going to mass when I had to pronounce the name of God Our Lord etc.  Not tears were to be sought, but this submission and reverence.

On Saturday, Mass of Our Lady he felt this submission and reverence, without cause.

From this time onwards, all visitations and tear came with this intensity of submission and reverence.  At first, he records things he learned but gradually his entries refer simply to tears, present or absent.  This continues until February 1545, nearly a year after the start of the diary.

Ignatius must have been desperately busy at this time but all he records is whether he came close enough to God to be moved to tears.  He seems to accept either way, tears or no tears, with equal confidence, like someone who has truly understood the rules for discernment.  It makes me think of a dog on a long, retracting lead.  He is free to go where he will, but still connected to the master;  he freely returns, seeking the companionship of the master, and the lead shortens to accommodate the new situation.


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