The way and the gift of tears (Horizons of the Heart 7)

Horizons of the Heart is a bi-weekly retreat-in-life inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and notes from my thirty-day Ignatian retreat in 2022.

The grace I am asking of God: a growing and intense sorrow and tears for my sins with a deepening awareness of God’s merciful love.

I entered retreat shedding tears, tears that flowed from feelings of emptiness, loneliness, and confusion about myself and about my future. Tears were an unavoidable part of the introductory days of my retreat. Entering into a place of silence, refuge, and rest, I was able to settle down, to re-enter my heart that had been so wounded. These were tears of sorrow and pain. However, tears are also a sacred part of the first week of the Spiritual Exercises.

From the first day of my retreat, I was deeply touched by a statue of Saint Francis beneath the cross of Christ. It stood at the retreat house in a garden directly outside the small kitchen area where we ate our breakfast. In this sculpture, Jesus Crucified reaches down with his right arm to embrace St Francis.

Statue in Our Lady of Providence Retreat House, Tampa Bay. Photo taken on retreat.

As I sat quietly before this image I was deeply moved by the way the sculptor depicted Jesus and the saint of Assisi gazing steadily into each other’s eyes. In the eyes of Francis, I saw a humble hope even as he boldly put his arms around the body of his Savior. His gaze wasn’t bold, but gentle and loving. In Jesus’ gaze I read the question: Do you see me? Do you see how I have died for you? Do you see how I love you? Be absolutely certain that I love you so much that I have given my life for you and if it were necessary, I would do so again. The beautiful way in which Jesus’ arm reaches down from the cross to draw Saint Francis into his passion and life-giving death was trusting and tender.

I wanted to have the courage to embrace Jesus like Francis.

I wanted to hear Jesus say these words to me.

I wanted to be that close to the Master who gave his life for me so that I might live.

I wanted to see in Jesus’ eyes the love that assures me that he is here for me as he was for the humble man of Assisi.

In statues and artwork, we depict Francis of Assisi in joyful ways, preaching to animals, and gently smiling. We forget that in actual fact tears are what marked his spirituality. Francis shed so many tears for his own sins and the sins of the whole world, that it is said that he lost his sight from his weeping. St. Francis had a profound devotion to the Passion of Jesus and near the end of his life Jesus gave him a share in his Passion by allowing him to bear on his body his most sacred wounds.

In wisdom from the ancient fathers, we are told that it is grace that opens our eyes to see things rightly. When we see things as they truly are, we become aware of both our own failures as well as how much we are loved. When we have gained this “precise vision,” we will be given the gift of tears. “At that time your eyes will begin to shed tears until they wash your cheeks by their very abundance” (Isaac the Syrian, quoted in The Fountain and the Furnace, page 38).

Tears are the gift of the grace of God working within us. They are a sign of healing at work in our depths, healing that leads us to a trusting union with Jesus and a union with others. Maggie Ross says in The Fountain and the Furnace, “The way and gift of tears open the gate of death in this life to resurrection in this life…. Tears release us from the prison of power and control into the vast love and infinite possibility of God” (page 44).

As I began to think about the sinfulness and weakness in my life, I also prayed for this gift of tears. I had come into the retreat shedding tears over my own image of myself and the losses that were a part of my midlife journey, but now I asked for the gift of tears because I had put Jesus on the cross.

Andrés Chávez Belisario Pixabay

Like the sense of union depicted between Jesus Crucified and Saint Francis, I also longed for this trusting intimacy, this urgent desire for oneness. In the words of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik: “Man is drawn to Him and rushes to Him with all his strength.”

Draw me, O Lord! This is a grace, not something that can be forced. These are not tears from grieving over what I have experienced or seeking comfort or status once again. These are tears of the heart, shed out of love, just as Christ loved me and gave himself up for me.

[The words of Israel:]

“‘After I strayed,
    I repented;
after I came to understand,
    I beat my breast.
I was ashamed and humiliated
    because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’”

[The words of God to Israel:]

Is not Ephraim my dear son,
    the child in whom I delight?
Though I often speak against him,
    I still remember him.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
    I have great compassion for him
,”
declares the Lord” (Jer 31:19-20).

In the first week of the Exercises, we are invited to make an inventory of our sins. Saint Ignatius wants us to understand how we are trapped in the mire of human weakness and personal choices that focus on ourselves instead of the Kingdom. How we have chosen our glory instead of God’s glory, our will instead of God’s will. We are encouraged to look carefully to see where we have trusted God and where we have trusted ourselves instead. We are invited to weep over the “disgrace of my youth” as this passage in Job says, but always, always, always remembering that we are doing so with a God who is love. One beautiful way to do this integration of life—almost a spiritual processing of our past with Jesus as our divine and compassionate guide—is to take his hand and ask him to raise up memories from our life that still need his healing touch, that still need our acknowledgment and sorrow.

Recently I was back at our motherhouse after a year of having been away. As I walked the hallways and prayed, ate, and worked with my sisters, many memories began to surface. I took the time to re-enter situations long forgotten which never had received a “spiritual closure,” praying that I could move on without them continuing to affect my decisions and attitudes. Very simply we can ask Jesus to show us what he sees, what he knows, and what he loves in us. Memories will touch off other memories. We can talk to Jesus about them and ask him to help us see the patterns of how we escape his love to love ourselves. When we ask for this, Jesus is always quick to oblige, not because he has just been waiting to pull up before our eyes a full accounting of our falls, but because he yearns to give us love and to receive our love in return.

Is not Ephraim my dear son,
    the child in whom I delight?
Though I often speak against him,
    I still remember him.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
    I have great compassion for him
” (Job 31:20).

Gabriel Manjarres via Cathopic

On my retreat, I used this single verse to guide me as I meditated on my journey with the Lord thus far:

“If my steps have turned from the path, if my heart has been led by my eyes, or if my hands have been defiled” (Job 31:7)

“If my steps have turned from this path”:

Walking, paths, steps, following, the way, following the truth, and following the Spirit are themes that appear throughout the scriptures. Each snippet of Scripture listed below offers a different facet of how I reflected on keeping my steps along Christ’s path. I offer them here because I knew Jesus will use his Word to enlarge your own understanding.

  • Job 23:11: My foot has walked in his steps, I have kept his way.
  • Ps 37:23: whose steps are guided by the Lord, who will delight in his way
  • Jn 14:6: I am the way
  • Ps 3:6: He will make your paths straight.
  • Ps 18:31: God’s way is unerring
  • 1 Cor 12:31: the way of love
  • Mt 9:9: Follow me
  • Mt 10:38: Take up your cross and follow me.
  • Mt 19:21: Go, sell all, give to the poor and follow me.
  • Mt 20:34: Jesus touched their eyes, they received their sight and followed him.
  • Jn. 13:15: [Jesus washes his apostles’ feet] As I have done for you, you should also do.
  • Gal 5:7: following the truth
  • Eph 2:3: following the desires of the flesh and its impulses
  • 2 Tim 9:3: following their own desires and insatiable curiosity
  • 1 Pt 2:21: Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps

“If my heart has been led by my eyes”:

The eyes and the heart appear together in many passages of Scripture. Our heart and our eyes are set on the Lord or they are intent on our own gain.

  • Prv 21:2: All your ways may be straight in your own eyes, but it is the Lord who weighs hearts.
  • Ps 131: My heart is not proud, nor haughty my eyes.
  • Prv 23:26: My son, give me all of your heart and let your eyes keep to my ways.
  • Sg 4:9: [the Bridegroom speaks:] You have ravished my heart, my bride, with one glance of your eyes
  • Jer 22:17: Both your eyes and heart are set on nothing except your own gain.
  • Lam 7:17: Our hearts grow sick and our eyes grow dim
  • Ez 6:9: After I have broken their lusting hearts that turned away from me and their eyes that lusted after idols
  • Ez 24:25: I will take away the delight of their eyes and the pride of their hearts
  • Mt 13:15: Gross is the heart of this people, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and understand with their hearts
  • 1 Cor 2:9: God has prepared for his lovers what eye has not seen and what has not entered the human heart
  • 2 Pt 2:14: Their eyes are full of adultery and insatiable for sin…the hearts trained for greed
  • Eph 1:18: May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened…to know the hope of your call and the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones

“Or if my hands have been defiled”:

To climb the mountain of the Lord we need clean hands and a pure heart. Throughout scripture we learn of the ways in which our hands are not innocent, are not raised in God’s worship and glory, and also how God rewards “clean hands.”

  • Ps 24:3-4: Who may climb the mountain of the Lord? He who has clean hands and a pure heart… Such is the generation that seek him. Seek the face of the God of Jacob.
  • Dt 4:28: They shall serve gods that are the work of human hands.
  • Ps 18:21: The Lord acknowledged my righteousness, rewarded my clean hands.
  • Ps 26:6: I will wash my hands in innocence.
  • Ps 26:10: in whose hands there is a plot
  • Ps 28:2: I lift up my hands toward your holy place
  • Ps 28:4: Repay them for their deeds, for the evil that they do. For the work of their hands repay them.
  • Ps 44:21: stretched out our hands to another god
  • Ps 58:3: Your hands dispense violence to the earth.
  • Prb 6:17: hands that shed innocent blood
  • Prv 31:20: She reaches out her hands to the poor.
  • Sirach 38:10: Flee wickedness and purify your hands.
  • Sirach 51:20: for I purified my hands
  • Is 1:15: Your hands are full of blood!
  • Is 2:8: They bow down to the work of their hands
  • Zech 14:13: Their hands will be raised against each other

My sin is ever before me

It is a gift of God that we are given the grace of memory, of not forgetting. In Psalm 51:3 the Psalmist says that “my sin is ever before me.” In other words, he carries the memory of his transgressions and weakness with him as he goes forward in life.

How does the Word of God encourage us to remember our past? I like to think of Zacchaeus the tax collector who threw a party after he answered the call of Jesus and received the forgiveness of his sins. To that party, he invited his fellow tax collectors and sinners. Zacchaeus knew what his life had been, who he had become. For the rest of his life, he probably met on the streets those he had cheated. He realized that what he possessed was at the cost of overtaxing his neighbors. Yet I do not imagine him hanging his head in shame for the rest of his life, withdrawing himself from the other disciples. Zacchaeus also knew that he was chosen, wanted, seen, loved, understood by Jesus just as he was. In that moment of being known by God, he desired to commit his life to him. Zacchaeus’ life was one piece. It was beautiful to God and now at last, in all its shadows and glory, his life was beautiful to him.

Jesus, I commit my entire self to you, every moment of my life, every breath, every thought, every desire, every word, every action. Break through my ignorance, my blindness, my unwillingness. Attract me so strongly to yourself that in a short time I will find myself renewed, created anew, and transformed in surprising ways. Amen.

Photo Credit: Cristian Guttierez, Cathopic

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