Transposing Tears

The best spiritual state, it has been said, is one in which our heads are cool and our hearts are warm. The heart should be fervent, but we mustn’t let this fervor “go to our head” as a sort of Pharisaical zeal, while in our heads we should be striving for the crystal-like calmness that proceeds from detachment, though without allowing this impassability to sink into the heart as indifference or hardness.

As for your question about self-reproach and sorrow, I agree that the tears certain of the Fathers emphasize need not necessarily be an expression of regret or remorse for one’s sins; they may just as well be a physical sign of deep spiritual joy. I think of C. S. Lewis’s analysis of this paradoxical fact in his sermon “Transposition”:

“I take our emotional life to be ‘higher’ than the life of our sensations—not of course morally higher, but richer, more varied, more subtle … and I believe that if anyone watches carefully the relation between his emotions and his sensations he will discover the following facts: (1) the nerves do respond, and in a sense most adequately and exquisitely, to the emotions; (2) their resources are far more limited, the possible variations of sense far fewer, than those of emotions; (3) and the senses compensate for this by using the same sensation to express more than one emotion—even to express opposite emotions.”

One need only add that what is true of our “emotional life” is a fortiori true of our spiritual life.

I once posed much the same question you’re asking to an Athonite geronda, and he pointed out in reply that some of the saints came to the faith from unusually violent—sometimes even criminal—backgrounds and that it’s in light of the very serious sins of their past that their emphasis on shedding tears is to be understood. If, however, one is praying and fasting, availing oneself of the sacraments (including confession), and avoiding mortal sins, one need not expect (he said) so persistent a manifestation of sorrow.

I myself would add that it’s wrong in any case—not so much morally wrong as spiritually “inefficient”—to try to work oneself into an emotional state, whether joyful or sorrowful. A spiritual writer of unimpeachable authority may tell us we “should” feel emotion x, y, or z, and perhaps at certain times it would be better if we did. Nonetheless it’s best left to God to induce such a feeling if, but only if, He Himself determines that it’s in our spiritual interest.

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