Sunday, 24 November 2013

Tears: The Most Sacred of Waters

In recent blogspots I have explored suffering and despair and how to find meaning in difficult times; ways to the engage with the kind of deep sustenance that can sustain us when life seems difficult. In this final piece for Novemeber I am continuing with this theme by discussing a substance that occurs naturally within everyone. It will explore that most sacred of waters; it will be exploring tears. I suspect that the tear may just about be the ultimate of human sacraments. Tears mark many of the most sacred moments of our lives; tears connect us to these moments in ways that are way beyond mere words.

Tears rolled down my cheeks on several occasions last weekend. Most of them were not tears of sadness; no they were tears of gratitude, joy and connection. I have shed tears of sadness in recent weeks, but not last weekend.

Last Sunday I was deeply touched by the anniversary service I attended at Oldham Unitarian Chapel and One World Centre. They were celebrating 200 years of Unitarian witness in the town. The first Unitarians began gathering there, officially at least, for the first time in an upstairs room just a few months after the Trinity Act was passed in 1813. This act allowed Unitarians to worship free from persecution for the first time. The history of Oldham Unitarians has been one of struggle. There have been times when they have thrived, but in the main they have struggled. This has been particularly true in recent years. This is why it was such a joy to be there last Sunday and to see them harvesting some of the fruits of their labour. Over the weekend their new One World Cafe was opened and they also unveiled the most beautiful new stained glass window. The dedication of the new window was led by Marion Nuttall ,one of the stalwarts of the congregation. As she spoke tears began to roll down my face. As they did I looked around the chapel and noticed the same thing occurring in the eyes of others that were present there tpp. These were tears of love and understanding, tears of recognition for Marion and her steadfast dedication to the chapel, the people of Oldham and free religion. It was a real privilege to be a witness to this.

I also experienced some wonderful tears of gratitude as I tried to settle down to sleep last Saturday night. I was quite high on life at the time. I’d been to a wonderful New Model Army gig that night and had been moved deeply by the whole experience. I had shared the night with some new friends and yet I felt that I had experienced the whole event with friends I had known from being a teenager. I even bumped into an old mate I’d not seen since the later 1990’s. As soon as we saw one another we just hugged, what more was there to do. As I lay in bed that night I tried to come down from the high of the evening and just could not. I tried to clear my head and connect to my breathing, but it just did not work. So I decided to just lie and re-feel the memories not just of that night but of many nights over many years. I remembered old friends and passions and as I did tears began to form in my eyes. They were not tears of sadness; they were tears of gratitude, connection and most of all love. After a while a broad smile spread across my face and I drifted into a deep dreamless sleep.

There is something deeply sacred in tears. I’m not really talking about crying here by the way. I think that crying is something else, something that demands attention from others and something we often feel we need to do something about. Crying, sobbing especially in children is something which makes most people feel deeply uncomfortable.

In recent times I have heard several people say that they cannot cry alone; that they need other people to be there so that they can feel safe enough to cry. I suspect that this has something to do with the fear of being out of control and being unable to get back to what they perceive as normality. I may well be wrong, but I don’t think so. If you cry in public you will of course be heard and there will usually be someone or even several people who will respond and help you to put things back together again.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently. I’m not sure I cry in public, or not very often anyway. I do shed tears though. I do so a lot actually, sometimes while leading worship. I don’t fear it. I know these tears are sacred and it is my soul responding to something greater than myself.

Tears though don’t only come in response to gratitude and happy moments of connection. They are also a response to deeply felt suffering. It will not surprise you to hear that Forrest Church had something rather beautiful to say on this subject, He wrote that...

"...the ancient Hebrews honoured suffering, viewing it as a sign of a deeply felt experience, a symbol of their passion. I encountered an intimate expression of this on a recent visit to Israel.

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem contains a collection of tiny ceramic cups. These were sacramental vessels. People cried into them.

Your mother has just died. Someone you love has cancer. Your spouse has left you. You are struggling at work. More likely, you have simply broken down. You burst into tears. So you pick up your tear cup, put it under your eye, and weep into it. When you are finished weeping, you cap it and put it away again. It is a way to save your tears.

Why save them? Because they are precious. It doesn’t matter why we cried, your tears are precious, for they show that you care. A full cup of tears is proof that you have felt deeply, suffered, and survived. Their value is ratified by this simple parable from Jewish lore. When his student complained that he was suffering and so deeply confused that he could no longer pray and study, Rebbe Mendl of Kotzk asked him, “What if God prefers your tears to your studying?”.

Washington Irving the author of the Gothic novel “Sleepy Hollow” claimed that “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not a mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition and of unspeakable love.”

Tears are sacred; they are perhaps the holiest of holy waters. I have not always seen them this way. I used to see them as a sign of weakness; that they symbolised emotion that needed to be controlled and not expressed. I remember the day that my father died, walking into the room where he lay. I went in alone, I looked at him and kissed him and then turned and walked out of the door and into my grandma’s kitchen. As I did so my auntie and grandma asked if I was ok as they did I felt the emotion come and I swallowed hard, no tears came. I did not cry at the funeral either. It took me 10 years before I was able to grieve my father’s life and death.

Thankfully I am no longer like that. One reason I spend so long preparing the funeral services I lead is because of the way they affect me. I have to go over them again and again to work through the emotion, so has to maintain professionalism on the day. Yet no matter what I do the emotion is there, there is always one or two tears. As there should be, these are sacred moments that I am attempting to hold people through.

For so much of my life I have been afraid of my emotional nature and this is one of the reasons why when I was first asked by my granddad if I would conduct his funeral, when the time came, I refused. I did so because I was afraid I would be unable to cope on the day. Since then thankfully my faith has grown. Only a couple of weeks ago it came to me that this is something I must do. Yes tears will be shed, but it is something I must do. It is the right thing to do. Today I try not to shy away from the sacredness of life.

I have for many years been fascinated by two very different images of overflowing cups. One is the Zen Buddhist tale about an overflowing tea cup and the other the verse from the 23rd Psalm “my cup runneth over”. The Zen tale depicts the importance of an empty mind. The story teaches that we need what Buddhist describe as “Beginners Mind” in order to truly learn what is required to find peace. It teaches that our problem is that our minds are overflowing with so much stuff that we have no room for anything new. There is a real deep truth here. A clear mind is a priceless commodity. The question this raises for me though is how do we create the clear mind?

For a long time I believed that the way to achieve this was to learn to control my thoughts and not allow them to attach to things. Well this never really worked for me and today I can clearly see why. You see back then I wasn’t really trying to control my mind at all, more my emotions. No doubt this is why it never worked for me. I have in recent days learnt a better way. I have found that by filling the cup of love to the point that it ‘runneth over’ my mind has become clear. The cup that is of course being filled is my heart, nay my soul. I have discovered by connecting fully to all that is, all that has been and all that is yet to be my spirit has become healthy and as a result my mind has pretty much emptied. Hard to believe really because for many years my mind never stopped swirling, this is why I suffered insomnia for so long. When I stopped and lay my head on my pillow my head would not slow down it would in fact speed up and there was nothing I could do about it. I thank God this is no longer the case; I thank God that I have discovered by filling my heart, my soul, that my head becomes empty.

This of course leads to another question. How do we fill the cup to overflowing? Well maybe there's a lesson to be learnt from those ancient Hebrews and their tiny ceramic cups. Maybe the answer is to find a way to store those tears to let them build up so that they overflow out of ourselves and into our lives. Now I’m not suggesting you buy cups yourselves, please don’t take me literally here. What I mean is that we can do so by increasing our sensitivity to life and we do this by simply connecting to the world in which we live, moment by moment, breath by breath. I’m not just talking about saving the tears of about sorrow here either, I’m talking as much about joy as anything else. Tears are a sign of a truly felt experience and I believe that to truly live meaningful lives we have to experience everything and to carry that experience out into our world.

November is the month of change and reflection and this year this has been quite an intense experience for me. Now it is time to move forward into the winter, into December, into Advent. It is time to move forward into the new light that can come if we fill our hearts and souls to over flowing and attempt to bring into our world glad tidings of comfort and joy. Our world needs it and we need it too. 

So I say fill those cups to overflowing and spread this abundant love into our world. Drink from one another’s cups and from the cup of the eternal for that is one cup that is forever overflowing.


  1. Danny, I think this is one of the most beautiful things I've ever read. Thank you.