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Weeping with Mary: Reflections on the gift of tears

Tears, when bestowed by the Holy Spirit, are not an end in themselves to be analyzed, but point us to a spiritual end, whether that end be conversion, contemplation, consolation, or more fervent prayer.

Christ is taken from the Cross. (Image: Stations of the Cross/Thomas Aquinas College, CA)

As a child, I accompanied my mother each day to morning Mass. And daily, after Holy Communion, I observed the same phenomenon: my mother, head in hands, absorbed in prayer. Tucked discreetly in one hand, a Kleenex. And each morning, that Kleenex was soaked with tears.

I was surprisingly uncurious about my mother’s silent weeping.

As an adult, however, it dawned on me that my mother was blessed with the gift of tears.

Ordinarily a very controlled person, she was notable for her strength of character. In the face of human tragedy, she held steady. But in communion with God, her tears flowed.

The gift of tears is under-appreciated today. And yet, this grace has inspired reverence throughout the Church’s tradition. A response of the heart, prompted by the Holy Spirit, it is akin to those “groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Romans 8:26) The tears that fill our eyes, unbidden, may express sorrow for sin. Perhaps they stem from compassion, a sharing of another’s grief, or from the overwhelming knowledge of God’s presence. Whatever prompts them, they are a deep affective response to spiritual realities.

Scripture is full of weeping, from Joseph’s tears in Genesis, all the way to Revelation.

We see tears frequently in the Old Testament: tears of repentance, tears of lamentation, tears of sorrow. The prophets weep: Isaiah “drenching” with tears those for whom he prays, Jeremiah—known as the weeping prophet—comparing his eyes to a fountain. Yahweh weeps over His errant people. Israel weeps in repentance, and God cannot resist.

In the New Testament, Christ weeps, touched by the sorrow of Martha and Mary at the death of Lazarus. The Magdalen washes Jesus’ feet with tears of repentance and love. Peter weeps bitterly after denying his Lord three times and meeting Jesus’ sorrowful gaze.

St. Paul weeps tears of admonishment: “Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears” he tells the Ephesians. (Acts 20:31)

In early Christian tradition, the Desert Fathers held the gift of tears in high regard, calling the gift of tears a “second baptism.” The doctrine of penthos, or tears of compunction, appeared often in patristic works and remains at the heart of Eastern Christianity.

Likewise the saints weep, one after another. From St. Catherine of Sienna, to whom Christ dictated a treatise on tears, to St. Ignatius, who was advised that his copious tears could harm his eyesight. As a novice, Padre Pio took to placing a large handkerchief on the floor in front of him: his constant tears were leaving traces on the stone floor of the choir where he prayed. St. John Vianney could not speak of sinners and sins without weeping. “Tears are the heart’s blood,” said St. Augustine, referring to the tears of his mother Monica—tears which purchased his conversion.

Acknowledging the spiritual efficacy of tears, the Church even offers a Mass “For the Gift of Tears,” with its beautiful Collect:

Almighty and most gentle God,
who brought forth from the rock
a fountain of living water for your thirsty people,
bring forth we pray,
from the hardness of our heart, tears of sorrow,
that we may lament our sins
and merit forgiveness from your mercy.

Some spiritual writers distinguish between the gift of tears and tears that arise from merely human sensibilities, even when prompted by the beauty of spiritual realities.

What seems certain is this: tears, when bestowed by the Holy Spirit, are not an end in themselves to be analyzed (beyond, perhaps, a moment of gratitude) but point us to a spiritual end, whether that end be conversion, contemplation, consolation, or more fervent prayer. They are not the racking, uncontrollable sobs of merely human grief. They go deeper.

Tears are “the work of God in you,” says Padre Pio.

Pope Francis says the gift of tears “prepare the eyes to look, to see the Lord.” “It is a beautiful grace,” he says, “to weep praying for everything: for what is good, for our sins, for graces, for joy itself… [it] prepares us to see Jesus.”

The current Pope has a special affinity for the gift of tears. Early in his pontificate, he asked priests, “Do you cry, or is this a clergy that has lost its tears? Do you cry for your people?”

Well might he ask that question, for the tears of a priest speak volumes. Priests, we need your tears! The most eloquent sermon is preached by the tears of a priest.

Pope Francis was referring to tears of sorrow, tears that “battle with the Lord” in prayer for a priest’s flock. However, there is another kind of tear that is needed by today’s priests.

Priests, do you weep when you hear someone cry out audibly “My Lord and my God” at the Consecration? Do you shed a tear when you pause during the Canon—Lord, hear the prayers of the family you have gathered here before you— and hear only the crying, cooing, and grumblings of a church full of infants? Is your heart touched when you see long lines of penitents or pews filled with adorers? Pray for the grace of tears, and allow yourself to be moved. Those tears will nourish your priesthood.

As a parent, I have renewed appreciation for my mother’s gift of tears. In her short life, those tears spoke powerfully. Whether from joy, sorrow or consolation, their flowing taught me a powerful lesson.

My mother’s tears were closely linked to her strong devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows. I grew up under the mournful gaze of a large painting of Our Lady of Quito. And it was no accident that my mother loved Our Lady of LaSalette: that strong, silent image, head in hands, weeping for the sins of mankind.

Images of Our Lady weeping were central to our home. Also central was the knowledge that if one of us lost the faith, it would break my mother’s heart.

We need to weep more. Keeping a stiff upper lip is a survival mechanism, but it can isolate us and keep us safely distanced from the evils of our times.

Parents, pray for the gift of tears. Let your children know your heart will break if they leave the faith. The promise of those tears is powerful.

And if your heart is already broken, look to your Mother. Her tears speak for themselves.

You may remember a moment from childhood—perhaps in the middle of a brawl among siblings, a crescendo of noise and chaos, insults, words best left unsaid—and then suddenly, an awful silence. Mom has stopped pleading for peace or shouting for quiet. She’s just sitting there, and she’s crying. There is a terrible awareness that things have gone too far.

That is the message of Our Lady of Sorrows. Her tears flow because we’ve gone too far.

We need to weep with Mary, Mater dolorosa:

Let me mingle tears with thee, mourning him who morned for me, all the days that I may live. By the cross with thee to stay, there with you to weep and pray, is all I ask of you to give.

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About Monica Seeley 12 Articles
Monica Seeley writes from Ventura, California.


  1. I have to say, I admit to having that propensity. I weep for many reasons, at mass, in prayer,
    for the poor souls in purgatory, for the fact of my own sinfulness… Thank you, Monica for your insightful contribution. May your own tears water the tree of your faith to good and abundant fruit!

  2. This is interesting, as I’ve often wondered if an (adult) woman’s ability to burst into tears is one reason they live longer than men, due to the (immediate) stress relief effect.

  3. I’ve always been self-conscious about praying in public because I cry when I pray. Not loud sobbing or wailing or anything, just a great deal of tears (and the inevitable runny nose). There’s a line from a contemporary Christian song, “Break my heart for what breaks Yours,” and that’s essentially what it feels like.

  4. This was an interesting article. I think that having enough human emotion to cry when the occasion calls for it is a wonderful gift. Western society as a whole seems to relegate tears to private moments, rarely public ones, with the exception of weddings and funerals. This is especially true of the expectation of the public behavior standards for men. Loss of control by adults ( tears or temper) is rarely seen as a plus in our society. I do think that the times tears are mentioned in the Gospels, (Jesus weeping over the death of Lazarus, Magdalen weeping over Jesus’s feet,etc) there was abundant reasons for them and those stories touch us deeply because of it. I have seen my husband weep on a rare occasion,and never had any issue with it. An ability to feel deeply is part of being human.

  5. Its been said that “big boys don’t cry”. Yet, as someone already pointed out, Jesus wept.

    In listening to a young lawyer discuss her difficulties, a time ago, it brought a tears to my eyes.

    Jesus knows how to listen and help when we pour out our hearts. Lord help us to be good listeners too.

  6. I call myself a Cry Baby for Christ. Just the sound of O Salutaris Hostia during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament is enough for tears to flow. Sometimes, I get distracted during Mass but as I sit on my pew after receiving Communion, out comes the Kleenex. I used to be embarrassed by this show of emotion but no more. Let everyone see the shoulders shake, the hands covering the face and snot coming out of the nose. It is all God’s gift.

  7. Beautiful insights, Monica! I have memories of deep sobbing while beginning anew to pray at the time of my “RE-version”! Very much a movement of the Holy Spirit! Mystical writings have indicated that it is Our Lady’s most beautiful title, Our Lady, Mother of Sorrows, commemorating her eminent role in co-redemption. God bless you and Joey & family! Count on my prayers for you all!

  8. Thank you for this beautifully written message. Your mother passed on her gift of faith to you and is, undoubtedly, so very proud of you. Though you don’t know me, I am, too.

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