This is my final reflection paper from my recently completed mini-class in my master’s program at Creighton University. The class was the first part of three on the history of Christian spirituality, and was appropriately titled “Martyrs and Monks.”
I first traveled to the Middle East, Syria specifically, in August, 2010. This was before the war in Syria, and the country was intact. Muslims and Christians lived together in a secular, mostly peaceful society. I visited a number of places, and one that struck me deeply was St. Simeon, the ruins of a fifth century church near Aleppo built around the pillar that St. Simeon the Stylite sat on for most of his life, praying to God. I had quiet moments of contemplation as I thought about this saint and his life and his attitude of prayer. But the highlight of my trip in 2010 was a visit to Aleppo and the Presbyterian church. This church had an amazing outreach to refugees from the American-led war in Iraq, which had begun in 2003. I met a woman named Nawal, a faithful and prayerful saint of her church, who chastised us (and rightfully so) for what our country had done to the Iraqi people. I have never forgotten Nawal, and had the chance to reconnect with her this past summer in Lebanon, but I will reflect on that later. We also had the chance to share a meal with an Iraqi refugee family in the less than modest apartment they could afford.
As a member of a group of women traveling together to learn about our sister Presbyterian church in Syria, we were each given the opportunity to lead devotion. I had chosen this passage in Acts: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (2:44-47a). As I began to read, I was overwhelmed with tears and could not get through to the end. Hearing Nawal’s words to us about what we had done to the Iraqis, being welcomed into the home of an Iraqi refugee family who shared the bounty of their poverty with us in the hospitality that is the hallmark of Middle Eastern culture, I was utterly convicted of the corporate sin my people committed against the Iraqis. It was this memory that grabbed my heart as I read the readings for this class.
Over and over in the stories of the desert harlots – of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt specifically – there are waterfalls of tears. Anselm’s prayer to Mary Magdalene captures it well:
St. Mary Magdalene,
You came with springing tears
To the spring of mercy, Christ…
How can I find words to tell
About the burning love with which you sought Him
Weeping at the sepulcher
And wept for Him in your seeking?…
For the sweetness of love He shows Himself
Who would not for the bitterness of tears.
In his gospel, Luke tells us that a woman (possibly Mary Magdalene) who was a sinner, washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair in an act of repentance (7:37-38). Mary of Egypt tells us, “Thus I understood the promise of God and realized how God receives those who repent…‘you will find rest.’ When I heard the voice say this, I believed it had come because of me, and I cried out weeping…” As she tells Zossima her story of her prostitute’s life and the temptation to return to it she tells him, “When such thoughts grew in me, I would fling myself on the ground and flood the earth with weeping.” When she asks Zossima to pray for her, he falls to his knees and his prayers and tears flow together.
The connective tissue of tears and prayers in these stories resonated deeply with me and my experiences in the Middle East in 2010 and continuing for nine more trips through this past summer, including time in Lebanon, Iraq, and the now war-torn Syria, all places where the desert fathers and mothers actually lived. Why do the tears flow so easily, and especially in times of their prayers and mine? “Tears connect us with a part of ourselves and an expression of our deepest feelings that is far beyond our words or even our thoughts. Tears are a way that our bodies express our hearts.” Said another way, “Tears are an outward manifestation of a biological release that is usually triggered by a profound emotional sensation.” Being able to express emotion instead of suppressing it is a way for me to be real. On the thinking-feeling spectrum of the Myers-Briggs assessment, I register an absolute zero on thinking and am off the chart on feeling. To not express my feelings, especially to God in prayer, would violate the very meaning of prayer, according to Mother Maria. “It is only if we are rooted and grounded in reality, if we have found our own ‘heart,’ if we do not hide, that we can truly pray. All true prayer is a prayer of the heart, because it is the heart – not our physical heart but the deepest centre of our being – where we are touched by the divine, where we are fully ourselves, fully alive, fully one…present before the face of God.”
As I have read through these texts, I have been thankful for what my friends have called my prayer language, which is tears of the heart. In further reading, I discovered St. Catherine of Siena and her great question to God: what is the reason and the fruit of tears? Reading about the six kinds of tears God explained to her, I find that mine fall somewhere between level three and four:
Sweet tears of imperfect love: These are the sweet tears of those who have abandoned sinful ways and are beginning to serve God because they have begun to know and love him; however, their love is still imperfect, causing their tears to be imperfect as well. The person’s life is then characterized by exercising virtue, acknowledging God’s goodness, practicing self-discovery in the light of God’s goodness, and moving away from fear and toward hope in God’s mercy.
Sweet tears of perfect love: Perfect tears of mature love come from those who have developed perfect love for their neighbor and learned to love God without regard for themselves. These are the people who live the words of the Great Commandment: to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself.
Between those two levels is a maturing, a growth in love and in humility; a growth in the knowledge that it is only God’s love and goodness that invites us closer to him and his mercy, and away from our own sins and fears. I think those tears of mine somewhere between the imperfect and the perfect fall into the same place that St. Benedict described: “With growth in humility came ever-deeper awareness of one’s own sinfulness, as well as compassion and tears for the sins of other people. Such mindfulness meant deep feeling, and deep feeling meant tears.”
As Mother Maria talks about the prayer of the heart, I discovered that my tears open my heart to the love of God. My heart moves from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, which is what God promises in Ezekiel 36:26. Tears are a part of that process of heart softening, making real meaningful prayer possible. Abba Poemen says it this way: “The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone.”
With the Presbyterian church in Aleppo, Syria, August, 2010.
So as I end this reflection, I want to return to my story of Nawal in Aleppo. Sitting on the porch of the Carslow Building at Ain Al-Kassis (which translates to “fountain of the father,” an appropriate description for how my tears flow!) in the mountains above Beirut, Lebanon, I was waiting for some of the Syrian women to arrive for the annual gathering of Presbyterian women in the Synod of Lebanon and Syria. A young woman came and sat on the porch with me, and as it turned out, we were Facebook friends although we had never met. Her name is Nisryn, and she lives in Paris, France. She had come to the conference because her mom was making the long and dangerous journey from Aleppo to be there as well. She told me it had been six years since she had seen her mother. As we sat and talked, I realized who the woman she was talking about was. “I know your mother!” I exclaimed. I jumped up to get my laptop and found this picture from my 2010 trip. I am standing behind the little boy in the front row, and Nisryn’s mom Nawal is to the right of me in the blue dress. Nisryn’s mom is the same woman who gave me pause to weep as I read the text from Acts about sharing everything, and no one was in need. She was the woman who showed me what the hands and feet of Jesus look like when serving the refugees of war. And now she was living in Aleppo still, a victim of another war and was coming to experience Sabbath at the women’s conference. Here I was, sitting with her daughter, and together we prayed at the fountain of the father for her safe travel…and our tears flowed as we came into the presence of God together and brought Nawal there with us.
Nawal, me, Nisryn, Ain al Kassis, Lebanon, July, 2016
It is only because we long for the presence of God, for a glimpse of his perfect beauty, for holiness, for ceaseless prayer, for union of love, for Paradise, that our hearts break with sadness when we realize how far away from it we are. It is this sadness – this “affliction” – which, I think, the Fathers called “compunction” and why they called the life of prayer – the life of trying to pray – “white martyrdom” – a way of pain. Without the longing, without repentance, without the breaking of the heart, there can be no practice of prayer and no true prayer on earth at all.
These two weeks of reading the stories of the desert fathers and the harlots of the desert have touched a deep place in my heart. The message I took was so clear. My life of praying with tears is a gift I take with me in my experiences of ministry with and for the people I am privileged to journey with in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. In repenting – in turning to God – in this way, I am my true self. I have found my heart, and it has been softened with tears of mercy and compassion. I know I have many more to shed.
Kangas, Billy. “The Role of Tears in the Spiritual Life: Lessons from the Desert Fathers.” The Orant. Entry posted May 2, 2011. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/billykangas/2011 /05/the-role-of-tears-in-the-spiritual-life-lessons-from-the-desert-fathers.html (accessed November 2, 2016).
Sheetz, Jenny. “The Gift of Tears: A Reflection.” stjosephinstitute.com. http://www.stjosephinstitute.com/_Assets/pdf/jennysheetz/The%20Gift%20of%20Tears.pdf (accessed November 2, 2016).
Stewart, Columba. Prayer and Community: the Benedictine Tradition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998.
Ward, Benedicta. Harlots of the Desert: a Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987.
Zeleski, Irma. Encounter with a Desert Mother, 108-126.
 Benedicta Ward, Harlots of the Desert: a Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987), 20.
 Ibid, 48.
 Ibid, 50.
 Ibid, 51.
 Billy Kangas, “The Role of Tears in the Spiritual Life: Lessons from the Desert Fathers,” The Orant, entry posted May 2, 2011, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/billykangas/ 2011/05/the-role-of-tears-in-the-spiritual-life-lessons-from-the-desert-fathers.html (accessed November 2, 2016).
 Jenny Sheetz, “The Gift of Tears: A Reflection,” stjosephinstitute.com, http://www. stjosephinstitute.com/_Assets/pdf/jennysheetz/The%20Gift%20of%20Tears.pdf (accessed November 2, 2016), 1.
 Irma Zeleski, Encounter with a Desert Mother, 110.
 Sheetz, 3.
 Columba Stewart, Prayer and Community: the Benedictine Tradition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 49.
 Sheetz, 4.
 Zeleski, 125.