I was thinking about repentance today. After all, it is Lent, the season of repentance. Lent is the 40 day season of preparation before the great celebration of Easter. Yet when we give up something for Lent, I suspect most of us look at that particular practice more of as a faith challenge (“Can I do this?”) than as a means of showing penance and contrition (“I’m sorry, God”). In short, repentance seems in short supply even during Lent. Yet it was not a reflection on Lent that led me to think about repentance. It was a post on CNN’s Belief Blog by Stephen Prothero:
My Take: Rush Limbaugh’s ‘apology’ fails test for public confession
It’s a good article and worth your time to read. Prothero not only calls into question Rush Limbaugh’s apology but also gives a good summary of what confession is (or at least should be). First, admit wrongdoing; second, say you are sorry; third, humble yourself; fourth, change your ways. What struck me in particular was his mention of tears in his second point.
“Second, show that you are truly sorry. Saying “I’m sorry” (which Limbaugh did not do) is a good start, but it isn’t enough. You have to make yourself believable. Here tears are not necessary, but they help. Others need to believe that you are confessing for the sake of your soul, and not merely for the sake of your career. Hint: the best way to make that happen is to actually be sorry.”(bold emphasis mine)
First, I cannot imagine Rush Limbaugh, the radio persona, actually ever being moved to tears by his own poor choice of words. And then I began to wonder, might Prothero actually be wrong? Maybe tears are necessary, if not for true confession, then for true repentance. From the collective wisdom of the Desert Fathers, found in the Philokalia, there are many references to the shedding of tears.
When you fall from a higher state, do not become panic-stricken, but through remorse, grief, rigorous self-reproach, and, above all, through copious tears shed in a contrite spirit, correct yourself and return quickly to your former condition. (St. Theognostos, II, On the Practice of the Virtues, sec. 48)
…before we have experienced inward grief and tears there is no true repentance or change of mind in us… for without tears our hardened hearts cannot be mollified, our souls cannot acquire spiritual humility, and we cannot be humble. (St. Symeon the New Theologian, IV, Practical and Theological Texts, sec. 69)
The Desert Fathers saw tears at least as a sign of true repentance and perhaps even a means for achieving true repentance. I cannot imagine Rush Limbaugh, the radio persona, ever being moved to tears over his mistakes. But when was the last time I cried over mine? Too long I am afraid. When was the last time I cried at all?
If I cannot be moved to tears by guilt, then can I by compassion? This week was a heart-wrenching week in the news. So many killed by the terrible storms moving across the Midwest and South. So many continue to be killed in Syria by the hand of their own government. So many children die in Africa by a disease that is preventable (every 60 seconds malaria claims the life of a child in Africa; want to know more? http://www.imaginenomalaria.org/). I was almost moved to tears. Why only almost?
I believe God cries tears over such tragedies of the world. Jesus wept. So why don’t I? My four year old daughter cries tears over the slightest hint of disappointment from her father. So why don’t I? How have I become so callous over the disappointment of my heavenly Father who loves me? How have I become so callous over the pain I see in the world? In his beautifully haunting song, “Tears of the World,” Michael Card imagines the collective grief of the world filling the oceans. And he, too, wonders, “So how could it be that my own eyes are dry?”
I remember a favorite line from one of my favorite books, The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf, saying goodbye to Sam, Merry and Pippin for the last time, declares, “Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.” Some tears are not an evil. Some tears are heaven-sent and blessing… tears of guilt, even, and tears of compassion. Our tears, when joined with God’s tears, can lead to true repentance and wash away the stains upon this world. In the chorus of “Tears for the World,” Michael Card prays a prayer… for tears. This Lent, it is my prayer for me and for you.
so open my eyes
and open my heart
and grant me the gift
of your grieving
and awaken in me
the compassion to weep
just one of the tears of the world.
-Michael Card, “Tears of the World”