An alternative to tears

Growing up in evangelical circles and especially amongst charismatics in college, genuine crying was held in high regard. An emotional reaction was typically seen as evidence of the Holy Spirit’s immediate action in your heart – a “He must increase and I must decrease” (John 3:30) moment when our false self was temporarily broken down. Repentance that was not accompanied by tears was suspect. Heck, love that was not accompanied by tears was maybe not very strong. Now of course it was acknowledged that some people (typically males) were not nearly as prone to crying, but even then it was simply a matter of degree.

Our “heroes of the faith” biographies and stories were frequently filled with accounts of foreign missionaries who prayed and fasted until they cried profusely. This was seen as normal behavior for super saints and if you only prayed an hour a day and it wasn’t accompanied by tears, than you holiness was clearly, CLEARLY at a much lower level. Quotes from people like Hudson Taylor were frequently quoted in evangelism training or even seen on inspiration posters:

“Perhaps if there were more of that intense distress for souls that leads to tears, we should more frequently see the results we desire.”

Of course, I always felt like a bit of a loser because I didn’t cry that much. Now, I do cry some and even intensely, but it certainly isn’t a regular occurrence. I’d like to think it’s because I keep a level head rather than a hard heart. It’s probably some of both, and a lot of natural temperament and genetics too. I’ve always thought (and felt, ha see what I did there?) that a healthy theology or philosophy of human psyche would take this obvious diversity a little more into account. On paper it sometimes does, but in practice, even in church traditions that downplay emotions, tears (or their absence) still carry a lot of weight in expressing or determining how serious someone’s words are.

And all of that explains why I was so delighted to find this line near the end of the Celtic monastic Rule of St. Columba – the general guidelines for all the monks that served under him.

Thy measure of prayer shall be until thy tears come;
Or thy measure of work of labour till thy tears come:
Or thy measure of thy work of labour, or of thy genuflections until thy perspiration come often, if thy tears are not free.

You get that? Pray until you cry. Heard that one before. Or work so hard you cry (or collapse maybe). OR, if you aren’t the crying type, just pray and work until you what? Sweat. The water might not come from your eyes, but what about your skin? Are you working hard? This is perhaps just as decent an indicator of you sincerity. Colm Cille was a smart fellow to add that aside to his rule. I say we should keep the same in mind.