I was supposed to go to Quebec City this weekend with some friends. They went; I stayed home. I had been having trouble sleeping, and Friday when it was time to go I realized I had forgotten to pack, and proceeded to break down in tears. I thought I could will myself through anything but when the prospect of packing a few clothes seemed too daunting, I knew something had to change.
That night I slept fairly well. Maybe it was acknowledging I am as human as the next person and require sleep in order to function. I am sure if Dante wrote his Divine Comedy now, graduate school would constitute its own level of hell. With separate sub-strata within the Greater Grad School Level of Hell distinguishing between masters and doctoral stress. But I digress…
There was a difference between knowing I was exhausted, and finally realizing something had to change. That outward bodily experience of acceptance and tears is similar to what happens during repentance. “Repentance” is derived from the Greek penthos, which means mourning. For me, the experience of truly mourning my sins is not merely an intellectual one – it takes place in my heart and is expressed in my body through tears. I know this is not something that only I experience, because “spiritual tradition teaches that whenever we experience repentance in our lives, especially as it directly relates with our relationship to God, it is often accompanied by an outpouring of tears.”(1) Rarely do I go to Mass and not notice someone surreptitiously wiping tears from their eyes.
Mourning our sins is not an end in itself but rather a means to an end: growing closer to God. Staying stuck in feeling bad about our sins is not the point; the point is to move on. But as we grow in self-knowledge, God allows us to see other areas of our lives that stand in the way. Again we repent and again we turn to Him, participating in a “transformative process, one that renews and re-establishes us in our loving God and others.”(2) Self-knowledge and repentance go together, and I picture this process as an upward spiral.
It hurts to acknowledge our sins and human limitations and crying indicates we are actually accepting them, as opposed to being in denial. In one of my favourite books, a psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz wrote that “tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”(3) It takes courage to accept our human limitations, no matter what they are.
Tears of repentance wash away our sins and are God’s gift to us as consolation.(4) That is why we feel better after a good cry. Perhaps I was able to sleep that night because I no longer had a façade to keep up. Not just to my friends but more importantly, to myself. God touched my heart and my tears washed away my pride.
Maybe we should start a “Humans Anonymous” support group. “Hi, my name is Laura and I’m a human.” “Step One: we admitted we were powerless over our humanity.” Oh wait. We have that already… church. In that case, let me raise my glass to a holy Lent for all of us. May we see and acknowledge ourselves as we really are – the good, the bad and the ugly. May we get ourselves out of God’s way! Happy Lent!
1 Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald, ed., Encountering Women of Faith, 2nd ed. (Brookline, Massachusetts: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2009), 102.
2 Ibid., 101.
3 Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 5th ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, , pages 78
4 Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitxGerald, ed., Encountering Women of Faith, 2nd ed. (Brookline, Massachusetts: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2009), 103.