Dear Father John, Would you please explain the “gift of tears”? I know some people who say they have the “gift of tears” because they cry at the drop of a hat. But, I have a feeling this is not what the saints and mystics are talking about when they write about this gift. What is it exactly? And, how does one know if someone has it? Thank you. God bless you in your ministry.
The Gift of Tears per se is not mentioned in the Bible, nor in the Catechism. It is a phenomenon mentioned in spiritual writers since very early in the Church, and it refers to an intense personal experience of God that overflows in abundant tears. It is the overflow of a spiritual experience in an emotional/physiological expression that creates deep comfort in one’s soul, and deep encouragement for the person who receives the gift, as well as (sometimes) for others who happen to witness it.
What This Gift Doesn’t Mean
Like all gifts of this sort (generally referred to as “charismatic” gifts, from the Greek, New Testament word for “gift”), it is freely given by the Holy Spirit in accordance with God’s wisdom. It can be given once or multiple times, or it can even recur throughout one’s life, though it certainly doesn’t have to. In itself, it is not an indication that someone has achieved a high level of holiness, nor does it directly create a higher degree of union with God. Rather, it is meant to encourage the person who receives it and those who witness it. In this sense, it can be a powerful stimulant to greater fidelity to God and God’s will in one’s life, a confirmation of good decisions already made, and shield against future temptations. If someone receives this gift, they should accept it gratefully and humbly, but not build their lives around it.
Supernatural vs. Natural Tears
This gift of tears differs from normal tears both in what triggers it (it is triggered by an experience of God, not by natural pain or sorrow or joy, for example), as well as in how it occurs physiologically – generally, these tears are abundant and are not accompanied by the usual kind of sobbing or the distortion of the facial muscles. So you can see that your instinct was right. Someone who has a particularly sensitive nature may often be moved to natural tears by beautiful spiritual realities. This can be a very good thing, but it may not be, strictly speaking, the same as the gift of tears. Likewise, someone may go through periods or moments when their natural sensitivity is heightened (by stress or exhaustion, for instance), and this could make them more susceptible to shed tears in response to normal emotional stimulation – perception of beauty, sorrow at sin, etc. This type of crying can be emotionally renewing and of great benefit for the person (crying releases many hormones and toxins that are known to reduce stress levels), even though it may not, strictly speaking, be the gift of tears.
I hope this helps. God bless you! Fr. John
Art for this post on the gift of tears: Las lágrimas de San Pedro (The Tears of Saint Peter), Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), unknown date, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.