Tears and Prayer

It is said that after his conversion, Saint Ignatius could not stop weeping. He shed tears all the time. This is so much the case that only through the gift of tears do we really understand the spiritual exercises that he proposed. Saint Teresa of Ávila also recommends this way of tears. In them is found a mysterious consolation that only God’s presence can give.

For great mystics like Saint Teresa of Ávila or Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the heart-piercing awareness of the Lord’s presence that they sought by faith often caused them to weep — both exteriorly and interiorly. Prayer rooted in conversatio morum [ongoing dialogue with God that takes up our whole existence, our judgments, dreams and behaviors] is always open to these tears. In their case, this holy sorrow helped them pray and to grow in virtue because it is a sorrow informed by love and gratitude.

Pondering Christ’s Incarnation and work of redemption against her own indifference, Saint Teresa would wash her memory with hope. As she learned to invoke the Holy Spirit in the midst of difficult spiritual struggles, her heart was pierced by love, and she was freed from attachments that held her back. At the end of each day, she would spend an hour weeping with Jesus in the Agony of the Garden before falling asleep.

The most difficult obstacle to this kind of prayer is our own distracted minds. We have filled our imagination with impure images, and we have entertained whole ways of thinking that are opposed to the tenderness that deep prayer requires. A kind of sluggish indifference can pull at us when we try to pray. At the same time, if we make the decision to turn our attention to holy things with love, God’s gentle power is brought to bear in surprising ways. All it takes on our part is determination and perseverance in prayer.

When the thought of Christ evokes tears, whether physical or spiritual, the virtues of our spiritual life grow. Tears of compunction are like water for the garden of our heart. Compunction, in fact, means to be pierced to the heart. These tears, whether physical or spiritual, make the virtues of our spiritual life grow and flourish. Teresa of Ávila described this kind of devotion as water for the flower garden of our hearts, the place where Christian virtues are meant to flourish.

Devotion is not the external fulfillment of religious obligations. One can be self-consciously devout in appearance but lack devotion of heart. Looking and sounding spiritual is easy. Being spiritual requires the hard work of actual and ongoing surrender of one’s heart to God. In fact, it is possible to be very observant of one’s religious obligations but not actually be devout at all.

Devotion is commitment to be sincere and vulnerable to God interiorly, in season and out of season. It cannot be seen or measured from the outside, but everyone is drawn to its sincerity and attracted by its integrity. Without this decision of the heart for the Lord, our religious observances can easily become blasphemous acts of self-delusion. With this interior disposition, one possesses a powerful tool to combat hypocrisy and backsliding.

This dedication of heart chooses the Lord as the ultimate priority of one’s life under which every other priority and concern must fall. This choice is not on the level of wishful thinking or vague intention. It plays out in an immediate readiness to respond completely and hold nothing back.

Devotion has this note of immediate generosity because it is immediately aware of how devoted the Lord is to each one of us. It does not try to prove itself or gain divine approval. It has, instead, the character of tender mutuality between God and the soul. Beholding the intensity of God’s love, the attentiveness of devotion yearns to provide some token of gratitude in the here and now.


This article is from a chapter in Fire from Above, which is available through Sophia Institute PressTears and Prayer

Art for this post on tears and prayer: Detail of Ignatius of Loyola adoring Jesus. Painting in the left nave of the church of San Pietro Martire (Peter of Verona) at Murano (Venice, Italy), picture by Giovanni Dall’Orto, July 16, 2008, license for any purpose provided copyright holder is properly attributed, Wikimedia Commons. Cover of Fire from Above, used with permission.

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