Joyful Sorrow: Compunction and the Gift of Tears in the Philokalia
“Blessed are they that mourn,” our Lord said in the second Beatitude. But mourn, weep, for what? Life certainly is filled with its sorrows and losses and often we may be moved to tears. Yet, how are we to understand our Lord’s teaching and the blessing that comes to those who weep?
This is a question that the Fathers of the Philokalia often asked and through them we discover that such mourning is a spiritual gift and the fruit of true repentance. In the Christian East, the Greek word for such sorrow is Penthos. While there is no English equivalent for the word, we can define it as “joyful sorrow”: a sorrow that arises from a broken and contrite heart, an inner sorrow for the sins that one has committed. However, such tears of compunction, the Fathers tell us, lead to a true and abiding joy. “‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning,’ says the psalmist. ‘These tears,’ writes St. John Chrysostom, ‘do not bring sorrow; they bring more joy than all the laughter of the world can gain for you.’ ‘Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting,’ says the psalmist (126:5). Archim. Sophrony writes, ‘Stemming originally from bitter repentance, weeping develops into tears of rapture with Divine love. And this is a sign that our prayer is heard and through its action we are led into new imperishable life’” (Coniaris, “Philokalia: Bible of Orthodox Spirituality”, 175).
Such tears of compunction are a gift of God, the fruit of baptismal grace and the renewal of our baptism. St. John Climacus wrote: “God in His love for mankind gave us tears. . . If God in His mercy had not granted to men this second baptism, then few indeed would be saved. . . When our soul departs from this life, we shall not be accused because we have not worked miracles . . .but we shall all certainly have to account to God because we have not wept unceasingly for our sins.”
This view of the importance of tears may seem paradoxical, scandalous or simply unnecessary to many in our day. Yet, such tears are merely the fruit of the grace already acquired in baptism and have been described as “the infallible sign that the heart has been overwhelmed by the love of God . . . These charismatic tears, which are the consummation of repentance are at the same time the first fruits of infinite joy: ‘Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.’ Tears purify our nature, for repentance is not merely our effort, our anguish, but it is also the resplendent gift of the Holy Spirit, penetrating and transforming our hearts” (Ibid., 173).
Obsessive guilt or scrupulosity only leads to hopelessness and despair, but true compunction and the cleansing tears that accompany it are a true gift of God meant to lead us back to Him and the embrace of His love. Indeed it has been described as the most precious thing on earth:
“There is an old legend according to which God said to one of His angels: ‘Go down to earth and bring back the most precious thing in the world.’ One angel brought a drop of blood back from a person who had sacrificed his life to save another: God said, ‘Indeed, O Angel, this is precious in my sight, but it is not the most precious thing in the world.’ Another angel caught the last breath of a nurse who died from a dread disease she contracted in nursing others to health. God smiled at the angel and said, “Indeed, O Angel, sacrifice in behalf of others is very precious in my sight, but it is not the most precious thing in the world.’ Finally one angel captured and brought a small vial containing the tear of a sinner who had repented and returned to God. God beamed upon the angel as He said: “Indeed, O Angel, you have brought me the most precious thing in the world - the tear of repentance which opens the gates in heaven.”
Such is what we hear from the Our Lord Himself when he taught, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” God secretly brings joy and consolation to those who in their heart of hearts are repentant and weep for their sins and all of heaven itself rejoices over the return of even one who was lost.