This chapter on the gift of tears has proved to be one of the most influential in the whole of The Ladder. God, John points out forcefully, created us for laughter, not for tears. Therefore, tears reflect man's fallen state and express his mourning for sin.
Yet, there is more to it than that. Tears can be "sweet" as well as "bitter." Tears that begin by being "painful" become in the course of time "painless"; tears of fear develop into tears of love. John insist that for the penitent, Christian sorrow is constantly interwoven with joy. Tears, like the experience of repentance, spring from a sense not only of our sinfulness, but of God's mercy; there is gladness in them as well as grief. John sums up the point in the composite word charmolypi, apparently of his own invention, signifying "joyful sorrow." The repentant person is like a child who cries, yet smiles in the middle of his tears. Spiritual mourning leads to spiritual laughter; it is a wedding garment, not a funeral robe.
When genuinely spiritual, tears are a renewal of baptism and even John says, "greater than baptism itself, though it may seem rash to say so. Baptism washes off those evils that were previously within us, whereas the sins committed after baptism are washed away by tears. The baptism received by us as children we have all defiled, but we cleanse it anew with our tears. If God in His love for the human race had not given us tears, those being saved would be few indeed and hard to find."
Here the positive character of spiritual tears is manifest. Baptism is renunciation of sin, but it also in a positive sense rebirth, resurrection, entry into new life. The same is true of the "joyful sorrow" of supranatural tears: negatively it involves mourning for our sins, but positively it expresses joy at our reconciliation.
While recognizing the importance of tears in the spiritual life, John remains cautious about saying that they are essential. We should allow, he urges, for differences in temperament: some shed tears with the utmost difficulty, "like drops of blood," while others do so "with no trouble at all"; God looks, not at the outward intensity of weeping, but at the inward struggles of our heart. Those who have been granted the gift of tears should on no account imagine themselves superior to those who lack it. "Some are not granted the gift of mourning," but the desolation that they feel at their lack of tears may take the place of the gift itself.
(Taken from the Introduction to The Ladder, pp. 20-27)
1-6 What mourning is and the fruit it produces in the soul.
Mourning which is according to God is a melancholy of the soul, a disposition of an anguished heart that passionately seeks what it thirsts for, and when it fails to attain it, pursues it diligently and follows behind it lamenting bitterly.
Those making some progress in blessed mourning are usually temperate and untalkative. Those who have succeeded in making real progress do not become angry and do not bear grudges. As for the perfect - these are humble, they long for dishonor, they look out for involuntary sufferings, they do not condemn sinners and they are inordinately compassionate.
7-9 The tears that mourning produces and the cleansing that they bring.
The tears that come after baptism are greater than baptism itself, though it may seem rash to say so. Baptism washes off those evils that were previously within us, whereas the sins committed after baptism are washed away by tears. The baptism received by us as children we have all defiled , but we cleanse it anew with our tears. If God in His love for the human race had not given us tears, those being saved would be few indeed and hard to find.
10-16 Such a gift should be fostered, protected and practiced with constancy, but because of its preciousness remain hidden.
He who has the gift of spiritual tears will be able to mourn anywhere. But if it is all outward show, there will be no end to his discussion of places and means. Hidden treasure is more secure than that which is exposed in the marketplace. Ponder this, and apply it to yourself.
Do not imitate those who in burying the dead first lament them - and then go off to get drunk. Rather, be like those prisoners in the mines who are flogged every hour by their warders.
The man who mourns at one time and then goes in for high living and laughter on another occasion is like someone who pelts the dog of sensuality with bread. It looks as if he is driving him off when in fact he is actually encouraging him to stay by him.
17-23 Mourning as the thoughtful reflection upon death and judgement and as lamentation for one's sins. God judges by the toil and struggle one undergoes within himself, not by the amount or frequency of tears.
Think of your lying in bed as an image of the lying in your grave; then you will not sleep so much. When you eat at table, remember the food of worms; then you will not live so highly. When you drink water, remember the thirst of the flames; then you will certainly do violence to your nature.
Let the thought of eternal fire lie down with you in the evening and get up with you in the morning. Then indolence will never overwhelm you when it is time to sing the psalms.
Wear something to encourage you in your mourning. Those who lament the dead wear black. And if you find yourself unable to mourn, then lament that very fact; but if you are able to mourn, be sure to lament that by your sins you have brought yourself down from a condition free from toil to one that is full of labor.
Regarding our tears, as in everything else about us, the good and just Judge will certainly make allowances for our natural attributes. I have seen small teardrops shed like drops of blood, and I have seen floods of tears poured out with no trouble at all. So I judge toilers by their struggles, rather than their tears; and I suspect that God does so too.
24 In this paragraph John tells us that theology and mourning do not go together. This needs some explanation. Mourning is the state of one who finds himself struggling with and held captive by his passions, whereas theology arises from a state of dispassion - or freedom from the passions. Theology as understood by the desert fathers "denotes far more than the learning about God and religious doctrine acquired through academic study. It signifies active and conscious participation in or perception of the realities of the divine world - in other words, the realization of spiritual knowledge. To be a theologian in the full sense, therefore, presupposes the attainment of the state of stillness and dispassion, itself the concomitant of pure and undistracted prayer, and so requires gifts bestowed on but extremely few persons."
Theology and mourning do not go together, for the one dissipates the other. The difference between a theologian and a mourner is that the one sits on a professorial chair while the other passes his days in rags on a dungheap.
25-28 In the following paragraphs John tells us that we must seize the gift of tears when God offers it to us and keep it from the corruption of vainglory. The test of true compunction is freedom from anger and pride and the cessation of wrongdoing.
When the soul grows tearful, weeps, and is filled with tenderness, and all this without having striven for it, then let us run, for the Lord has arrived uninvited and is holding out to us the sponge of loving sorrow, the cool waters of blessed sadness with which to wipe away the record of our sins. Guard these tears like the apple of your eye until they go away, for they have a power greater than anything that comes from our own efforts and our own meditation.
A man misses the true beauty of mourning if he can mourn at will, rather than because he genuinely wants to, or, more accurately, because God wishes him to. The ugly tears of vainglory mingle frequently with mourning which is pleasing to God, as we shall discover by experience whenever we find ourselves mourning and yet doing wrong.
True compunction is pain of soul without any distraction. It offers itself no rest and thinks hourly of death. It stands in wait for the God Who brings comfort, like cool waters, to humble monks. And those gifted with the heart's depth of mourning regard their lives as detestable, painful, and wearing, as a cause of tears and suffering, and they turn away from their body as an enemy.
If we observe anger and pride in those who have the appearance of mourning in a fashion pleasing to God, then such tears will seem contradictory to us. "For what fellowship is there between light and darkness?" (2 Cor. 6:14). True compunction brings consolation while that which is bogus produces self-esteem. Like the fire that consumes the straw, so do real tears consume impurity of body and soul.
29-45 In these paragraphs John discusses the source of tears and what they do for the soul. Not only are they a gift of God which purifies our hearts and drains away our passions, but true tears produce joy within the heart. Mourning gives way to the consolation of being forgiven by and reconciled with God.
God does not demand or desire that someone should mourn out of sorrow of heart, but rather that out of love for Him he should rejoice with the laughter of the soul. Take away sin and then the sorrowful tears that flow from bodily eyes will be superfluous. Why look for a bandage when you are not cut? Adam did not weep before the fall, and there will be no tears after the resurrection when sin will be abolished, when pain, sorrow, and lamentation will have taken flight.
As I ponder the true nature of compunction, I find myself amazed by the way in which inward joy and gladness mingle with what we call mourning and grief, like honey in a comb. There must be a lesson here, and it surely is that compunction is properly a gift from God, so that there is a real pleasure in the soul, since God secretly brings consolation to those who in their heart of hearts are repentant.
46-55 John continues to speak of how sorrow and joy mingle together - how sorrow at the loss or absence of love is transformed into holy joy at its return. To illustrate his point John gives us the following example.
When a baby starts to recognize its father, it is filled with happiness. If the father has to spend time away on business before returning home, it has its fill of joy and sadness - joy at seeing the one it loves, sadness at the fact of having been deprived so long of that same love. Sometimes a mother hides from her baby and is delighted to note how sadly the child goes about looking for her, because this is how she teaches the child to be always attached to her and stirs up the flame of its love for her. He who has ears to hear, let him listen . . .
56-67 At the heart of our mourning, then, is love for God. We weep because we long for God and the love that He alone can provide. According to John, this makes it one of the most important and essential of virtues.
. . . however exalted our style of life may be, we may label it stale and bogus if our heart is still without contrition; for, if I may so express the matter, it is absolutely essential that those who have lapsed after baptism should clean the pitch from their hands with continuous fire of the heart and the oil of God.
When we die, we will not be criticized for having failed to work miracles. We will not be accused of having failed to be theologians or contemplatives. But we will certainly have some explanation to offer to God for not having mourned unceasingly.