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Tears and Prayer

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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About Charlie McKinney

Charlie McKinney is the Publisher of Sophia Institute Press and President of Sophia Institute for Teachers,,, and Charlie is a convert to the Catholic Faith and is a regular guest on Catholic radio and television. He and his wife have four children and they reside in New Hampshire.

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  • Patricia

    Thank you for this drink of cold water on a hot day…..words which need to be said, but ate silenced in today’s up-side- down -world. Dedication of the heart to God is the universal call to holiness for each person, not just those in religious life. This is so very true for all those who are engaging in prayer- dedication of the heart is the important factor, not the rote saying of the words. Often the rosary is “motorized” rather than medatitive. Prayer is the mutual conversation with God which must fully engage the heart and mind, body and soul of one who has ordered their life to God.
    “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.”
    Thank you for these beautiful words conveying such a faithful message.

  • The Shepherd’s Daughter

    Great article. I have many times when I think of how much I love the Lord and He in return that I just let the tears fall. I read about a Chinese proverb, “When the heart is full, the eyes overflow.” When I read of the sufferings of others whether here in our country or around the world and my heart is filled with compassion I just let the tears flow. Even if there is nothing I can do for them I feel the tears have made more room in my heart to continue loving my fellow man. I do not try and hide or hold back my tears as I feel it’s a cleansing and a release, a release of lifting the burdens or pain of others I may have taken on. Everyday I try and work on of not being of the world as I see it can be cold and callous. Being in love with the Lord keeps me warm and compassionate. So, I keep plenty of tissues around!!

  • Shandra Emrich

    I find the gift of tears happens frequently during this season of year and often during Stations of the Cross. It embarrasses my sons, even though I hide it as best I can! On a humorous note, I think it must be easier to consider tears a “gift” if you are a religious and don’t wear makeup!

    • LizEst

      LOL! Not all lay people wear makeup.

      • Judy Silhan

        And I am one such person, thankfully. Shortly after becoming a student at Avila, and learning of the beauty of prayer with the Liturgy of the Hours, the tears came in torrents each time I attended Mass, spoke to anyone regarding even issues remotely having to do with faith, or watched something spiritual on TV. As I was new to prayer, and had never heard of the gift of tears, I was very unnerved by the emotional state I found myself in, I contacted Dr. Lilles, at the time, my first professor at the Institute, who assured me that all was ok, and that the tears were, indeed, a gift from our Lord, as He bestowed on many of the saints.
        So, yes, Liz, being a lay person who wears little makeup, at times is advantageous in pursuing one’s interior life.

  • DianeVa

    I love this book by Dr Lilles and this teaching on the gift of tears. After my conversion the woman who I called my spiritual mentor first told me about the gift of tears because it seems I was always crying whether it be during Mass or in prayer for both the pain and sorrow I had caused Jesus and the mercy I had received from the Father. She told me about St Teresa having the gift of tears and ever since I felt a connection with St Teresa. I battle sometime thinking I am “nuts” with how easy I shed tears during prayer and Mass, but Dr Lilles with this book has calmed my fears that it is a grace that purifies and draws me closer and deeper to union with God.

  • LizEst

    I would say that it is an infused experience i.e. an experience which is not under our control, an experience which God initiates.

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