[L]et us acquire the pure and guileless tears that come with the remembrance that we must die. There is nothing false in these, no sop to self-esteem. Rather do they purify us, lead us on in love of God, wash away our sins and drain away our passions.
~ St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 7
Given the morbid nature of the practice, it is refreshing to see St. John Climacus connect tears and sadness with meditation on one’s mortality. To assert that we ought not grieve for death, pace the Stoics, would be inhuman indeed.
Once we admit this natural connection between our mortality and grief, we can make sense of the fathers’ glorification of tears and contrition. “When we die,” writes St. John Climacus,
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.
Our entire existence is anti-naturally marked with corruption. We are, as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus put it, “born toward dying.” And no theology can change that; no mystical contemplation can escape it.
St. John Climacus even makes theology and mourning antithetical: “Theology and mourning do not go together, for the one dissipates the other.” There is not, however, an anti-intellectualism at work here. The cruel and pervasive fact of death can only irrationally be ignored, which is why he writes, “Tears are actually the product of thought, and the father of thought is a rational mind.”
He points out, rather, the absurdity of a purely academic theology that would not give due attention to the thought of death. This accusation, then, cannot be leveled against the Easter proclamation: “Christ is risen!” Rather, it is true theology, for it is an invitation to celebration, communion, devotion, thanksgiving—all precisely in the face of death. Pascha (Easter) would be meaningless without death, just as every valiant tale of fantasy would be incomplete apart from a vanquished dragon (and what else, we should ask, are such dragons meant to be?).
This mourning so glorified by the saints is not, however, the same thing as depression and despair. In fact, it is even paradoxically joyful: “The man wearing blessed, God-given mourning like a wedding garment gets to know the spiritual laughter of the soul.” He continues, “[I]nward joy and gladness mingle with what we call mourning and grief, like honey in a comb.”
Such rational, joyful mourning impresses upon us a sober, austere disposition, but that ought not to be mistaken for a hopeless form of depression. While we heed Christ’s warning: “Woe to you who laugh now!” (Luke 6:25) we nevertheless experience “spiritual laughter of the soul.”
These tears, to St. John Climacus, affect the transition from fearing what we ought to loving what we ought: “Tears over our death produce fear, but when fear begets fearlessness, what a joy comes dawning! When joy is without interruption, holy love comes blossoming forth.”
But what is this mourning like? How can we understand the experience? “Mourning … is the typical pain of a soul on fire.” Burned by the cruelty, confusion, and complication of the world, the pain of our soul communicates its anguish to our body in the form of tears, in surrendering our own efforts to fix what was broken.
Helpfully, St. John emphasizes that this looks different for different people:
Regarding our tears, as in everything else about us, the good and just Judge will certainly make allowances for our natural abilities. 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.
And, as we have seen, when this mourning is not hopeless, when we are able to stare down the gaping jaws of death and shout back defiantly, “Christ is risen!”—then we become aflame with “holy love.” Then we see that, so often, death itself is born of the fear of death. How many more mistakes do we make out of fear of losing what we cannot hold on to, concealing what cannot be hidden, denial of the deaths we’ve suffered and are suffering? Indeed, the solution, resurrection, requires that we ourselves die, just as we do in baptism: “Do you not know,” asks St. Paul, “that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3)
Tears, the fathers teach, are like a second baptism, continually cleansing us, purging us of all the transient things we hold too tightly. Now we die daily, but we also are called to walk in newness of life. St. John Climacus writes, “[T]here will be no tears after the resurrection when sin will be abolished, when pain, sorrow, and lamentation will have taken flight.” Inasmuch as we foretaste the resurrection now in the sacramental life of the Church, our sadness cannot but be tinged with joy; the light cannot but reflect from our tears.
With a soul on fire, our icy hearts melt and stream down our faces, and through our suffering, they like gold purged of every impurity are transfigured into bearers of true joy. All of the effort, vulnerability, and nakedness before God this requires, proves to be nothing to fear, no source of shame. Then there is no dissonance between what we are and what we should be, nor between our self-conception and reality. Then we live, even now, a resurrected life, where tears of mourning are turned to joy.