Friday, December 28, 2018

the sacred wisdom of our tears...

For the past week, this quote from Frederick Buechner has been popping in and out of my thoughts:


YOU NEVER KNOW what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you've never seen before. A pair of somebody's old shoes can do it. Almost any movie made before the great sadness that came over the world after the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.
- Originally published in Whistling in the Dark


For the longest time, my tears have been an authentic spiritual guide although it took me decades to trust them. My earliest recollection that something holy was happening came about in second grade during a music appreciation series.  Our music teacher would play an important classical composition each afternoon. Before and after each song, she would tell us some of the background and history, too. For the rest of the week we would listen to it after lunch break. This is where I was introduced to "The William Tell Overture," "Flight of the Bumblebee," "Moonlight Sonata," "Danse Macabre" and others. What I recall is that I was moved to tears of joy while hearing "Scheherazade" over the course of one week. With my head on my desk and my eyes closed, I was transported to another realm of beauty and gentleness that still seems to be wrapped in a veil of turquoise. Apparently I didn't realize I was weeping until one day my teacher put her hand on my shoulder and whispered, "Jimmy, is everything alright?" It took a few seconds to come down from this rapture and re-enter this world. Drifting back into the third grade I realized I was wiping tears away from my dream-like fog. I smiled up at her an nodded silently.

Something similar happened later that year while visiting my grandparents over spring break. Aunt Donna, a mere five years older than me, loved "American Bandstand." When "The Stroll" by The Diamonds came on, she taught me how to do it in their living room - and I was full to overflowing again. During that same visit she told me about racial segregation while traveling in the Deep South. "Do you know that Negroes can't drink from the same water fountain as white people in Oklahoma?" she asked one night when we were supposed to be asleep. I had no idea what she was talking about so she explained a bit of the early Civil Rights movement to me - American apartheid - although she didn't use those words. "Can you imagine what that might feel like?" she asked in the darkness - and I was crying again - this time tears of sadness. Whodathunk that Rimsky-Korsacov, Rosa Parks and Doo Wop line dancing would be portals to the sacred?

My maternal grandfather died the next year. My aunts and grandma gathered at our house through the night and I felt waves of sorrow wash over us all. I had no idea what was actually happening, just that a heavy stillness hung over everyone in the morning. I wanted to cry but didn't know why. My dad kept me home from school that day - and stayed home from work, too. After mom, grandma and my aunts left for the funeral parlor, we walked and walked through the afternoon and he told me a little about death. We both cried at different times. It was my first encounter with deep loss and it ached from the inside out. The finality of death hurt like hell. At the same time, my father shared a level of tenderness with me in those shared tears that has lasted beyond his own death. Indeed, despite all our future battles - and there were many - we struck a bond that day that continues to live beyond the grave.

Looking backwards, the list of holy tears includes: JFK's assassination; the first time I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan; listening to MLK on TV during the March on Washington; Peter, Paul and Mary's version of "Blowin' in the Wind;" playing "Gimme Shelter" with my high school band; falling in love; breaking up; seeing the funerals of MLK and RFK on television; getting married; getting divorced; the births of my daughters; the joy of new love and commitment; getting married again; the anguish of saying good bye to loved ones in death; watching my daughter dance to "Simple Gifts;" listening to my daughter play the viola in concerts; walking in the woods; playing with our dogs; worship at St. John the Divine; singing Christmas carols in St. Petersburg; my first Easter vigil; singing carols at midnight on Christmas; the birth of my grandchildren; and on and on and on. For the longest time, I was embarrassed that these tears flowed so often. Thankfully a retreat leader in Cleveland said to me, "You are full to over-flowing with joy and grief. Let them come, ok? They are God's gift to you." It took decades before I could let go of the shame of these tears but now know that they are one of my connections to the sacred.

This past week was filled with tears and I was so blessed by them all. Walking and wandering in Ottawa with Di in the snow on the Winter Solstice made the city streets holy ground. Singing Christmas carols in community with my friends at L'Arche Ottawa gave birth to Jesus again. Driving from Ottawa to Brooklyn with the car radio tuned to "the sounds of the holidays" brought on the water works when John Lennon sang, "So This Is Christmas/ War is Over." Sitting next to Louie at St. Paul's in NYC before the Christmas Eve liturgy overwhelmed me with gratitude as did walking with him on Boxing Day. And holding Anna. And feasting with our extended family. And even picking up our wacky dog, Lucie, last night at journey's end. Buechner was spot on when he observed:

Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next. 

On this fourth day of Christmas I return thanks for the blessing of all these tears - and those still to come.

Christmas Pageant at L'Arche Ottawa

After wandering through Ottawa on the Winter Solstice

Christmas Eve pageant at St. Paul's NYC

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