Vale of Tears (Lent 7)

At some point I had to accept that my emotions were not to be trusted—that even the great upwelling of heartache and love that demanded resolution by some dramatic turn toward God was more to be questioned than acceded to. Was I feeling the stirring of the Spirit, or was I just particularly susceptible to the music we were listening to? What I found powerful in the moment of those feelings was the way the act (or performance) of coming clean, making yourself vulnerable, reducing yourself to a heap of contrition, could generate sympathy, an arm around the back, and a feeling that you might start again. That was the promise of our variety of Christianity, the opportunity to start over, forgiven and redeemed, and I found it addictive. What do we want in the world more than the chance to be transformed into something better?

As I understood it, you needed to give your life over to Christ only once to make it stick. Like marriage, it was a lifelong promise, in effect even when the going got dull. I made that commitment early on, before I was 10, I suspect. I remember I was at my bedside, with one or both of my parents on hand. After I prayed on my own behalf, we prayed together And then my parents told me that while I felt good right now, I should expect the shine to wear off, difficulties to continue, doubts to creep in. My life would not be magically straightened out, but I would have someone to turn to in all those moments when it got twisted. I remember feeling especially grown up in how I took that news, though I’m sure I was also disappointed. I desperately wanted a lot of my problems to vanish. But I was pleased that my parents trusted me to bear the truth, and proud that I’d pleased them, as I lived to do.

My disappointment grew when, later, I saw my first proper altar call. I don’t think it was at a Billy Graham crusade, though it’s possible it was (my family were fans). But the emotions there were through the roof, and watching people awash in tears stumbling down the aisles to give themselves over, I felt I’d perhaps wasted my conversion by having it so early and so quietly.

Fortunately there were plenty of opportunities to renew my commitment, to reaffirm my faith—perhaps I’d drifted a bit, let material desires interpose between Jesus and myself; perhaps I had just had an unusually heavy load of sinful thoughts and needed to dump them—and these invited the same kind of spiritual carwash, same public catharsis. I knelt at the rail of our church in tears more than once while my father put his hands on my head and prayed over me, a weird kind of parallel and public intimacy to our relationship at home, which was already emotionally close if complicated.

None of these experiences felt false to me at the time, though. They were important rituals, reminders of what mattered to me, re-encounters with the Spirit. Even the last time it happened—in high school, at a Christian youth retreat in Myrtle Beach—it felt, in the moment, authentic and overwhelming. We were holed up there for a weekend, most of it in a hotel conference room where we sat on the floor—in circles, leaning up against one another, indulging every opportunity we got to make physical contact with one another. Three or four buzz-cut guys just out of college played camp songs on acoustic guitars and we all sang along from xeroxed songbooks, an inexplicable feeling of heartache and desire slowly building as the day wore on. Kids started getting emotional. Beautiful girls started crying and leaning heavily on the beautiful boys who always happened to be right there to cry and lean on them. It was maddening, this mix of lust and chaste sincerity, the mix of innocuous music and spiritual purge, and soon enough I too was in tears, grieving for my sins, wanting also to be transformed, healed, given over to God, and if possible also to Chrissy in her soccer shorts and Sambas a few yards away. Instead I was scooped up by a warm-hearted counselor, ended up swaying tearfully in an arm-in-arm circle of people singing along to some sad camp song.

What shook me days later, when I thought back on it, was not how sexual longing had insinuated itself into even my spiritual experiences—sexual longing infects everything teenagers do. I knew how to recognize and quarantine it intellectually if not physically. What struck me instead was how much it was just music that led to my meltdown. In retrospect it had been so predictable, so clearly the way the day was programmed to work. I was embarrassed at how mechanistic it was, how completely I had fallen for it.

I grew up in a family in which crying was neither unusual nor discouraged. I was never told that boys shouldn’t cry, though crying out of pain or frustration was not of the same order as crying out of love or from some encounter with the profound—beauty or remorse, or instance. Tears signified depth. In the context of church, they suggested some encounter with holiness, the divine. 

We think of tears as significant, emphatic, unambiguous acts of expression—“crocodile tears” and sorry, officer, I had no idea! tears notwithstanding. The meaning they convey is rooted in the body, produced in an act of total engagement. Like physical pain, a foot against a stone, it seems irrefutable. A body in distress is not a body to be argued with. It’s making its position clear; it’s begging for mercy, for a reprieve from the machinations of reason, the compromises of dialogue. To cry in a room full of people is a kind of speech but also a way of putting yourself beyond speech, to move entirely into the realm of the extra-verbal. It requests a physical response rather than a linguistic one.

Yet the memory of my tears at that retreat is shaded by feelings of shame and betrayal. In retrospect, I felt like I’d been manipulated—and that I had willingly assented to being manipulated. It cast a shadow back over all kinds of ecstatic experiences I had had prior to that, and it cast a shadow forward, too. I began thinking of thoughts I had listening to music as akin to thoughts I had high–suspect, even if they were compelling. 

If you aren’t swayed by reason and can’t trust the response of your body, what do you know, and how?

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