The Gift of Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination of Western Medieval Christianity

By Gutgsell, Jessie | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

The Gift of Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination of Western Medieval Christianity


Gutgsell, Jessie, Anglican Theological Review


Who has lived in this world and not shed a tear? Tears are a universal, ineffable, and complex paralanguage, defined scientifically as "the observable actions that accompany internal states."1 They communicate physical distress, nostalgia, attachment, redemption, release, joy, anger, and so much more, and are thus "vehicles of feelings that go too deep for language." Tears "resist the abstracting intellectual process" and act as "gatekeepers to a level of emotion that, like holiness, eludes a certain range of normalcy." They thus function as a "symbolic vehicle for the full load of the human experience," such that in every religious tradition tears are "richly charged with symbolic meaning and ritual efficacy," serving as forms of intercession, conduits between realms, and part of the practice of meditation and prayer.2

The aim of this paper is to trace how weeping became a more formalized spiritual practice available to all levels of Christian society as the medieval church simultaneously became more ritualized and systematized. I will begin by exploring the historical context of the medieval period, and the sociological and religious conditions that led to the formalization of weeping as a spiritual practice. Then I will compare two seminal writings on tears from the period, The Ladder of Perfection by Walter Hilton and The Dialogue of Catherine of Siena. I will move next to examine the case of Margery Kempe's effusive emotions in comparison to these spiritual guides for weeping. Finally, I will conclude by exploring the progression of weeping as a practice of piety as the Middle Ages drew to a close. I will seek to show that even though the conversation around weeping changed in the medieval period, the universal nature and power of tears, especially within the religious imagination, remains relevant throughout history and even today.

Weeping in the Middle Ages

The medieval period saw an increased focus on weeping as a practice of piety. As E. M. Cioran noted, "The Middle Ages were saturated with tears. Their rivers of tears haven't quite dried up even today, and whoever has an ear for pain can still hear their lamentations."3 Medieval weeping developed from an already existing narrative within the Christian tradition; Christianity and weeping were connected in the Bible, where tears are frequently mentioned.4 Weeping is of course mentioned frequently in the books of the Hebrew scriptures, and the Psalter contains many references to weeping, as a source of sustenance (Psalm 42:4; 80:6; 102:10), a component of prayer (Psalm 6), and an expression of attachment and loss (Psalm 6).5 Jesus includes those "who weep now" in the blessed ones of the Beatitudes (Luke 6:21), and he himself wept over the death of Lazarus (John 11:35). One of the better-known biblical images for pious weeping is that of a woman bathing Jesus' feet with her tears and drying them with her hair (Luke 7:38).

The desert fathers and mothers elaborated on the practice of weeping. Abba Poemen believed that weeping was the only true way into the heart: "Weep! Truly there is no other way than this."6 Abba Arsenius was famous for carving a hole into his chest from continual weeping. Tears, for the desert fathers and mothers, confirmed humans' "readiness to allow [their] fife to fall apart in the dark night of the soul, and [their] willingness to assume new fife in the resurrection of the dead."7 They believed that vulnerability, expressed through weeping, was the "only way toward holiness."8 For them, what was far more important than learning to live was in fact learning to die.9 Tears were a crucial piece in that process of learning how to die.

This was the tradition and the texts that the medieval Christians inherited. The Christians of the Middle Ages in no way created or finished the process of seeing tears as part of the religious imagination. With the Christianization of the Roman emperors and the entire Roman Empire the church became more fully the center of society. …

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