In the Academy Award-winning animated film Spirited Away, a little girl gets lost in an abandoned theme park. She is befriended by a boy who gives her a cake that he says will give her back her strength. When she eats it, she starts crying.
There is strength in tears. We weep with gratitude over all the amazing gifts from God that come our way. We cry when we share moments of great elation with others. Tears enable us to get in touch with our deepest feelings. They help us express our grief at endings and the loss of those who are precious to us.
Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. He also wept over the city of Jerusalem and in our time, we weep over Jerusalem and Baghdad and Kabul and the refugee cities in Palestine and the Sudan and elsewhere. A Yiddish proverb says, "What soap is for the baby, tears are for the soul."
The early Christian desert fathers and mothers had the highest regard for what they called "the gift of tears." According to Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, these drops "are like the breaking of the waters of the womb before the birth of a child." That's a wonderful way to describe the connection between pain and joy!
Tears are a gift of grace from God, and their fruit is always joy. Weeping arises from the heart and signifies an open and softened heart. Perhaps that is why so many people are embarrassed to cry; they do not want to reveal their vulnerability. Yet many of us have felt the rich communal dimensions of crying with others. Think of the great global funerals of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana where millions around the world were united in a common experience of grief.
The religious traditions honor the gift of tears and have found ways to ritualize it. During the Passover Seder, when Jews remember their escape from Egypt, they bring salt water to their lips to symbolize the tears of bondage. In ancient times, when a person died, mourners put their tears in bottles and sometimes even wore them around their necks. Over the ages, the weeping of tears has been a sign of the mystical experiences of saints and repentant sinners. These transcendent moments go beyond what the mind can comprehend; tears are a response of the heart.
We like to think of tears as sacraments of love. Because we also believe that crying is a spiritual experience that benefits from practice, we appreciate a good movie that makes us cry. It draws out our deep feelings of connection with others — sometimes in their suffering, pain, and isolation, and other times in their joy and celebration.
Recently we were moved to tears by a young man who is reunited with his horse after a long and painful separation; by the African-American maids in The Help whose stories in a book give them a chance to speak truth to power and ignorance; by the touching father and son reconciliation at a Grateful Dead concert in The Music Never Stopped; by the courageous band of French Catholic priests gathering around their table just before their probable death at the hands of terrorists in Algeria; by the patient and creative efforts of a group of people who finally find a prosthetic tail for a badly injured dolphin; and by the efforts of a little girl to communicate with her dead father in The Tree.
Theaters and homes become sacred places when they provide us access to the precious gift of tears. Crying at the movies isn't giving in to sentimental feelings or emotional binging; it can be much more meaningful than that. All of the movies from 2011 mentioned above enabled us to do the inner work that is the essence of spirituality in this media-dominated age. For practicing the gift of tears not only draws us closer to others, it signals our gratitude to God for giving us the primal emotions that come from the heart.