Published April 22, 2004
The tears are burning my eyes and smearing my mascara, transforming me into a raccoon lady. As always, my tears surprise me, springing up suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, reminding me that some secret part of my heart is defrosting more and more lately.
We are at St. John Chrysostom Melkite Church and what has struck me tonight are the gut-wrenching and astonishingly loud thudding sounds of the nails, as Father John Azar, re-enacting the crucifixion, plunges the metal spikes into the wooden cross.
The sounds thundering throughout the small candlelit church are accompanied by snuffling and muffled sobs all around me.
As I grab my handkerchief, I remember reading about something called the gift of tears, a supernatural weeping that St. Isaac of Nineveh compared to the unexpected tears of wonder and joy often shed when you witness the birth of a baby.
Truth to tell, I don’t know if my tears have a supernatural undertone, but I do know that over the years, during my rather convoluted faith journey, buckets of warm and salty water have streamed from my eyes.
When I returned to Roman Catholicism after many years as a smug person who prided herself on believing in nothing, I went to confession during a rather large penance service, during which hordes of people were lined up, no doubt hoping to dash in and out of confession in a reasonable time.
It was probably not a good night for someone like me to drag her weary body in, carrying a huge bag of sins, but I was too ignorant to realize this.
Fortunately, the priest, whom I’d never met before, was a patient and infinitely compassionate man. Even though he knew many others were lined up waiting their turn, he let me unburden myself, while hot rivulets of tears poured from my eyes and splashed down my cheeks.
I carried with me the pent-up pains and regrets and wrongdoings of so many years, and placed my offering at the feet of the Lord. I never learned the priest’s name, but I believe he was Nigerian—and I am certain he was Christ for me that night.
As I wept, he reminded me that Jesus’ heart is so big that he even forgave the men who had killed him—and he certainly would forgive me too.
The next time the tears hit in church was on Good Friday a few years after that. I was sitting in the choir at St. Thomas More next to Belle, a sweet lady with a lovely alto voice and a gigantic heart, while Jeanne Ann, a truly astonishing soprano, was singing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”
Suddenly, I had an utterly clear vision of Jesus on the cross, weeping and bleeding—and felt in the depths of my being a devastating sense of how lonely he must have felt that day, and how betrayed and abandoned.
Although it embarrassed me, there was no way to stop the river. I began sobbing, and dear Belle put her arms around me and let me weep.
A few weeks later, I learned I had breast cancer, and I wondered if my tears that night might have been a divine reminder that Christ walks beside us even in the darkest of times.
That summer, after radiation therapy treatments, I was driving down Ponce de Leon Boulevard. on a sweltering day and felt a strong attraction to the lovely church that sat up on the hill, which I knew was called St. John Chrysostom Melkite Church.
I knew the church was Catholic, and also sensed that someone bigger than me was urging me to stop the car and knock on the door.
I am very glad I obeyed the little voice in my head because Father John welcomed me warmly and heard my confession, giving me an opportunity to experience for the first time the Eastern Catholic version of confession, which is extremely powerful and moving.
We stood before the altar in the sight of the icon of Jesus watching us calmly, and the tears just flowed and flowed. My problem then was that I was losing sight of Christ walking beside me during my illness; instead, it seemed he was very far away.
Father John stood for Christ that day, reminding me of God’s infinite love and mercy, and asking Him to bless His daughter. That’s me, I thought, as I drove back home, my heart so much lighter. What a joy and a gift: I am actually God’s daughter.
And now here I am, nearly four years later, back at this blessedly beautiful church, having come here seeking spiritual solace, and cherishing the ancient rituals, the icons and the chanting, the sense of eternity standing still during the Divine Liturgy.
Here tonight is a father gently leading his little boy toward the altar, a mother tending to a shy girl who wants to do everything right, a grandmother sitting close to her grandchildren, a lady in the choir with an awesome voice who is singing in her native tongue.
Although I don’t understand the words, her tone is moving and tender, and it is clear she is talking to Jesus.
I have to admit that some of my weeping these days arises from my grief at leaving my old church community, where I have worshipped for over ten years. Still, little by little, the tears are starting to feel different.
I remind myself that the word conversion, which means turning toward, suggests movement, which means that the transformation of our hearts is never static.
We keep turning our faces closer and closer to God’s—and we continue moving in his direction all our lives.
Right now, for this moment, for this evening, this is where God has called my husband and me. As for tomorrow, it remains a mystery.
And tonight, as we watch a tiny boy with dark hair and eyes and a slightly worried expression trying to imitate his father’s humble bowing before the cross, I turn to my beloved husband with tears stinging my eyes, so touched by the boy’s innocence.
I am so much reminded that Jesus was once a little boy too. And I can’t help but wonder what made him cry.
Maybe the same thing that brings tears to our eyes—the loss of parents and friends, a sense of being different from others, and later, the realization that you cannot, no matter how hard you try, escape suffering.
When I picture the little boy Jesus, looking so much like this brown-eyed child, trying to do what his Father willed, I know what an honor it is to be here tonight.
The tears that run down my cheeks, washing away the last smudges of mascara, bespeak both joy and wonder. This moment truly is a gift.
Lorraine V. Murray writes a bi-weekly column called “Grace Notes” in the Faith and Values section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is the author of two books,“Grace Notes” and “Why Me? Why Now?” She works in the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University. You may e-mail her at email@example.com.