Friday, July 6, 2012

Penthos, Compunction, Tears: A Matter of the Heart

During the early days of my relatively short involvement in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal I remember hearing of people who prayed for the gift of tears. This always sort of baffled me as I never understood the purpose of such a gift. For one I did not understand what exactly folks were weeping for; was it sorry, joy, awe at God's omnipotence, marvel at the beauty of His creation, gratitude for what He has done for us throughout salvation history culminating in the giving of His own Son, etc., etc., etc. Not being a very "weepy" person to begin with, this desire for the gift of tears always confused me.

Fast forward a number of years later and imagine my surprise to discover that the early Fathers of the Christian East - and all subsequent Eastern mystics - have encouraged us to pray for the gift of tears. This gift purifies the soul and softens the hardened heart. But again I have had to ask, why are we shedding tears? What are we weeping over? St. John Climacus provides the answer: "Groanings and sorrows cry out to the Lord. Tears shed from awe and reverence intercede for us; but tears of all-holy love show us that our prayer has been accepted" (from the Ladder of Divine Ascent). So sorrow for our sins leads to weeping. Awe and reverence in the face of Almighty God leads to weeping. And love of God leads to weeping. But the Eastern Fathers seem to emphasize especially weeping out of sorrow for one's sin - which in reality is also a form of weeping out of love for God.

This interior sorrow that may lead to external weeping is called penthose in Greek, and is translated into English as compunction. When we encounter the living God through prayer and through life in Christ by participation in the life of His Church, we realize just how much we fall short of being God's likeness in the world. When faced with total purity, we see more clearly our own impurity. When faced with pure light, we see more clearly our own inner darkness. When faced with the total self-emptying love (kenosis) of Christ, we realize just how completely self-centered and self-loving we are. In short, one of the first effects of a lived relationship with God is to reveal our own sinfulness.

Now I realize that the word "sin" isn't one of the most popular words in our day, even in many Christian circles. No one wants to be told of their own failings and shortcomings. "Pointing fingers" is rude. We are told that we shouldn't "judge others" by calling their actions a sin (which, incidentally is not judging at all. Judging others involves placing ourselves in the position of God when it comes to another's own salvation; i.e. determining whether or not someone is going to hell or heaven). Priests are often afraid to speak of specific sins from the pulpit for fear of offending someone in their congregation.

The sad truth is that we today have a sort of twisted understanding of sin. Most of us today tend to think of sin in the sense of moral transgression: we have failed to keep some aspect of what is often perceived as a rather vague moral law imposed on us by "God the Almighty Judge" for no other real reason than He likes watching us squirm. This was not the original sense of sin. Sin is a falling short or missing the mark. If we, as Christians, truly believe that we were created in the image of God, and are called to strive after His likeness, then we ought to see just how high of a mark we've been given. Being created in the image and after the likeness of God does not mean being endowed with a rational mind and a free will, although that is certainly an aspect of it. Rather, it means that we were created in Christ, and called from the beginning to be Christ-like. Sin, therefore, is not merely a failure to uphold a moral code imposed on us from without. In its fullest and most serious sense, sin is a failure to be what we truly are - God's image - and become what we were created to be - God's likeness.

In realizing the seriousness of sin, therefore, the Fathers saw the necessity of weeping. We weep because we have offended God our Father and Creator, yes, but we weep also because we have failed to live up to the purpose for which we were created. Penthos develops more deeply within us this awareness of the seriousness of our sins, and thus softens our hearts to be more receptive to the transforming grace of God's actions in our lives to convert our hearts. Tears are nothing more or less than the outward expression of penthos/compunction. We needn't weep profusely. St. John Climacus says that saw folks who wept few tears after a great deal of labor, and others who wept profusely with little effort at all: "I judged those toilers more by their toil than by their tears, and I think that God does too." So don't be discouraged if the gift of tears doesn't come right away, or if you don't find yourself with tears flowing down your cheeks like a raging river. Simply pray and develop within yourself compunction.

It is interesting to note that the mystics of the Christian East and West offer us pretty much the same advice for developing within ourselves a deeper awareness of our own sinfulness, which results in a deeper penthos/compunction. First and foremost, daily examination of conscience is absolutely necessary. I remember reading of some saints who did an examination in the morning, another in the afternoon, and another in the evening before retiring to sleep. One saint (I wish I could remember who) recommended simply doing a brief examination around midday and a more in-depth examination in the evening. Reflecting on our day and recognizing our failures will reveal to us not only our sinfulness, but also the areas in our lives that more specifically need conversion. It can be a source of spiritual healing as well as a source of deeper compunction. As they say, recognizing you have a problem is the first step to healing.

Another way to foster inner compunction is to remember our death. We live in a society that does not like to think on death. Our media has created an idol of "eternal youth," and folks are obsessed with products that will help them look and feel young for as long as possible. Personally I've never really understood this mentality. From an early age I've always looked forward to getting old. Perhaps this was because I admired my grandparents greatly and I just wanted to be like them. But I've never really feared the "march of time." Birth, aging, and death were things that I learned to live with on the farm. The idea of being eternally young has always just struck me as very unnatural. But there it is. Our culture doesn't want to admit that each of us will age and eventually die. This has impacted greatly how we Christians live our faith. When we live as though we are not going to die and face the dread judgment seat of Christ, then no action is off limits because we truly have nothing to fear by way of consequences for our actions. Incidentally, we also have nothing to look forward to by way of reward for a life well-lived. Quite honestly, I believe this aversion in our culture towards taking a serious look at death has created a hunger in many Christians for homilies on the "Four Last Things" (death, judgment, heaven, and hell). But that is a conversation for another time.

The final way that we can foster true compunction is simply by moderation in all things. The Fathers speak of moderation in laughter, moderation in dry rationalistic speculation, moderation in talking with others, moderation in food, etc., etc., etc. We today could add moderation in watching television, moderation in our use of the internet, moderation in listening to music, etc. Again, we live in a society that does not want moderation. We want abundance in everything, food, noise, sex, laughter, cars, houses, you name it. But such immoderation leads only to further attachments, great spiritual unease, and a general lack of contentment. Moderation teaches us to rely on God for all things, and to be attached to Him alone.

In short, the goal is not tears or penthos/compunction. These things, as indispensable as they are, point beyond themselves to the infinite love of God, and, paradoxically, lead to a deeper interior joy. One thinks of the great saints such as a Seraphim of Sarov or a Francis of Assisi, both of whom had a very deep penthos over their own sinfulness, and yet were some of the most joyful men the world has ever known. Penthos does not lead to a guilt-complex. Rather, true penthos, like true conversion, leads to a deeper joy-filled life in Christ, lived with the humble recognition that God loves us beyond any measure and sent His Son to die for us, not because we were perfect, but while we were still in sin.

I realize now more and more how much I need this gift of penthos and tears. May heaven consume us!


  1. I see this mentality reflected in the Divine Liturgies I've attended: a mixture of humility, and joy-filled life in Christ, as you so well described.

  2. i think the saint you are thinking of is St. Ignatius of Loyola and the daily Examen prayer

  3. i think the saint you are thinking of is St. Ignatius of Loyola and the daily Examen prayer