The fullness of prayer is the gift of tears.
St. Isaac the Syrian
Growth in prayer comes through discipline and routine and the recitation of fixed prayers. This recitation of fixed prayers, hymns and psalms is often referred to generally as psalmody or one’s rule or office of prayer. Learning to attend to psalmody can bring an experience of “sweetness.” Sweetness in prayer is the term used by St. Isaac (and many other Orthodox spiritual writers) to describe peaceful joy and communion with God in prayer–or at least that is what I think he means by sweetness.
However, psalmody is not the end, it is the means. Psalmody is a training ground, a place where we can learn to concentrate our attention by paying attention to our thoughts in prayer. More specifically, in psalmody we attend to thoughts and learn to control them, forcing ourselves to attend to what is true, pure, good and beautiful emerging from our hearts as we reflect on the words of the prayers and psalms. In psalmody we also learn to attend to compunction, to feel the pain (literally, the puncture) of our heart. This pain is the mother of the pure prayer that emerges from undistracted thoughts–what St. Isaac calls “unwandering concentrated prayer.” When this feeling overcomes us we can no longer say prayers because this unwandering concentrated prayer is the prayer that overtakes prayers.
St. Isaac says, “When prayer gives you her hand she will take the place of your office.”
Compunction is the pain of heart, or the broken and contrite heart, that God does not despise. Sometime, however, we wonder: is the pain of heart that I am experiencing godly compunction? Are the tears the “gift of tears” that the holy Fathers and Mothers talk about? Certainly there is such a thing as selfish tears, tears of self pity and anger. There are also tears of laughter and sentimentality. In my experience, it is usually easy to identify selfish tears. What I cannot identify in my own experience are tears that are godly, that are a gift given by God and offered to God as prayer.
Tears shed in confession, for example, are they holy tears? My heart and mind is so mixed. I cannot tell where in myself the tears are coming from. Do they come from my anger with myself for my lack of self control? Do they come from my shame and embarrassment? Do they come from a sadness that I have broken God’s commands and alienated myself from Him? I don’t know. I have stopped trying to figure it out. Whenever I feel compunction, pain of heart, and that pain leads to tears, I offer the tears to God as prayer. Sure it is impure prayer. All of my prayer is impure. There is nothing pure in me. Yet all I have to offer God is the mixed mess that I am.
St. Isaac says that the fullness of prayer is the gift of tears. I don’t know if I have ever experienced the gift of tears. I do know that I have often experienced pain in my heart–pain at the brokenness of the world, of myself, of those I love. And sometimes, though not often for me, that pain leads to tears–and even if no actual tears appear, I often feel as if I should be crying. When I feel this way I can only offer this feeling, this sadness, this what I think is compunction, to God: “God you see! God you know!”
When I am feeling this compunction, I cannot say prayers. I cannot read. I can only sit or stand in pained silence with no thoughts at all, just an overwhelming sense of sadness that is sometimes, but not often, slowly overcome by hope. Most often the prayerful experience of compunction leaves as my thoughts distract me–almost always thoughts of how I can or should or might “fix” things. The pain remains, but somehow the prayer is gone. That’s when I have to return to the prayers, to psalmody and reading.
When reading the spiritual advice of saints, I often get the sense that I am miles away from what they are talking about, that the experiences of my heart are nothing like what they describe. Yet other times I recognize something that is familiar. Not the same, but familiar. It is like saying that you know someone. Having met someone briefly once, you can honestly say that you know that person–you can identify her, you know her name. However, a lifetime of intimacy is still not enough to really get to know someone–to know as one is known, to know as God knows us. I think knowing God through prayer and the inner life is similar. One can read the words of St. Isaac, someone who knows God well, and recognize certain features, certain characteristics of what he is talking about. What knowledge of God I possess is cursory, fleeting, and very shallow–like the scent memory of a beautiful rose that walked past last spring. And yet it is real. And it is enough, enough to keep me seeking, enough to recognize in the words of St. Isaac and of other Saints descriptions of that same Rose, and to trust their advice, to let them guide me again toward that garden.
Whether the pain I feel in my heart is real spiritual compunction or not, I do not know. Whether the few tears I shed are due to a genuine gift I tears, I doubt. And yet, my experience has the faint fragrance of something St. Isaac is speaking about. And if all I have to offer God is something that smells faintly like what St. Isaac speaks of (even if it is also mixed with a whole lot of what smells putrid), so be it. It is what I have. It is what I am. And in the end, that is all any of us have to offer God: ourselves.