Repentance is the first act of a
soul towards being a true Christian soul. And the prayer of
compunction or prayer with tears is the infallible sign of true
repentance. This is often referred to as the gift of tears.
But not every shedding of tears is
compunction; in fact, it is not easy to label one's tears as
compunction. St. John Climacus describes this experience as
"joyful sorrow" or like honey in a comb: the prayer of
compunction is not devoid of joy and happiness.
The prayer of compunction is a
divine charism, not just the fruit of human striving; compunction is
properly a gift from God. Man sheds tears for many reasons; let us
see the different kinds of tears.
The basic distinction is between
tears that are simply from our own efforts and those that come as a
gift from God; between ordinary, natural tears and "spiritual
Firstly, there is the
contra-natural tears; they are unnatural to man and come from
learned vices like vainglory and a life of indulgence, i.e.
licentiousness. These tears come from frustration, anger, jealousy
or self-pity, expression of the fallen self. Such tears are
spiritually injurious. Then there is the natural tears, the result
of spontaneous human feelings, like tears for a beloved departed;
this can be good or bad.
It is difficult to distinguish
between this second and the third, between natural and spiritual
tears; though it is possible for natural tears to gradually progress
to spiritual tears. The gift of tears can only be properly applied
to spiritual tears.
Spiritual tears, though an event
within the soul, is expressed through the body and its physical
senses. Though it may seem rash to say so, the prayer with tears is
greater than baptism in that adult sins committed after baptism can
only be forgiven this way.
The prayer of compunction is part
of repentance; in fact, it is a sure sign of repentance. Without it,
repentance is doubtful. And these tears are the consequence, not
merely of sorrow for sins, but an expression of the joy at our
reconciliation. The Prodigal son wept for his sins and for joy for
having returned home.
St. Isaias the Syrian states that,
as the child sheds tears on first coming into the world, the
Christian sheds tears on first entering into the spiritual world.
Tears, however, are not esential in
spirituality; after all, God looks not at the outward tears, but at
the inward struggle of the heart. The desolation that one feels at
one's lack of tears is more than enough to substitute for tears. The
prayer of tears is a charism, a gift conferred only on a few; many
other gifts can take its place as signs of true repentance.
St. John Climacus