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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 tears."

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







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