Earlier this month, the Church celebrated the optional memorial of St. Ephrem, deacon and Doctor of the Church. I was scheduled to celebrate the early Mass with the Dominican Sisters that day and had already prepared a little homily on the first reading, but a few minutes before Mass, I read the blurb in the Magnificat magazine to learn a little something about St. Ephrem, as I couldn’t remember anything about him. Here’s what I found: “A deeply sensitive man, Ephrem was said to weep almost constantly.” Yikes.
Ephrem was a fourth-century saint, and maybe it was more acceptable for a Christian man to be known as “deeply sensitive” and to cry a lot in those days, but I couldn’t help but think about how such a man might be perceived today. Would such a weeper be deemed effeminate? Would people call him a wuss? Would anyone take him seriously? But then I thought more about it. I thought about the Psalmist who reported that all night long tears drenched his bed and his couch was soaked with weeping (Ps. 6:6). I thought about Jesus Christ, true God and true man, who cried at the death of his friend Lazarus and over the fate of Jerusalem (John 11:35; Luke 19:41). I thought about St. Augustine, who cries and groans throughout the Confessions, especially in that garden outside Milan just before his tolle lege moment: “When deep reflection had dredged out of the secret recesses of my soul all my misery and heaped it up in full view of my heart, there arose a mighty storm, bringing with it a mighty downpour of tears” (Confessions 8.12). And I thought about St. Thomas Aquinas, who insisted that tears have a way of relieving pain. He wrote that “a hurtful thing hurts yet more if we keep it shut up . . . whereas if it is allowed to escape . . . the inward sorrow is lessened,” meaning that, in a most human way, sorrow leaves the body through tears (ST 1-2.38.2). Moreover, St. Thomas noted that “tears and groans are actions befitting to a man who is in sorrow or pain; and consequently, they become pleasant to him” (ST 1-2.38.2). In other words, it feels good to cry. Even Thomas Aquinas thinks so.
So how did we get to the point we are at today, when many Christian men have become embarrassed by their tears? (I’m sure someone reading this knows the actual history, so perhaps you can offer some answers in the comment section.) I’m not sure how we got here, but I am sure that it is a real problem, and it needs a remedy. Despite the taboo against men crying, some of the most profoundly transformational moments of my life—whether on retreat, in spiritual direction or confession, or in sharing my life with a good friend—were accompanied by tears. Lots of them. And I would be willing to bet that most priests who are reasonably healthy would say the same; maybe not all, but many of them. After all, there is a long and rich tradition of Catholic men weeping, and those tears have been a tremendous gift to the Church.