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Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination

Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination

by Kimberley Christine Patton (Editor), John Stratton Hawley (Editor)

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What religion does not serve as a theater of tears? Holy Tears addresses this all but universal phenomenon with passion and precision, ranging from Mycenaean Greece up through the tragedy of 9/11. Sixteen authors, including many leading voices in the study of religion, offer essays on specific topics in religious weeping while also considering broader issues


What religion does not serve as a theater of tears? Holy Tears addresses this all but universal phenomenon with passion and precision, ranging from Mycenaean Greece up through the tragedy of 9/11. Sixteen authors, including many leading voices in the study of religion, offer essays on specific topics in religious weeping while also considering broader issues such as gender, memory, physiology, and spontaneity. A comprehensive, elegantly written introduction offers a key to these topics. Given the pervasiveness of its theme, it is remarkable that this book is the first of its kind—and it is long overdue.

The essays ask such questions as: Is religious weeping primal or culturally constructed? Is it universal? Is it spontaneous? Does God ever cry? Is religious weeping altered by sexual or social roles? Is it, perhaps, at once scripted and spontaneous, private and communal? Is it, indeed, divine?

The grief occasioned by 9/11 and violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, and elsewhere offers a poignant context for this fascinating and richly detailed book. Holy Tears concludes with a compelling meditation on the theology of weeping that emerged from pastoral responses to 9/11, as described in the editors' interview with Reverend Betsee Parker, who became head chaplain for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City and leader of the multifaith chaplaincy team at Ground Zero.

The contributors are Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, Amy Bard, Herbert Basser, Santha Bhattacharji, William Chittick, Gary Ebersole, M. David Eckel, John Hawley, Gay Lynch, Jacob Olúpqnà (with Solá Ajíbádé), Betsee Parker, Kimberley Patton, Nehemia Polen, Kay Read, and Kallistos Ware.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A top-notch roster of scholars has produced an exceptional collection of essays, breaking new and fruitful ground in the study of religion. . . . Contributors continually test the far-from-simple relationship between crying and emotion, and carefully probe the complicated meshing of personal history with collective memory."Choice
A top-notch roster of scholars has produced an exceptional collection of essays, breaking new and fruitful ground in the study of religion. . . . Contributors continually test the far-from-simple relationship between crying and emotion, and carefully probe the complicated meshing of personal history with collective memory.

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Princeton University Press
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Holy Tears

Weeping in the Religious Imagination

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-11444-6


Kimberley Christine Patton and John Stratton Hawley

* * *

But though the gates of prayer (sha'are tefillah) are closed, the gates of weeping (sha'are dim'ah) are not closed." Isn't weeping a kind of prayer, a liquid entreaty? Yet it is not prayer, not utterance. Inchoate, messy, "running," a sign of being "overwhelmed" or helpless, even unable to speak ("choked up"), how could tears in this Talmudic passage, from a tradition that so enshrines the oral and written holy word, supersede prayer? How could weeping, born in a matrix of inarticulate despair, beat out praying-in its richly embroidered tapestry of memory, petition, and praise-as a better portal to heaven? In any number of the traditions examined in this cross-cultural, diachronic volume, tears carry not only power but unique power: God is unable to ignore them, and the psalmist is compelled to remind Him of this: Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; keep not silence at my tears.

On Tears in Religious Experience and Mythic Memory

Like all human body fluids, tears, as they flow through the religious imagination, are richlycharged with symbolic meaning and ritual efficacy. The shedding of tears, a physiological function in response to intense emotion or physical pain, has metaphysical importance in religious thought and experience equal to that of other vital fluids that have borne far more intense scholarly scrutiny-the blood of sacrifice, childbirth, and menstruation, for example, or the charged fluids of semen or spit. Among the very earliest expressions of distress in the infant's range, tears remain a profound existential signifier at all stages of human life, particularly in the face of fear, loss, or despair. Crying is a response of the parasympathetic nervous system that helps return the stimulated organism to homeostasis. In much the same fashion rituals often encode tears as a lysis-a release or "unbinding"-of whatever might have exerted an impact on the religious community recently or even in the distant past.

Often tears seem an expression of surrender before the inexorable, but myth and tradition repeatedly point in the opposite direction, stressing the view that weeping can actually transform what had seemed fixed forever. The tears of the flame-born phoenix heal. The tears shed at death's harsh blow can resurrect, reversing even mortality. And often, when nothing else will work in conversation with the implacable gods, tears bridge the abyss between creatures and the source of their destiny. Feeling the Buddha's unbearable absence at the empty throne at Bodh Gaya or in a faded shadow in an Indian cave, the Chinese pilgrim who has journeyed so very far to see even a trace bursts into tears at the sight of the relics, sorrowing at his unworthiness in having been born so many centuries after the Realized One. In response to his weeping prostrations, a radiant image of the Buddha appears, one far more majestic than the evanescent shadow. The pilgrim's tears fall in response to sacred absence, yet create sacred presence. Trickster Coyote, desperately in love with a star, falls back into the center of the highest mountain peak when she screams her refusal to leave the sky; his heartbroken tears fill the hole, creating Crater Lake in Oregon. Emblems of powerlessness, tears nonetheless conjure power, and beyond that, fertility and wholeness. They soften the hard decrees of fate or seasonality by "watering" them. Leaking, rolling, they drip through the contours of human experience, responding to pain or ecstasy and drawing the attention of others to their source.

Tears are not limited to the intrahuman realm; they often play an efficacious or even theurgic role. Weeping can evoke divine response, especially that of compassion or mercy, where none had previously been forthcoming. Human tears provoke divine tears and transport the weeper, or bring rain in time of drought, or express social critiques too harsh and dangerous to say in any other mode. Commenting on the electrifying language of modern Greek lament, the anthropologist Loring Danforth writes that tears are "both water and poison ... the ultimate mediator." They "both facilitate and block communication" and are "able to pass across the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead, the very boundary that they may also create."

In turn, the powerful gods can themselves shed tears. When the God of Israel weeps, as He does in response to human catastrophe in texts ranging from the rabbinic to the Hasidic, a certain ultimacy is implied. In divine weeping, God joins human beings in a mystical "communion-in-suffering" that explodes questions of theodicy and instead both ratifies and transcends mortal grief.

In Memoirs of the Blind, Derrida elevates tears over sight as "the essence of the eye," writing, "The revelatory or apocalyptic blindness, the blindness that reveals the very truth of the eyes, would be gaze veiled by the tears." As well as expressing the distress that comes from the heartbreak of earthly loss, tears shed in a religious context can both produce and represent nonattachment and enlightenment-a sign of a clarified mind, a heightened sensory perception, or an awareness of "the emptiness at the heart of the world." Tears blur the sight of the weeper yet paradoxically open the inner eye, producing a kind of "visionary blindness." Andrew Marvell's words come to life: "Thus let your streams o'erflow your springs, / Till eyes and tears be the same things: / And each the other's difference bears; / These weeping eyes, those seeing tears."

Weeping may act as a conduit between realms, literally "carrying" prayers to the remote reaches of the other world, whether conceived as chthonic or celestial; this is clearly their function in the classical Greek and Aztec funerary fields. They can be necromantic, summoning the "thirsty" dead and in a sense revivifying them for the sake of the living weeper in need of ancestral communion, advice, or intervention. They can be ethical, releasing communal tensions or reinscribing necessary social boundaries. They can be personal and physiological. But in many religious traditions, tears are also cosmological. They participate in the interaction of the various planes of existence, in particular the watery ones; they can even integrate these planes. Through their very liquidity-the life force that is expressed and then lost as it is shed-tears are homologized to sacrificial blood, to mother's milk, to semen, to bodies of water of every kind, and to raindrops, which are the "tears of the sky," linked to the vital cycle of drought and rainfall. The presence or even manipulation of weeping, especially in sacrificial contexts, can thus serve a potent supplicatory function through homology.

Lawrence Sullivan explores this constellation of ideas in his commentary on the apocalyptic chronicles of the late sixteenth-century Andean Guaman Poma, who wrote in his history of his people, "To write is to weep." Sullivan associates weeping with other nontextual symbolic vehicles such as dreams, flowers, sounds, pottery, and boat building. For Guaman Poma each of these connects to a particular mode of thinking, and collectively, says Sullivan, they function as "material spiritualities":

Guaman Poma's notion of the effectiveness of weeping springs from Inca concepts of what it means to weep. They arose from images of the first destruction of the world, sometime after it was first created. The dancing stars of the Milky Way and the sacrificed animal constellations (for example, Mother Llama and her crying child, Baby Llama) whose tears stream profusely from their bright eyes, appeared on the horizon for the first time at the beginning of the deluge, the first rainy season that initiated a New Age. This is not just literary metaphor. Perhaps one could call it metonym. Whatever the topic tag we apply, the symbolism of weeping is coinvolved here with the material reality of flooding rainwaters and a new quality of time. When he says, "To write is to weep," Guaman Poma uses the efficacious power of weeping to understand what writing might be and what the quality of time is, for which writing stands as a symptom. Guaman Poma's approach turns our notion of text on its head because he uses other vehicles of intelligibility, in this case ritual weeping, to circumscribe the limits of scripture and to find out where the boundaries of text as vehicle of meaning might be.

Sullivan thus highlights the religious potential of weeping. Far from being inchoate because it does not involve words as its primary thrust, weeping is "a nontextual basis for reflecting on the human spirit's engagement with the world." It is "a new hermeneutics of culture," "a mode of intelligibility," "a symbolic vehicle for the full load of human experience." As vehicles of feelings that go too deep for language-the sorrow of exile, the sparkle of ecstasy, the weight of memory, the wound of empathy-tears resist the abstracting intellectual process along with every other alchemy of sublimation. They serve as gatekeepers to a level of emotion that, like holiness, eludes a certain range of normalcy. Yet at the same time, weeping "guards the gates," preventing open communication and complicating efforts at translation or interpretation. Tears resist grammar; they are ineffable. Something about tears tells us that we cannot really experience the pain of another, any more than we can appropriate memory. Tears are subjectively sealed-and yet they are contagious.

Goals and Scope of the Present Volume

Recent years have seen a swell of interest in the uniquely human habit of shedding tears. Two books in particular have attracted wide attention: Tom Lutz's broad-spectrum Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears and James Elkins's controversial challenge to the dry-as-dust world of formal art history, Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings. Although both of these works touch on the importance of religion in comprehending tears-Lutz regards religion as an important aspect of their social history, and Elkins acknowledges the fundamentally religious impulse that lies beneath human emotional responses to art-neither author addresses the connection between weeping and praying in any depth.

This book attempts to do just that, examining in social and historical context the role played by tears, weeping, and lamentation in the life of religion. Half of the essays collected here were first presented in two successive panels presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion-at Denver in 2001 and at Toronto in 2002. Because the field is new, we added to this germinal group by commissioning articles from other scholars whose work we knew to have touched on the theme of religious weeping in the past, even at points when their primary attention was focused on other topics. Considering the ubiquitousness of tears in the literature and practice of religion and in the "mind" of myth, it is odd that weeping has received so little sustained attention. Yet as far as we are aware, this book is the first comparative foray into the field.

Our goal in Holy Tears is to chart theoretical grounds for approaching the category of weeping in the comparative and historical study of religion. Some of the many questions with which these essays contend are:

Is religious weeping primal, or is it culturally constructed? Is it universal? Is it spontaneous? What does weeping do in the narrative of lived religion? What is the relationship of weeping to vision and its loss, and to visionary insight?

Is weeping a form of speech, "in the sense that it is postulated as an entity in language where its meaning to social actors is also elaborated"? Or is it instead an extralinguistic kind of communication to levels of experience that are naturally aligned to the ineffable or holy? Is it more potent than speech? With their deeply social function-catalysts of and symbols for profound bereavement, erotic or mystical yearning, liminal movement and transformation, collective reconstitution after trauma, or particular states of spiritual attainment-how are tears distinguished from other bodily fluids in the religious imagination? What is the relationship between religious weeping and gender, and what are the reasons for that relationship in any given context? Is weeping always related in some way to an awareness of finitude and death, or can it play other roles altogether? Do human tears affect the superhuman realms-the powers, the gods, or cosmic wheels? Does God-or do the gods-ever cry? If so, when, and why?

In opening up this vast terrain for comparative analysis, Holy Tears can by no means be exhaustive, only emblematic. This volume comprises a wide range of essays on tears past and present. It includes discussions of ancient and modern Greek lamentation and funerary practices along with classical Mexica cosmology and prayerful petition. It explores biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic notions of God's weeping. It investigates the "poetics and politics" of tears in early and medieval Japan, drawing attention to the peculiarly Buddhist ideal of shedding spiritual tears of nonattachment, as in the practice of shikan meditation. Elsewhere in the volume one meets the passionate, merit-bearing tears of Indian and Pakistani Shi'i mourning assemblies (majlises) in response to the recitation of poetry evoking the death of the Prophet's grandson Husain fourteen centuries ago at the Battle of Karbala. Quite a different kind of ritualized weeping appears in the "strange tears" a bride is expected to weep in Yorùbán marriage rituals (ekun ìyàwó) in Nigeria. As in Hindu wedding ceremonies but in this case even more systematically, she must allow grief to rise as a counterpoint to the "organized joy" pertaining elsewhere in the ritual, in order to express the effects of being separated from her family, her home, and all that is beloved and familiar.

Regarding the Christian tradition, the volume touches on religious tears as interpreted in both Western and Eastern Churches. For the West there is an essay on the public spirituality of the wailing mystic Margery Kempe and another on the iconology of the tears of Mary Magdalene in medieval and Renaissance art and theology. The latter are surprisingly retrieved and reinterpreted in the light of modern war in Picasso's Weeping Woman. For Eastern Christianity we present two essays on the shedding of tears as a central theme in Orthodox mysticism, monasticism, and devotional theology.

Our interest in this topic was born out of two very different "streams" that converged one day in 2000 on the occasion of the retirement of John Braisted Carman at Harvard Divinity School, beloved teacher, colleague, and mentor to both editors. At his teacher's request, Jack Hawley constructed a bridge between the intense Hindu religiosity called bhakti, a field to which John Carman had introduced him, and the choral works of J. S. Bach; the paper was called "Bachti." In doing so, Hawley undertook to sing a few bars from Bach's cantatas, but found he had to stop a few times as tears welled up. He later apologized to Kimberley Patton, who had organized the event, but she responded by rejecting the apology on the grounds that weeping, after all, plays a significant role in the life of religion and not least in the cantatas of Bach himself. Thus spake Patton, the comparativist theologian of religious experience, and Hawley thought it wouldn't hurt to listen.


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What People are Saying About This

This remarkable book not only adds a powerful and intellectually fruitful theme to comparative religious studies, but also contributes to current research on religious practices, the body, and material culture. The editors focus on a cluster of vivid physical affective experiences associated with tears, from inchoate, messy emotions, deadly silences, screaming, shame, forgetting, inarticulate despair, and an unforgettable evocation of the sense of God weeping at Ground Zero after 9/11, to the most rigidly controlled ritual practices of ecstatic divine vision and presence.
Steven P. Hopkins, Swarthmore College, author of "Singing the Body of God: The Hymns of Vedantadesika in Their South Indian Tradition"
Carol Zaleski
Fascinating and original, Holy Tears is impressively coherent and should be compelling both to scholars of religion and to cultured readers who normally don't go in for religious themes. It is a model of comparative method in the study of religion, conveying, with all the delight of discovery, many parallels, analogues, and 'braided' similarities in the way religious weeping is understood in different settings while successfully avoiding the 'stuffed birds in a natural history museum' approach. I can't recall the last time I read a comparative or thematic book so rich in ethnographic, mythological, ritual, historical, theological, literary, and iconic anecdotes and detail. Each individual essay is superb; the scholarship throughout is impeccable. This book is truly a feast.
Carol Zaleski, Smith College, author of "Otherworld Journeys: The Life of the World to Come"

Meet the Author

Kimberley Christine Patton is Professor of the Comparative and Historical Study of Religion at Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of "Religion of the Gods: Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity" (Oxford, forthcoming) and is coeditor and a contributing author of "A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in a Postmodern Age" (California). John Stratton Hawley is Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Religion at Barnard College, Columbia University. Two of his early books--"Krishna, the Butter Thief" and "At Play with Krishna"--were published by Princeton University Press.

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