Late in King Lear—Act IV, Scene 5 to be precise—the old King, cast off by his unloving daughters and wandering in a storm, comes upon his faithful servant Gloucester. The earl’s eyes have been ripped out by Lear’s enemies. Recognizing him, the king reminds him just how human tears are:
Lear himself wants to cry. He is learning that tears talk truer than the tongue.
One might call tears a language of the body. We bespeak ourselves through them. Yes, anyone, who has known unfaithful love, knows that the body can be made to lie. There are false kisses, false embraces, false nights of love. But tears, like shudders, speak unbidden by the conscious mind. They self-attest.
Tears are a human language undivided by the tongues of earth. What they lack in articulation, tears gain in meaning. Even infants, those without a voice, can speak in tears.
Tears mean more than words, though they don’t speak clearly without being embedded in life. Infants cry only from distress, but adults can weep tears of sorrow and of joy. Many years ago, I took of group of high school students Christmas caroling. We visited the homes of shuts-ins. I knew these people well, from hours of conversation, but, a quarter century later, I recall the eloquent face of a woman, who stood in her door and wept as the children sang. Tears bespeak a bounty deeper than words can tell.
Tears are one way to understand the mystery of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, they’ve often been seen as a manifestation of the Spirit’s presence. When we struggle to speak, we flail for words, trying to see the end of each sentence, but we do not need to articulate tears. They carry us where they will. Like the Spirit, they speak within us, through us. Like tears, the presence of the Spirit, the silence of God, is not easily feigned. It comes over us, overwhelms us. We no more control the Spirit than we choose when and where and why we cry.
Who the Spirit is within the Godhead is difficult to say. The churches divide on the very question. What we know of God, we know in the eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ. We would not know even to address the very mystery of God as Father, had Christ not taught us to do so, and we would not know that the deep graces, the movements of life welling within us, are the very Spirit of God, had Christ not revealed this to us.
We usually know why an infant cries, but we cannot always fathom a grandmother’s tears. Sometimes we need words to understand, to situate, to name our tears. In like manner, the Holy Spirit does not speak for himself. He is always the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit will never say something other than what has been revealed in Christ, yet the Spirit speaks at a deeper, more personal level. Christ would speak to us only in history, were it not for the presence of the Spirit, the one who seals his words, spoken ages past, within our living hearts.
At the end of King Lear, the old man is reunited with his truest love, his dead daughter Cordelia. When the play began, she refused to lie about her love for him, as her sisters had, because “unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth” (I.1.83-84). At play’s end, holding her body in his arms, Lear is convulsed with grief.
That’s what we’ve always wanted. Tears, and inarticulate cries, that all on earth, and heaven itself, can understand. And that is what we have been given, for
Genesis 9: 1-11 Romans 8: 22-27 John 7: 37-39