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Holy Tears

By Greg Wadsworth, Dignity/Buffalo 

It is not widely known that Dignity Conventions are filled with weeping. I have always been reticent to discuss the rampant crying at the Convention out of fear it will be misunderstood. Western cultures have a very old taboo against public crying. That taboo is so strong that typically the only public tears we encounter are associated with emotional distress or the greatest of physical pain. When encountering someone in tears we feel called to relieve the pain and stop the crying. If we cannot relieve the pain, we do our best to empathize and share in the suffering. If that were what Convention tears were about, than most of us would skip the weekend and hope that the appropriate ministers and health care professionals would be called in. However, that is not the nature of Convention tears.

There is a special grace that lifts the taboo against crying during the Convention. With the taboo lifted, crying can be associated with many different emotions. My sense is that up to 10% of the Conventioneers weep at some point in the weekend. Most notorious is our famed Executive Director, Marianne Duddy-Burke, who cries on and off from the opening to the closing ceremonies. She feigns a bit of embarrassment when the tears start flowing, but it becomes clear very quickly her tears are not about suffering. Her acceptance of her own tears reassures everyone that crying is a natural response to our gathering. These tears have always been a part of Dignity’s Conventions and hopefully always will be.

If the convention tears are not about emotional distress or physical pain, what is their cause? The weeping is not random but is a shared experience. Much of the weeping takes place during the singing of hymns. The hymns themselves are not the cause. They are very familiar hymns that we sing at our home parishes without any tears. What is it about these sung prayers that generate the tears in these special gatherings?

Western societies did not always have a taboo against public crying. The Church fathers and saints of the first millennium described weeping as a common and worthy experience of the faithful. The tears were most closely associated with prayer. The medieval Church developed elaborate theories which described at least four types of prayerful tears: tears of sorrow, tears of gladness, tears of contrition, and tears of grace. This ancient Catholic framework can be used to reflect on the tears at the Convention. (If the Catholic framework fails, Muslims also have a well-developed theology of weeping we might turn to.)

I believe we can rule out the first two types of tearful prayers: those of sorrow and gladness. I suspect all of us have experienced tears of sorrow. Our Jewish brothers and sisters have perfected these prayers of tears in the liturgical chanting of the Book of Lamentations. In my personal experience, I remember my strong desire to attend Mass was on the evening of the tragedy of September 11. Those emotions had to be shared with God. It was the only way to cope with the sorrow of the day. That type of sorrow has nothing to do with the weeping at the Convention. There may be moments of sweet sorrow during the convention, but we have not gathered to mourn.

I don’t think the Convention tears are prayers of gladness, although there is much gladness and joy in the weekend. What type of gladness brings us to tears? The tears of a lottery winner come close; certainly there is gladness, but I am not sure it is prayerful. A better example of tears of gladness may be the tears shed at a wedding. A wedding brings a special gladness and joy where our friends have asked us to witness their sacred vows of commitment. There are undoubtedly tears of gladness shared at Dignity Con- 

ventions, but I don’t think it explains the 10% who weep singing familiar old hymns.

Tears of contrition – those are more complicated. A Dignity Convention is a room full of Catholics who are well practiced at prayers of contrition. I heard someone credit our Convention tears to gay angst. I see the sense of that. It is a room full of LGBT people. Undoubtedly, some of those present have felt their share of that angst. A case can be made that contrition is a traditional Catholic response to angst.

Recently in the Gospel reading at Mass we heard what might be the most cited example of a silent, tearful prayerful of contrition. It is story of the woman of the city who crashed a dinner party and washed the feet of Christ with her tear soaked hair. When the Pharisees murmured of the scandal caused by a woman touching Jesus, Jesus came to her defense and chastised his host. Christ said to his host, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has washed my feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss my feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint my head with oil, but this woman has anointed my feet with fragrant oil.” Then Christ said to the women, “Your sins are forgiven; your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

It is reasonable to suppose that this woman’s tears were tears of contrition. The gospel does say that her community considered her a sinner. Her reputation of sinfulness contributed to the concern of the Pharisees. And at the end of the story, Christ explicitly forgives her sins. I can recall a homily or two that emphasized that part of the story. The takehome message was that if our own contrition were as authentic as this tearful woman’s, we too might have our sins forgiven.

However, it is possible that this woman of the city was not crying tears of contrition but was shedding what St. Gregory the Great called “gratia lacrimarum,” or, “tears of grace.” Maybe she was not crying because of her great sinfulness; maybe she was crying because she understood that Jesus

was the Living God. She understood that the world she previously thought full of shame and loss was instead a world of Love. Her authentic response to Love Incarnate was the same as the many saints who shed copious tears during their mystical encounters with Christ.

I would like to think it is tears of grace that are shed at Dignity Conventions. Christ, who promised to be present wherever two or three are gathered, is present in a special way at the gathering of his LGBT faithful. The grace is palpable. Those old familiar hymns resonate in a new way in our souls while the whole community responds to that grace in great joy. For about 10% of us, our authentic response to the presence of the Living God involves tears. This weeping is a special blessing. The tears are like the tears of grace shed by St. Louis which he found “delectable and comforting, not only to the heart but to the tongue.”

I do not go to Dignity Conventions to cry. The weekends are rich experiences where I encounter the Living God in a remarkable group of men and women, where I am strengthened in my faith, and from where I return to Buffalo renewed in my commitment to the Church. The tears do bring their own pleasure but they are a small part of the Conventions. But if the tears ever dry up, I will miss them.