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Tears: a mark of connectedness and healing

16 April 2015

Sandra Saer reflects on their place in the Christian story, and their expression of precious sentiment


La Macarena: Our Lady of Hope, from the Basilica of the Macarena, Seville

La Macarena: Our Lady of Hope, from the Basilica of the Macarena, Seville

CHICHESTER CATHEDRAL is full of tear bottles. One thousand bottles, made traditionally on a potter's wheel, and each one unique, are displayed in three spaces. Some are by the shrine of St Richard, reminding us of the pain of human loss and grief: each bottle is made from a lump of clay the size of a human fist, because an individual's fist is recognised as being the same size as his or her heart.

Others are in the chapel of St Mary Magdalene, where a painting by Graham Sutherland depicts the risen Jesus appearing to Mary, who was asked the same question both by Jesus himself, and by the angels in the empty tomb: "'Why are you weeping?' She answered, 'They have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have laid him'" (John 20.11-14).

The remaining bottles are by the 12th-century Chichester Reliefs - well-preserved carvings that show Jesus coming to the grave of his friend Lazarus, and raising him from the dead: "So Mary came to the place where Jesus was. As soon as she caught sight of him she fell at his feet and said, 'O sir, if you had only been here my brother (Lazarus) would not have died.' When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews her companions weeping, he sighed heavily and was deeply moved. 'Where have you laid him?' he asked. They replied, 'Come and see, sir.' Jesus wept" (John 11.33-35).

The reliefs, and the tear bottles, remind us that Jesus himself knew human grief. 

MANY years ago, I went to live in Spain, to teach English and then learn Spanish. There was sadness at leaving home: I recently found, among my mother's papers, a letter I wrote before embarking on that Spanish trip. The first paragraph reads, "My tears have crept out but I do not regret them because they are valuable tears, wept because of a precious sentiment."

I spent one Holy Week, Semana Santa, in Seville. From a friend's balcony, I watched the dramatic Good Friday procession. One of the floats was graced by the beautiful 17th-century statue of Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza - Our Lady of Hope - dressed in gorgeous robes, and adorned with jewels. Known locally as La Macarena, she is a favourite of Spanish gypsies, and the patron saint of matadors.

(The Seville-born matador Joselito spent much of his fortune on four emeralds for her. When he died in the ring in 1920, the Macarena was dressed as a widow for a month.)

Kneeling before the statue, I marvelled to see teardrops coursing continually down her cheeks. 

AT AN Ash Wednesday mass in the Basilica of Santa Sabina, Pope Francis spoke of the need to ask God for "the gift of tears, in order to make our prayer and our journey of conversion more authentic and without hypocrisy".

The American writer Washington Irving describes "a sacredness in tears. They are not a mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief (as when we mourn), deep contrition (sincerely repenting of our sins), and of unspeakable love."

In the Old Testament, Isaiah famously prophesies that "He will swallow up death in victory. And the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces (Isaiah 26.6-9)." Many of the Psalms sing of tears: "Turn once again our fortune, Lord, as streams return in the dry south. They that sow in tears, shall reap with songs of joy" (Psalm 126.5-6). One even mentions putting tears into a bottle: "Enter my lament in thy book, Store every tear in thy flask" (Psalm 56.8).

So tear bottles have a long history. They were used by the Ancient Greeks. Pilgrims carried tear-shaped vessels on their journeys. In Victorian times, tear bottles came back into fashion again, as icons of grief and grieving. During funerals, for example, mourners would capture their tears in bottles; when the tears evaporated, the period of mourning was at an end.

Tears can be a mark of our compassion, our connectedness with others. We weep as we hear of the Christians recently massacred in Kenya, as persecution and murder continue to cast a shadow over the world's search for peace. Those Kenyans were martyrs; as the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his Easter Day sermon, "Because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the cruel are overcome, evil is defeated, martyrs conquer."

Tears can also be a means of healing - a therapeutic gift. Tears can help us to cleanse the past, and enable us to sing the "songs of joy" brought into focus by the Resurrection. 

Sandra Saer is a poet and writer. 

A Thousand Tear Bottles, an installation by the artist and ceramicist Deborah Tompsett, remains in the north transept of Chichester Cathedral until 1 May (free entry).

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