A pillow for love

Many tears have been shed this past week. I am thinking of all the publicly grieving people who lost a child, a parent, a classmate, a co-worker, a neighbor, or a friend in the terrible mass shooting in the school in Nashville, Tennessee. Here on campus, I am sure there have been many other private reasons for people to weep.

The death of these beloved children and adults in Nashville brings to mind a scene from hundreds of years ago: a young North African man, who would later become a bishop and a saint, is at his mother’s side as she dies. As he recounts in his spiritual memoir “Confessions,” Augustine closed his mother Monica’s eyes and said, “a great wave of sorrow surged into [his] heart.” He fought against the wave of emotional sorrow, but when he woke up the next morning, he said, “The tears which I have been holding back streamed down, and I let them flow as freely as they would, making of them a pillow for my heart.”

Weeping can be a spiritual practice, as Augustine shows; tears create a pillow for his love.

While Augustine wept for his mother, the modern American philosopher and theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff grieved for his son who died in a tragic accident at age 25. In his book “Lament for a Son,” Wolterstorff, writes, “If [one] was worth loving, [one] is worth grieving over. Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved….Every lament is a love-song.”

For the parents in Nashville who are burying their children, I hope that their grief will be an “existential testimony” and that their “lament is a love-song.”

This “way of sorrow” has a long history in many faith traditions. In the Christian faith, we encounter it in this current week, which the church calls “Holy Week.” It begins by visiting Jesus’s entry into the city of Jerusalem, and we are told in one account that, “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it” (Luke 19:41). It’s not the first time we learn of Jesus’s tears. In response to the death of Jesus’s friend Lazarus, we get the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

The weeping of Jesus is a reminder that we, too, will weep, not only because of inevitable suffering due to the brokenness of this world, but because of love. When

onlookers see Jesus weeping over Lazarus, they say, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:36). Tears may be viewed as a symbol of weakness by some, but tears can be a sign of spiritual strength, emotional honesty and human vulnerability. When something or someone has been lost, weeping reveals our love.

While it’s difficult to comprehend, we shouldn’t underestimate how our weeping sows the seeds for new life, for resurrection, for freedom, even in the face of loss and death. The seventeenth-century poet and priest George Herbert put it this way in his poem “Praise (III)”:

I have not lost one single tear:

But when mine eyes

Did weep to heav’n, they found a bottle there…

Ready to take them in; yet of a size

That would contain much more.

Herbert is envisioning God with a bottle that collects all of our tears through the years—the tears being shed in Nashville and the tears cried here on campus. Those tears are never wasted because every drop forms a pillow for your heart of love.

The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays.


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