Seeing Through the Tears of a Child

Certain realities in life we only see through eyes that are cleansed through our tears.

Pope Francis

In January 2015, Pope Francis was celebrating an outdoor Mass in the Philippines, with tens of thousands gathered together in a driving rain, when something remarkable happened. Glyzelle Palomar, a 12-year-old Philippina girl who had spent her life sleeping outside, foraging for food from other people’s garbage, was invited to speak to the pope. “Why did God let this happen to us?” she asked, covering her face with her hands as she sobbed. Clearly moved, Francis did not try to answer the girl’s question so much as he responded directly to her suffering, her tears.

Putting aside his prepared text, he said, “The nucleus of your question almost doesn’t have a reply. Only when we, too, can cry about the things that [have happened to you] are we able to come close to replying to that question. Why do children suffer so much?”

Turning to the crowd, the pope continued, “I invite each one of you to ask yourselves: ‘Have I learned how to weep, how to cry when I see a hungry child, a child on the street who uses drugs, a homeless child, an abandoned child, an abused child, a child that society uses as a slave?'”

“Certain realities in life we only see through eyes that are cleansed through our tears. Let us learn how to weep, as she has shown us today. Let us not forget this lesson. And the response that we can make today is let us learn, really learn, how to weep.”

The image of seeing reality “through eyes that are cleansed by tears” feels especially resonant to me today, in these darkening days of a global pandemic. But is it true? I would like to ask Pope Francis: Is there some unforeseen grace waiting to break through these anguished days of post-election uncertainty, racial reckoning, and COVID-related grief?

In truth, I suppose I am asking myself this question, and struggling to answer it through the lens of a young girl’s faith — a faith unafraid to bring its suffering, its tears, directly back to God.

If Pope Benedict XVI was recognized especially for his intellectual gifts as a scholar, Francis stands apart from his predecessor for emphasizing what he calls “the reasons of the heart,” which alone “can help us understand the mystery which embraces our loneliness.”

“Reason by itself,” said Francis in a recent homily, “is not capable of making sense of our deepest feelings, appreciating the grief we experience and providing the answers we are looking for.”

With our tears, suggests Francis, we shed the “pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” illusion of independence, and begin to surrender to our profound need for God and for one another. When we dare to weep, we water the seeds of promise already present, if presently buried, in our confrontation with loneliness, suffering, and death.

A seed buried is not yet a flowering fruit; a word of promise doesn’t end the present crisis, to be sure. Rather it reassures us, in faith, that a better day is coming. How? Why? Because we are not alone in our suffering. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me. In this sense, “faith” is almost perfectly synonymous with “trust.”

“This is our poverty but also our grandeur: to plead for the consolation of God, who in his tenderness comes to wipe the tears from our eyes.”

In other words, the decision for faith offers no escape from the cruel injustices and contradictions of human experience. Authentic faith brings its questions and its joys, its doubts and its tears, directly back to God — much like Glyzelle Palomar, and Pope Francis, an elder pilgrim who listened, and reassured her that she does not walk alone.

But there is more. In turning her plea outward to the gathered assembly, Francis asks them, he asks all of us, to weep with her, and to bear our share of responsibility for her suffering and for the societal injustices that crush the lives of kids like her.

I confess I have done a fair bit of crying lately, though not so much, to be honest, for the poor of the world. Like many families who have kids with special needs, these months of lockdown have been especially hard on our youngest son, and by extension, the mental health of his mom and dad. (I’ve heard it said among parents that you are only as happy as your unhappiest child.) Nothing is more crippling than the helplessness you feel as your kid struggles to keep it together, hour by hour, day after day, much less to enjoy life, to be happy. What seeds of grace could possibly lay dormant in a father’s helpless tears?

None of us can see what hard lessons await us in the coming months of this deepening pandemic; nor can we see to the other side of an intensifying political, racial, and environmental crisis. But if the only response that we can make is to “learn how to weep,” perhaps we are on the way to a faith in the essential goodness, beauty, and irreplaceable dignity of every mother’s child, a faith that can dare to imagine and build a different future, together.

Like the paradoxical truth at the heart of the Gospel—“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies . . . ” (Jn 12:24)—may our tears in these hard days water the seeds of solidarity waiting to flower in fields of new life and hopefulness. So long as we weep together, and not alone.

“If you have given sorrow the space its gentle origins demand, then you can truly say, life is beautiful and so rich. So beautiful and so rich that it makes you want to believe in God.”

Etty Hillesum

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