Vale of Tears

To thee do we cry,
Poor banished children of Eve;
To thee do we send up our sighs,
Mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.

-- Hermann von Reichenau, “Salve Regina”

My then eight-year-old granddaughter Alex informed us that she had seen the Pixar film Inside Out twice, once with her mom and once with her dad. Both times she cried, she said, adding that her mom and her dad had also cried. This caused me to think back to when I was growing up. I would have been surprised to hear that someone’s mom and dad had cried, because I assumed that crying was something grownups didn’t do. Men, of course, weren’t supposed to cry back then, and I never saw my mother give way to tears. I heard her sobbing once in her room after my father died, but that was much later. She would certainly never have done so in front of her children.

Somewhere along the line my mother got it into her head that tears were a sign of weakness, and she did not want to be thought of as weak. She had grown up in a broken home at a time when divorce still carried a real stigma, and she was effectively orphaned at 15. If you gave in to your emotions, who knew where that might lead? My mother was hardly alone in this attitude. As the late Sen. Edmund Muskie discovered the hard way, you could not run for president and be caught shedding tears – at least not when he ran in 1972. If you were going to cry defending your wife against scurrilous attacks, as he did, how could you stand up to the Russians?

For much of my life, I dealt with emotional trauma by putting it behind me. Eventually this caught up with me, and I wound up in therapy. My therapist called me “an emotional retard,” and she had a point. It was not that I was unfeeling; I just didn’t believe in wallowing in my emotions. I have softened up a good bit since then. Perhaps it is advancing age or the waning of testosterone. I suspect that if I had accompanied my granddaughter to a showing of Inside Out, I might have cried, too.

From its early days, Christianity regarded this life as a “vale of tears,” a phrase first used in St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible in the 4th century. For hundreds of years, Christians were ferociously persecuted both by Jews and their Roman overlords. The tone was set by St. Paul, author of many of the New Testament epistles, who seemed to stir up animosity wherever he went. He was stoned, beaten, vilified, shipwrecked, jailed and eventually killed. Yet he appeared at times almost to revel in his misfortunes, writing, “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

The first generation of Jesus’ followers believed Christ would return in their lifetimes. In such circumstances, St. Paul’s character-building take on suffering made sense, because it was regarded as temporary. Eventually it sank in that suffering was a more-or-less permanent fixture of life, and Christians began to look to the next life for respite from this vale of tears. Initially, Christians had looked forward to a resurrection of the dead in this world, not another life in the next one. The immortality of the soul was an idea borrowed from the Greeks that had no foundation in Scripture. Heaven became the antidote to a life that would otherwise end in tears, with hell seen as the just desserts for those who succumbed to the temptations that flesh is heir to.

But why would the Lord condemn those he loved to a life of unremitting sorrow? This, of course, is a question that has vexed theologians for as long as they have felt obliged to explain the ways of God to humankind. Mostly they have picked up where the prophets left off, blaming humanity for the misfortunes that have befallen it. This seems plausible enough for moral failings; less so for disease and natural disasters, which together account for far greater death and destruction than the evils we inflict on each other. And even if God is using disease and natural disasters to punish us for our waywardness, there is still no accounting for why the innocent are also made to suffer.

To propose some tidy explanation for human suffering is to profane the victims, and so I offer none. I know only that sooner or later life will break your heart, often many times over, and that is not entirely a bad thing. A broken heart engenders compassion for the suffering of others, and compassion is a prerequisite for the kind of unselfish love that Christ demanded of his followers. Love is always assumed to be a good thing, so no one bothers to ask why Jesus was so insistent on it. He had his reasons. “The kingdom of God is at hand,” he said, over and over. He was talking about this world, not the next one, and he meant right now, not in some other lifetime. All you need to do is to love the world as it is and everyone in it. A tall order, to be sure, but there is really no way around it. This world, for all practical purposes, is all we have. We should not make the mistake of thinking we must first change the world, when what is required beforehand is a change of heart. Why were we condemned to a life of sorrow? Because we will never find God’s kingdom if we don’t learn to love this vale of tears.

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