An essay published in the Easter issue of The Tablet

At a turning point in George Mackay Brown’s historical novel Magnus, the eponymous hero sets sail for Trondheim—medieval Nidaros—to attend the funeral of the earl of Orkney, Erlend Thorfinnson. It was the winter of 1098, the year Cîteaux was founded. ‘East from Scotland’ he travelled ‘under a black sail’. ‘Through high dark narrow streets Magnus’, a stranger in the city, ‘was led by foreign voices to the great kirk that was there, a God-steading, the high cathedral of Norway.’

The kirk had been built some twenty years earlier by King Olav Kyrre, who knew Erlend well. The two had, in their youth, served side by side during the battle of Stamford Bridge. The future king then spent a season with Erlend and his brother, joint earls. Seeing the cathedral in Birsay inspired his project to raise a shrine to his uncle, Saint Olav, who had been killed in battle in 1030, then canonised the following year, accomplishing in death what had been his life’s great matter: the unification of the nation under Christ’s banner.

Olav Kyrre built his church too small. In the 1140s, work began on a grander edifice intended to befit the renown of the martyr and, increasingly, that of the see, created a metropolis in 1152 by the Cistercian pope Eugene III. Its jurisdiction embraced Iceland and Greenland, the Scottish archipelagos, and the Isle of Man. 

This vast province remained intact until 1537, when Christian III of Denmark imposed his royal rule and Lutheran creed on the realm of Norway. The relics of Saint Olav were removed to spare them profanation. They in turn became pilgrims of a sort. Eventually they were reinterred beneath the floor of the cathedral, which a hundred years ago was splendidly restored. When Norway reclaimed independence in 1905, the body politic, in search of a heart, turned to the sanctuary of Olav, whom the Catholic liturgy invokes as the country’s ‘everlasting king’. 

The penultimate archbishop of Nidaros was Erik Valkendorf (1465-1522). He smelt the storm brewing, but did not let himself be blown about by winds of doctrine. Standing up to power, he strengthened the Church and, ambitiously, commissioned two great works for publication: a Breviary and a Missal Nidrosiense. He lovingly recorded the rite of Nidaros barely twenty years before it was consigned to oblivion.

Since my arrival last year as a worker of the eleventh hour in the vineyard once tended by Valkendorf, I have kept looking into these books. What, in times of constant interruptions, better roots us in the Church’s inner life, serenely continuous, than her habits of prayer? I love the first oration in the Missal. Set to be recited by the priests of the Metropolis before they offered Mass, it runs like this:       

Grant me, Lord, inward tears with strength to cleanse the stains of my sins and fill my soul with heavenly gladness always. I pray you, Jesus, by your own most kind tears: grant me the grace of tears which, apart from your gift, is beyond me. Grant me a fountain of tears that will not dry up, that my tears may be my bread by day and by night. Prepare this table for your servant in your sight that it may strengthen me. I desire to eat my fill of it daily.  

Who, these days, would come up with such a prayer? Our modern understanding of tears is one-dimensional, arrested in sentiment. Such are not the tears intended here. The Fathers, wary of self-indulgence, frowned upon outbursts of emotion. The tears which Christians of old aspired to cry were other, having much in common with the lacrimae rerum of Virgil. When Aeneas recalled the blood shed at Troy, he cried out, in W.F.J. Knight’s paraphrase, ‘the world has tears as a constituent part of it, and so have our own lives hopeless and weary’ (cf. Aeneid, 1.461-2). The ‘tears of things’ acknowledge that this world, in its brittle beauty, is broken.

Jesus’s ‘most kind tears’ were tears of this sort, I’d say. The verse ‘Jesus wept’ occurs in the story of the mourning over Lazarus. Reproached by Martha for arriving too late, the Lord is taken to the tomb. Seeing Mary and her company approach disconsolate, Jesus, ‘deeply moved in spirit’, weeps in turn (John 11:20-35). 

Preachers cite this passage to speak of Christ’s affection and to point towards the hallowing of ours. The point is valid, the evidence unsure. From the outset, Jesus says: ‘This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God’ (11:4). He knew what he would do. He doubted not his competence to do it. The raising of Lazarus would be the final ‘sign’ pointing forward to his own resurrection. It makes no sense that Christ should weep, at this moment of ‘glory’, for one about to be restored to life. 

That it was not in the evangelist’s mind to suggest it, appears from the verse: ‘The Jews said: “See how he loved him”’ (11.36). Throughout John’s account, ‘the Jews’, that is, ‘the observers, not followers’, are assigned a specific role: they get the wrong end of the stick. Proffering mistaken or limited views, they draw forth from the Word made flesh a fuller revelation. The fact that they ascribe Christ’s tears to affection for his friend suggests that something quite different is at stake.

Indeed, what causes Christ to weep is the sight of humanity weeping. His tears show him aggrieved, indignant at the scandal of death’s reign in beings made for immortality, who long for paradise lost and lost friendship. Having wept, he goes up to Calvary to work our redemption. Priests do well to weep likewise on ascending to the altar where Christ’s sacrifice remains present and effective.     

By virtue of this sacrifice, our tears are transformed. They are imbued with a ‘heavenly gladness’ that does not cancel grief, but makes of grief, mysteriously, its receptacle. A poem by Elsa Morante comes to mind. One who knows love’s life-giving power, says Morante, gains

access to the house of twofold mystery:
the mystery of sorrow and the mystery of joy.

What life is like within this house, words struggle to express. Language ordinarily labours to define opposites, not to at-one them. Only poetry, which graces speech with the polyvalence of music, stands a chance. Ultimately, though, we must inhabit the mystery in silence. Only in the stillness of our inner sanctuary, a room many people spend a lifetime without entering, can we know Christ’s gift intimately. There he strikes our heart’s rock with the wood of the vivifying tree, provoking tears of adoration. ‘Through the wood’, we sing on Good Friday, ‘joy entered the world’. Victory is won through defeat; a crucified Body frees us. To take all this in, we are invited to enter a uniquely Christian, paradoxical condition that Saint John Climacus called charmolupē, a ‘sadness-gladness’ producing mournful-joyful tears.    

Our Paschal proclamation is not ‘Hurrah!’ The Vigil’s Alleluia sounds hesitant at first. Sung by a single voice, it hardly dares credit the message with which it is entrusted. The first believers’ response to the empty tomb was of ‘trembling and ekstasis’ (Mark 16:8): they were outside themselves. From that perplexing point of view, they had to reconsider all things, gains and losses, graces and sins. To find one’s place in a world made new is a gigantic proposition.

When Erik Valkendorf had his Missal produced in a Paris printery, the order of the world as he knew it was floundering. Rooting his people’s devotion in tears, he relieved them of overly simplified notions of hope. Trauma in response to disaster often stems from the unbiblical fiction that the world is, and ought to be experienced as, hale and whole. To declare it instead sick, ‘a vale of tears’, is not pessimistic. It is to own that the world needs saving still; that Easter is not a past event, but present; that our life, our joy, and hope depend on it. 

The man we now revere as Saint Magnus of Orkney was also storm-beaten. The story of his life, which ended in a violent, apparently senseless death, can seem to resemble Mackay Brown’s description of the votive candle placed by Tinker Jock on Magnus’s tomb in Birsay not long after his burial—it must have been in 1117: ‘Inside the kirk a tallow stump reeked and sputtered and went out.’ 

Is that all? Of course not. The poet, shedding his oilskin and putting on a prophet’s mantle, proclaims: ‘A light that has once shone is never quenched. Can a diamond wither?’ The moment the tallow flame goes out, Jock’s wife Mary, blind for years, regains sight. ‘The sources of Light were troubled for a moment’, heaven and earth reflecting one another. 

In his kingdom, when we’re home at last, God will make all crying cease. For now, we eat our fill from his table as wanderers, his Bread seasoned with our tears. A weight of glory is made ready meanwhile. Such is the mystery of faith.