Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: ‘O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.’
As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’ Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’ And she said, ‘Let your servant find favour in your sight.’ Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
They rose early in the morning and worshipped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’
-1 Samuel 1:4-20
She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly.
For women around the world who daily endure trauma of all kinds: rape, war, systematic violence, miscarriage, the death of children, the inability to bear children, poverty, domestic abuse, intimidation…weeping should not be seen as a sign of weakness, but rather of strength. Likewise, weeping is not merely a personal emotional outpouring, but also a potent vehicle for social and spiritual transformation—as seemingly impassive or tyrannical human beings and even God are moved by tears. Weeping itself becomes a form of discourse—one that resists easy answers and demands solidarity. In the uncertain space of overwhelming sorrow and injustice, when God and humanity may seem callous or absent, tears can invoke God’s presence and mercy, whether in the form of a “supernatural” miracle like the conception of Samuel, or in a miraculous flowering of human solidarity, courage, and compassion.
In an essay on gendered emotional expression in the United States, anthropologist Catherine Lutz points to the complexity of emotion, arguing that it is not just an internal feeling, but also a social discourse with gendered dimensions. Catherine Lutz even argues, “Any discourse on emotion is also, at least implicitly, a discourse on gender.” She looks specifically at the question of emotional control, writing, “Talk about emotional control in and by women, in other words, is talk about power and its exercise.” Performing socially in a way that is “out of control” (weeping bitterly, as Hannah does) is a show of power, even if the weeper is simultaneously regarded as weak and imbalanced, as the notion of uncontrolled, messy emotions is one that seems to incite fear. Indeed, Catherine Lutz notes that “Western discourse on emotions constitutes them as paradoxical entities that are both a sign of weakness and a powerful force.” This is particularly true for women, who have so often been seen as dangerous and volatile when emotional.
Kimberley Patton and J.S. Hawley write in the introduction to Holy Tears, “weeping can evoke divine response, especially compassion or mercy, where none had previously been forthcoming.” Weeping seems to be a way to connect with and struggle with God that is sometimes deeper or more effective than verbal prayer and intercession. When Hannah cries out bitterly in her sorrowful prayer at Shiloh, God seems to listen in a way that Hannah had not experienced previously in her grieving over her “closed womb.”
Devotion to saints and spiritual ancestors like Hannah or others who cry can also be part of a communal practice of “transpersonal” weeping. Womanist ethicist Emilie Townes emphasizes the theological and social importance of communal lament, arguing that the ritual of lament to God publically articulates problems, and thus has the power to help the community understand the crisis as more “bearable and manageable,” perhaps thereby facilitating its resolution. While weeping is obviously often nonverbal, communal weeping seems to serve a similar theological and social role to what Townes identifies in verbal ritual lament, perhaps taking communities to the places too deep and dark even for words, and expressing that which cannot be said otherwise. Public lamentation and weeping are not just theological practices of crying out for God’s mercy, but are also forms of social protest, as they break the silences around suffering and injustice.
(1) Lutz, Catherine. “Engendered emotion: gender, power, and the rhetoric of emotional control in American discourse,” in Language and the Politics of Emotion, ed. Catherine Lutz and Lila Abu-Lughod (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)
(2) Lutz, “Engendered emotion”
(3) Lutz, “Engendered emotion”
(4) See Tom Lutz, “Men and Women, Infants and Children” in Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1999)
(5) Kimberley Patton and John Stratton Hawley, ed., Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 2(6) Emilie M. Townes, Breaking the Fine Rain of Death: African American Health Issues and a Womanist Ethic of Care (New York: Continuum, 1998), 23