During my early morning reading the other day, a line leaped off the page from one of R. S. Thomas’s poems: “In an age of science everything is analyzable but a tear.” This is what I’ve been trying to say for years, but here, in one stunning image, this wonderful Welsh poet catches it all. I couldn’t shake this image for days.

We’ve been told we can, we must, measure everything in order for it to be believable. This is what we call philosophical materialism. It’s part of the coffee we drink, the air we breathe. Anything beyond what we can touch, smell, hear, see is deemed subjective, therefore not really real. Mystery becomes derogatory. If we can’t always squeeze the truth from matter, just wait. Another study is on its way.

But how, Thomas asks, do we put a tear under a microscope? Dictionary.com gives it a try: A tear is a “drop of the saline, watery fluid continually secreted by the lacrimal glands. . . .”—oh please! Stop. That’s not the tear that streaks down our cheeks. We know better.

A tear is like a drop of pain. It’s a little package of suffering. It comes from somewhere very deep where we hurt. A tear is not even a symbol of something. It is pain itself, inseparable from a broken heart. We are swept away in wonderment, wordless, not able to say anything.

The sobbing that often comes with tears surely rises up from the deepest wells of human sorrow. Maybe it is the loss of someone we love. Maybe it is the pain we see in the eyes of our beloved. Maybe it is a feeling of utter aloneness. Maybe we hear the dance on the other side of the door, as C. S. Lewis talks about it, and we have not been invited to the party. A tear can signal the despair of being left out.

But here is another amazing thing about tears: Joy often lies at the end of our tears. Have you ever noticed that? Paradoxically, our tears release us. Joy often comes on the other side of sorrow, or even through sorrow. I think what happens is we shed with our tears the illusion that we are in control. We give up, we let go, and that’s, I am confident, where God can finally draw nearer.

“If you are trying to understand why a moment of joy,” the great essayist on joy Christian Wiman exclaims, “can blast you right out of the life to which it makes you all the more lovingly and tenaciously attached, or why this lift into pure bliss might also entail a steep drop of concomitant loss, or how in the midst of great grief some fugitive and inexplicable joy might, like one tiny flower in a land of ash, bloom”—well, sometimes we actually get it, yes, joy blooms like a flower right out of the ash.

Thank God for a tear, then. We don’t want to wish a tear on ourselves, or the ones we love, no, but the tear will come anyway. Count on it. But then we need to remember: There will be joy when we are finally released from ourselves and fall into the arms of God. That’s the flower in the ash.