Monday, June 09, 2014

Speaking in tongues

Traditionally, the week after Pentecost was an "octave," in which the celebration of the feast was extended. In my first draft of this post, I went into octaves, and what I think about abolishing the Pentecost octave; but I cut all that out. If you want more, ask in the comments.

But in the spirit of that tradition, let me share something from the breviary prayers last Saturday (the breviary is the book of prayers formally called the Liturgy of the Hours, which clerics are obliged to pray, but which laity are also encouraged to pray). This is from the "Office of Readings," which features, after several psalms (or one long psalm) are recited, a passage of Scripture, then a non-Biblical text, which might be from one of the Fathers of the Church, from a saint, or a church document as recent as Vatican II. This is from a sermon by an unnamed "sixth century African author":

Therefore, if somebody should say to one of us, "You have received the Holy Spirit, why do you not speak in tongues?" his reply should be...

Before I give you the answer from 1,500 years ago, what do you suppose the reply should be?

Do you know what "speaking in tongues" is? Do you know people who experience this phenomenon?

If you go poking around the Internet, you can find lots on this. Sometimes it's called "glossalalia," and there are claims that some form of this shows up in many places in the world, including -- note this -- in other religions! You will find that there arose in this country, around the turn of the 20th century, religious movements among Protestant Christians devoted to experiencing the Holy Spirit in a more powerful way, which included, to a greater or lesser degree, the experience of various "charismatic gifts" or "gifts of the Holy Spirit," especially "speaking in tongues" and "interpretation of tongues."

And, of course, you will find references to this in Scripture, beginning with the events of the first Pentecost (Acts 2), but again several times in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the letters of Saint Paul. The various movements that focused on these gifts have come under the name of Pentecostal, Charismatic, and Holiness, among others. And while there are many Pentecostal and Charismatic movements outside the Catholic Church, there has been such a movement within the Church as well.

Although it's been awhile since I wrote about it, I had my own experience with this. When I was 19, I had a real conversion experience in which I believe -- to this day -- that our Lord called me to live for him. I didn't hear any voice or anything like that; I just knew his presence. I was in college, and had been, to that point, a middling Catholic. In my first year of college, I'd met many Christians who were impressively enthusiastic about their faith, and knowledgeable, putting me to shame. All this shook me up, and I began to question my own faith, ultimately leaving the Catholic Faith for a time.

I joined an Assemblies of God congregation, where some friends worshiped. One of the things that had shaken me was witnessing people stand up in a fervent worship service, and speak in tongues; followed by someone who offered an interpretation. So I gravitated to that congregation, and remained there for several years; when I moved to Virginia for a different job, I didn't find an AG church I felt comfortable in, and so gravitated to a non-charismatic evangelical congregation; from there, I wandered a bit more, until -- in God's providence -- I found my way back to the Catholic Faith, almost ten years after that initial conversion. Before moving on, let me say: as obviously glad as I am to have returned to the fullness of the Catholic Faith, I hold the good folks who were my friends and siblings in Christ from that period in great esteem. Many of them remain my friends, despite whatever concern my wanderings must have caused them. They are admirable Christians, from which Catholics can and must learn.

So what about this speaking in tongues phenomenon. What is it?

People with expertise in pyschology have studied it; you can go find them if you want their scholarly treatment of it. I conclude, from various reading but also from my own sense of things, that this has to be a physiological/psychological phenomenon on the base level, prior to it being a spiritual event -- and thus, miraculous -- as well. In other words, it would seem to me that it's not only possible that it occurs outside Christianity, it would have to. And for the same reason, it would be something that can be "faked," either deliberately, or in the course of someone, with the best of intentions, trying desperately to experience it.

After all, if you belong to a group that is all seeking this gift, it might be rather hard on someone who hasn't spoken in tongues. Some of the religious groups I mentioned above really do emphasize this gift: their point is that it is the only sure marker that you've been "baptized in the Holy Spirit." So until you speak in tongues, you can't say you've received this other baptism (as distinct from the traditional baptism).

So if it happens all over, and people can fake it, is there anything about it that's genuine? Sure -- I see no contradiction in this. All this comes under the broader heading of highly emotional experiences, trending toward ecstatic experiences. People get "transported" emotionally by lots of things. When people use various drugs, they often do so because the drug can induce or simulate this sort of experience.

The important point here -- pay attention to this, please! -- is that because we are physical beings, with all the chemistry and emotion in us, in all it's complexity, these sorts of psychological/physical experiences are something we are, as it were, "prepped" for, before the Holy Spirit does anything. Do you see that? (If this paragraph doesn't make sense, ask about it. Meanwhile, let's move on.)

Here's an analogy. We believe, as Christians, that God can, and sometimes does, speak to people through dreams and visions. But that doesn't mean we claim that every dream or vision is a divine intervention! Nor, because we understand that these things can be without any obvious divine prompting, that none of them can be a divine communication. See that? (If not, please ask.)

So I'm leading toward the question I hope you're asking: what does the Catholic Faith say about all this?

If you look in the Catechism, I think you'll find very little about it. We don't deny what Scripture says; we don't deny what science says; and the Church doesn't take a restrictive approach on spirituality. There is no prohibition on seeking these charismatic gifts, or on using them, if you believe you have them. Even, as far as I can see, in the context of formal liturgy. I don't know how common "charismatic" Masses and prayer meetings are in Catholic settings these days, as I haven't heard about it for awhile; but it was all the rage 20 or 30 years ago. There were Masses in which people would have very loud and fervent spontaneous prayer and praise, and would, I understand, speak in tongues. This would also happen outside of Mass in adoration of the Holy Eucharist.

If this started happening in my parish, what would I do?

Well, I'd pay attention! I'd want to learn about it, and try to see what was at work. I'd seek not to forbid, but to direct it in a suitable way: i.e., I'm pretty sure Saint Paul would agree with me that folks offering tongues, interpretations and prophecies, etc., should not disrupt the sacred action of the sacrifice of the Mass. So I'd seek some accommodation, as well as to give some guidance.

And above all, in my parish, I would call the whole community to pay attention to the fruits.

Human sinfulness means that we can always find pitfalls, even along the best paths. The various charismatic gifts, while legitimate, need purification and discretion. If you really want to be a prophet, pay attention to what all the prophets experienced: a huge amount of suffering, particularly the grinding down of their ego. I've bought lottery tickets and told God what good things I'd do if I won, so would he please grant it? I've yet to win; for all I know, because God knows what a shipwreck I'd make with all that money.

One of the things the Church does insist on, however, is that our baptism in water is also our "baptism in the Holy Spirit." Note well: that is not to deny that someone can, later, have a more profound experience of the Holy Spirit; or that the Holy Ghost might not "fall" on someone, prompting genuine "signs and wonders." I'm not sure who said it first, but we believe that while God surely acts through the Church and the sacraments, God is not bound solely to them. The sacraments are primary, not because the are the only way to be graced (transformed; converted; made Godlike), but because they are sure means of grace.

Another thing the Church is firm about is the distinction between public and private revelation. The sacraments, after all, come from the Lord Jesus himself. Yes, they've been elaborated in the life of the Church, but their origins are clearly from him. You can see it in Scripture, yes all of them.

And public revelation is what we call the totality of what God wants to reveal to humanity for our salvation: Jesus is the total and final "word" of God to man. The Apostles--and by extension, the Church--are the chosen messengers of this revelation. Some of it is written down, which we call scripture; some of it is handed down, which we call tradition. But it's one revelation of the Trinity. And for the sake of the faithful -- so that they need not be in doubt or fear about responding properly to God's revelation -- the task of interpreting with authority this revelation belongs to the "teaching office" or Magisterium of the Church.

Doesn't this just make plain sense? Or would you rather have to wonder if there was some new revelation somewhere, and God wants you to know it -- implying you may have to respond to it -- but who knows where it is? It could be priest in Mexico, or some ascetic in the Himalayas, or a young girl in an African village, or a nun in a European convent. You never know! So you exhaust yourself pursuing all of it! And you'll still never know, until you go to your judgment day; and woe betide you if you didn't work hard enough!

This is not the Catholic Faith!

God wants us to come to the knowledge of the truth, and so has given us a sure means of having that truth; he knows it's hard enough living by it. Conforming ourselves to the truth is our task, not seeking prophets and seers and visionaries worldwide, or else seeking every new form of prayer and spirituality. We're not forbidden to do these things; but don't have to be dragged along if we don't want to.

Which image of God makes more sense? God who treats you the way video games do: with every successful level, you get a prize, but: another, yet more difficult level! Like Hercules and his labors! Or God who gives the full means of grace to absolutely everyone, accessible by the greatest intellect or the humblest, and suited -- as Saint Francis de Sales taught -- to the life and circumstances of every walk of life?

To conclude, let's go back to the wisdom of the 6th century, which I interrupted, and see what the answer is:

Therefore, if somebody should say to one of us, "You have received the Holy Spirit, why do you not speak in tongues?" his reply should be, "I do indeed speak in the tongues of all men, because I belong to the body of Christ, that  is the Church, and she speaks all languages.


truthfinder2 said...

Yes, these things can be faked, or emotionally produced in environments where they are the expected norm. So I truly believe that verse which says, "let all things be done decently and in order". I do know that, for me at least, speaking in tongues was not "emotional", as in a whipped-up fury of emotion, but was a moment of great internal calm and extreme clarity. As a former Evangelical, then Pentecostal, then Episcopalian Protestant who is still trying to find her proper function and place in the Catholic Church, I respectfully submit this link to an article by Fr.Raniero Cantalamessa: ~ Rosemary

Steve Finnell said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Fr Martin Fox said...

Once again, Mr. Finnell -- whose comment was deleted -- has shown himself to be lacking in integrity.

He claims to be a Christian, and he hosts a blog. If you post anything on his blog he disagrees with, he will delete it. Which is his right.

On the other hand, he has repeatedly come here, and spammed my blog with comments utterly unrelated to the topics. The only purpose is to provide a commercial for his blog.

At least twice, I have gone to his blog, and asked him to stop. Mr. Finnell pays no attention.

If Mr. Finnell is man enough, perhaps he'll come back and explain himself.

Mr. Finnell?