Letter to Penny Quostal continued:
(This is ultimately going to be a disquisition on the nature of sacraments and in particular, the relationship between the diaconate and priesthood. Why then, you may well ask, has he veered off into religious strangeness? Simply because about one out of ten Christians alive today has had some experience with Pentecostalism, Catholic, Protestant and everything in between. This is particularly true in Africa, Latin America and Asia where lies the future of the church and the world. American Christianity is now the victim of the convenient theologies of the mega church which largely cater to popular feeling and are often a kind of “Pentecostalism lite.” This stuff is everywhere. The question with which I am dealing can be paraphrased: “How come when Pentecostal preachers pray over somebody, something happens? When Catholic bishops do, nothing appears to happen.” Fair question. I will continue now...)
So then, in order to answer the original question, I have to explain what it means to be “slain in the spirit?” It sounds a little frightening. Catholic Charismatics try to make it a bit more palatable by calling it “resting in the spirit.” A rose by any other name would still have thorns. In the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, there is a statue called “St. Teresa (of Avila) in Ecstasy” by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Her heart is being pierced by an arrow of love and she is falling back, not unconscious, but absolutely aware only of the arrow of God’s love held by an angel.
We have examples of something similar in the Bible. In the Apocalypse, we read about St. John’s vision: “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One.”(Rev. 1:17,18) In the first book of Samuel, the nineteenth chapter, we find the story of Saul who, on his way to kill David, meets a group of prophets and is seized by the Holy Spirit and he rips off his clothes and falls to the ground where he lay naked, prophesying all night and all day. When the temple guard came to arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane we read something similar. “Jesus asked, ‘Whom do you seek?’ They answered Him, ‘Jesus the Nazarene.’ He said to them, ‘I am He’... They drew back and fell to the ground.” (John chapter 18) Then we have the story of the conversion of St. Paul. In the ninth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we read, “He (Paul) fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Interestingly the experience seems to happen to bad people, more often than not. Saul, Paul and the Temple guards were all on their way to commit murder. They were stopped in their tracks by an experience of the power of God to which they responded by falling to the ground. One may presume St. Teresa of Avila to be a different case.
I have witnessed and experienced the phenomenon. I remember one Pentecostal faith healer who would just touch a person, often on the arm and start talking about the glory of God and over they would go. I’ve seen whole rows of people collapse like puppets with their strings cut. This particular faith healer even used this odd gift for the purpose of crowd control, not unlike the Lord when he stopped Saul, Paul and the temple guards.
The questioner mentioned that when a charismatic preacher prays over someone, that person “fall(s) unconscious for some time.” This is not quite accurate. The sensation is not one of unconsciousness, but rather one of complete peace. It’s as if the person says to himself “I’m standing, but there is no particular reason to do so because I feel so absolutely peaceful!” and down they go! It’s a real thing. I have no idea whether it is natural or supernatural. I suspect it is a bit of both, but it does happen. It is not illegal and when it is a spontaneous response to the sense of the nearness of God, I don’t think it is immoral.
Now, on to the abuses of the phenomenon which, quite frankly are immoral. I have attended countless prayer meetings and revival meetings during which there is prayer for the healing of the sick. People routinely fall over, and if they don’t fall over the faith “healer” will pray with great intensity until they do. Sometimes when the “healee” is not cooperative, the “healer” will give them a little shove when they have wasted enough time with that particular supplicant. I have had disconsolate people come up to me saying, “Father, God didn’t bless me! When they prayed over me, I didn’t fall over!” This makes me want to turn out the lights and send everybody home. It’s absolutely nuts! The phenomenon is real and when it’s real it’s full of joy and peace. Often it is faked and contrived and even dangerous. I have known people who injured themselves when shoved by a faith healer. I have never known anyone who was injured when the experience was spontaneous and genuine.
You may think from all this that I disapprove of Pentecostalism. On the contrary! I miss Pentecostalism. There isn’t much of it around any more either in its Catholic or Protestant form. There are a lot of showy non-denominational churches that are all about making people feel good. There are a lot of Catholic prayer group leaders who try to get people excited like in times past. The means by which they harangue the crowd into a kind of hysteria is the microphone. I remember one prayer group that had fallen on hard times. They really believed that if they felt it, it must be true, and if it was louder they would feel it. Needless to say a lot of the leadership had fallen into terrible sin and the group which had numbered in the hundreds was down to 15 or 20 members. They insisted on having the meetings in the large empty church and on using five microphones. If only they could make things louder, everyone would come back and the glory days would return. It never occurred that if they got quieter, that might actually happen. A really good prayer meeting is where everybody is going nuts and there’s no amplification. If the Holy Spirit doesn’t show up at the meeting, well, there’s always electrical noise.
When most people think of Pentecostalism, they think of noise. Pentecostalism is really about quiet. Profound and expectant quiet. Pentecost was one afternoon of supernatural ministry that changed the world. It was preceded by nine days of expectant waiting. The heart of the Pentecostal movement when it still had anything to do with Pentecost was the “tarry” service. The old King James’ version of the Bible in Luke 24:49 reads “And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high.”
Tarry is an old word meaning “wait” the Pentecostal tarry service was the very heart of the movement. People would lock themselves into a church or wherever they happened to meet on a Saturday night and just wait on the Lord. Sometimes they would wait for days. They weren’t going to do anything until the Holy Spirit arrived. There were no hymn books, no prayer leaders, no sermons, no “order of service.” They just waited.
I remember with fondness the Puerto Rican grandmothers who would lock themselves into a church on the west side of Chicago with a coffee pot, a few blankets and pillows and just prepare to wait out God, and as they put it, they would “pray through.” There is none of that now. There are music ministries and preachers and healing Masses. There are mega-churches with theater seats and membership drives. There are programs and seminars and what began in the Spirit is sadly ending in the flesh. (Galatians 3:3)
Next week: More interesting Pentecostal weirdness. Also, the finest defense of classical Pentecostalism out there is the movie “The Apostle” by Robert Duvall.