(Letter to Kerry Zmatick continued)
In the 1950's and 60's, after the end of the Second World War, Christians in America and Europe faced a crisis that had been brewing since the end of the First World War. Traditional Protestantism and Catholicism had a hard time making sense of the post war, cold war materialist “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” world in which they found themselves. All of the truths that humanity had counted on seemed shaken and unsure. The materialism of both communism and capitalism gripped humanity as never before. The intellectualized religion of liberal Protestantism that also infected Catholicism in the 1950's just didn’t satisfy the baby boomer post war generation in the same way that a shiny new car and a house in the suburbs did. Those were days during which man’s search for meaning went only as far as his neighbor’s picket fence. Needless to say, there were some who didn’t find meaning in the sleek shiny world of the fabulous fifties and the groovy sixties. Among them were one dissatisfied Lutheran/Calvinist minister, one dissatisfied Anglican priest, one dissatisfied (Pentecostal ) Assemblies of God minister, and one dissatisfied Anglican layman.
The Lutheran was Rev. Harald Bredesen who had been Baptized in the Holy Spirit in 1946. Up to that point, if someone from a mainline protestant church claimed to be baptized in the Holy Spirit and to speak in tongues he generally left his mainline protestant denomination. If he didn’t leave, he would probably be thrown out. Bredesen saw no reason why he couldn’t be a Lutheran minister and speak in tongues. As far as anybody knows, Bredesen was the first ordained clergyman from a mainline denomination to openly claim Baptism in the Holy Spirit while retaining his credentials in a mainline denomination. It was Bredesen who first used the term “Charismatic Renewal” in an article in Eternity Magazine in 1963. He objected to the term “Neo Pentecostal” and preferred the term “Charismatic”. I am not sure what the fuss was about. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet and a platypus by any other name would seem as strange.
Rev. Dennis Bennet, an American Episcopal Priest publicly admitted to having received the so-called Baptism in the Holy Spirit beginning Easter of 1960. His parish, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, in Van Nuys, California, dropped him like a bad habit. Newsweek and Time Magazine zeroed in on the story and once again, Pentecostalism, this time among Episcopalians was making headlines. He was hired by St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington, a parish on the skids, and when the parish stopped shrinking and started expanding, this too made headlines. Fr. Bennet eventually collaborated with another dissatisfied Episcopalian, John Sherrill in a book about his experiences called “Nine O’clock in the Morning.”
Sherrill is know to very few people, but I suspect he has had more influence on Christianity than any one since St. Thomas Aquinas. In addition to “Nine O’clock,” he wrote two very important books, “They Speak with Other Tongues” and “the Cross and the Switchblade.” “Cross and the Switchblade” was written by John Sherrill and Rev. David Wilkerson about an Assemblies of God minister. Wilkerson who was tired of preaching to second and third generation Pentecostals, pastored small churches in Scottdale and Philipsburg, in rural Pennsylvania, until 1958 when the Holy Spirit moved him to preach the Gospel to New York street gangs and heroin addicts.
These books are not what most people would call great literature or profound theology. They are closer to mystery stories than theological texts. I have heard them called theological bon-bons. Still, I maintain they have changed the world. Their very simplicity explained Pentecostalism and its ability to reach the heart of a church that was dying, a casualty of the materialism and the horrors of the twentieth century. Through these two books Pentecostalism leaked into Catholicism renewing its evangelistic vitality in way that no one could have predicted. How did these books and the experience they claimed find their way into Catholic hands? Catholics weren’t going to pal around with snake healers and ecstatic hillbillies. They would occasionally speak to a Presbyterian, Lutheran or Episcopalian, in the new ecumenical spirit of the post Vatican II Church. And that is precisely what happened.
On a retreat in late February 1967 a few faculty members and students from Duquesne (Catholic) University in Pittsburgh claimed to have been Baptized in the Holy Spirit. The three or four faculty members sponsoring the retreat had already experienced the Baptism in the Spirit in January at an interdenominational Charismatic prayer meeting, the Chapel Hill meeting, in the home of Miss Florence Dodge, a Presbyterian. In preparation for the retreat, the faculty members suggested reading The Cross and the Switchblade, and the Acts of the Apostles. On February 17, twenty or thirty students and a few faculty gathered at the Ark and The Dove Retreat Center. On Saturday, a member of the Chapel Hill Prayer Group spoke to the group about Acts, chapter 2. As a result it was suggested that the retreat close with a renewal of the sacrament of Confirmation. On Saturday night, the students began spontaneously to wander into the chapel and just started laughing, crying and praying in strange words and so began the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.
People who had experienced this phenomenon at the Dusquesne retreat told friends at Notre Dame and Michigan State University. Similar things happened. The phenomenon spread to Benet Lake Monastery in Antioch Illinois, and that is where I come in.
It was 1967. I was a freshman in a college seminary that was in the process of losing its identify. I was in the process of losing my identity. I, like a number of my fellow seminarians had become enchanted with Hinduism and Buddhism, because after all, in the spirit of the times weren’t all religions really the same? I belonged to an ecumenical committee and was assigned to investigate this new Pentecostal movement that had started earlier that year at Notre Dame University. It sounded very ecumenical, all those Protestants and Catholics praying together. I got the number of one of the Catholics who went to the Benet Lake Prayer Meeting and to a large inter-faith prayer meeting led by a Methodist minister in a Presbyterian church in a Chicago suburb. If that wasn’t ecumenical what was?
The person whose number I’d been given was a full time mother and homemaker who went on and on about what the Lord was doing in her life, in the church and in the world. After about an hour, being a college freshman who knew all things, I asked where she had learned all this.
She laughed and said “ Oh that’s not me talking. That’s the Lord.”
I looked at the phone and rolled my eyes. Being an exceptionally lazy student, I asked her what was all this business about speaking in tongues.
She laughed again and said, “Oh speaking in tongues is easy. You could do it right now if you wanted.”
I said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
I would call her back if I needed any more information for my committee report. When I hung up the phone it seemed like the room I was in was filled with a light that I could feel but couldn’t see. I remember smiling and singing hymns and feeling like an idiot. I went to my room and knelt down by my bedside to pray, a practice I had long ago abandoned, and only gibberish came out of my mouth. I calmed down, decided I had lost my mind and went to sleep. I was never again the same.
This was January of 1968, I think the 24th. The subsequent 45 years of my life have been indescribable. Baptism is a Greek word that simply means immersion, and that is exactly what I experienced, an Immersion in God’s Holy Spirit. The theological adventure books mostly seem written in the happily ever after style of literature. I’m not sure this is honest. True, my Immersion in the Holy Spirit has been a source of great joy, and since experiencing it, I have never doubted the nearness and reality of God, but for me, the Immersion in the Holy Spirit has also been challenging, even fearful.
There is a very strange passage in the book of Exodus. Read Exodus 4:24,25. “At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah (Moses’ wife) took a flint knife, cut off her son's foreskin and touched Moses' feet with it. ‘Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,’ she said.”
People are mystified by this passage, but since being Immersed in the Holy Spirit, this passage of Scripture has never seemed odd to me. “The Lord your God who is among you is a jealous God, and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land.” (Deut. 6:115) It is a dangerous thing to play with fire, and an infinitely more dangerous thing to play with the Fire of the Holy Spirit.
These 45 years have been an unremitting struggle with my own weakness and sinfulness as well as a struggle with those who misuse this outpouring of grace. Some of them were simply foolish. Some of them were inconsistent. I have had friends who put their hand to the plow and then looked back. (Luke 9:62) Their lives became meaningless and bitter. I have met some people who though involved in spiritual ministry have simply been evil. I have also met real prophets and amazing saints along the way. In a time when both the Church and I were forgetting the supernatural reality of the Christian life, I met people who never let me forget that to be a Christian is to live in a supernatural reality.
Next: the problems of Pentecostal/Charismatic Renewal