Friday, July 19, 2013

Is Charismatic Renewal for Real? part 7

(Letter to Kerry Zmatick continued)

Once again, I apologize to my faithful readers (a group of about eight, two of whom are canaries anxiously staring at the bottom of their cages.) You probably have no interest in all this nonsense, but I think it may be of some importance.

The  Charismatic movement is bigger and more dynamic that most people think. It has lost a lot of steam here in the USA where it started, but among African, Asian, and Latin American Catholics it is huge and very influential. Years ago, in 2002 in his article “The Next Christianity”, (Atlantic Monthly October 2002) Phillip Jenkins claimed that the future of the world is the southern hemisphere, it is Christian and it is Charismatic. This was before the recent explosion of Christianity in China. He challenges the much touted claim that Islam is the fastest growing religion. It seems that in terms of adult conversions to the faith, Charismatic Christianity is the wave of the future. We don’t see that here because not only is the “American” church dying, America is dying. The vitality of the Church in this country is pretty much found among immigrants from Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Face it. If this is true, then we Catholics had better make sure we get it right and continue to offer the unchanging truth of Catholic Faith and its two thousand years of unbroken tradition. That means that those who are Charismatic had better do their best to understand what the Holy Spirit is doing among them and to integrate what they have received into the whole Church for the well being of the whole Church. To summarize the axe that I have been grinding for the past few weeks, I will try to get it into a sentence so simple that even the two canaries above mentioned and I can understand. Here goes:

About a hundred years after the Reformation, there was a reaction to the dryness of classical Protestantism that resulted in the Pietist movement (1725). This in turn resulted in the Methodist movement (1800) which in its turn engendered the  Pentecostal movement (1900) now called the Charismatic movement. This world-wide movement is thus an odd hybrid of Catholic spirituality clothed in definitions and theology taken from Protestantism. Such phrases as “Are you saved?” and “Have you been baptized in the Holy Spirit?” are understood more in terms of Reformation legalism than Biblical conversion. The terms in which these realities are described are important.

The movement is important and so the terms are important. To inaccurately define these experiences limits and even diminishes them. If for example you have a forensic -- that is legal -- understanding of salvation, you will answer certain questions differently. To the question, "Are you saved?"  You might answer, “Yes, I am saved and  I needn’t do anything more until Jesus comes except go to the occasional prayer meeting.”  If you have a Catholic, i.e. Biblical, understanding of the question, you might answer, “Yes, I am being saved, changed day by day into the image of Christ for the salvation of the world.” 

If you have a forensic understanding of this outpouring of the Holy Spirit you might say “Yes, I have the Baptism in the Holy spirit. I know because I have the gift of tongues as evidence and I have the other gifts of the Holy Spirit.” Remember, as mentioned earlier, the phrase, “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” appears nowhere in the Scriptures, and speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing discernment of spirit, are never called gifts. They are charisms. So what’s the difference? You can have a gift (in Greek: “dorea”). You can only receive a charism (in Greek “charisma”).

If I give you the gift of a large picture of dogs playing poker, it is yours. You may keep it. Please do. The word charism has the sense of a favor, a blessing. It is related to the word for grace, “charis” It is grace operating in you, not a trophy to be displayed on your mantle. A charsim would be if I extended you the honor of representing me at the Frostbite Falls Religious Broadcast of the Week Award Banquet were I to receive the “Loony” (the coveted plastic trophy that depicts a loon holding a microphone). That would be a charism. Were I to say, "Keep the trophy," that would be a gift. 

They are different. A gift is mine. A charism is not mine. It is God’s favor, allowing me to be used for the preaching of His kingdom and the up building of His Church. It proves nothing about me, except that God loves me and is generous to a sinner. Gifts are to own. Charismata are to use. This is at the heart of the Charismatic problem. For many of us, to be Charismatic is to go to a wonderful prayer meeting where I really feel the presence of God and there is a really good music ministry and the speaker is dynamic and there is healing and people falling out in the Spirit, and then we go to Bakers Square afterwards for coffee. Hallelujah. For some people, the Baptism in the Holy Spirit is a kind of hobby.

To be baptized in the Holy Spirit has nothing to do with the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. “Huh?”  I can hear you say. “Now Father! You are just being irritating.” That may be true, but I have a point. Let us look at the text. The verb phrase “to baptize in the Holy Spirit” appears only twice in the new testament, both times referring to the same sermon of St. John the Baptist. (Cf. Matt 3:12 and Luke 3:17)

“The ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not produce good fruit is cut down, and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water for the sake of  repentance. but He that comes after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to carry. He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly purge His floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

To make bread before this marvelous mechanized age, you started by cutting wheat and throwing it onto a threshing floor, which was usually a large flat stone on top of a hill. You brought up oxen, harnessed to a heavy sledge. The oxen would then tread out the grain, going in circles dragging the sledge behind them. The crushing of hooves and sledge broke open the hulls of the grain and separated the grain from the chaff. Then you would take a large flat wooden shovel and toss the crushed wheat into the air until the wind separated the lighter chaff from the heavier grain. Two piles would form, a large one of chaff, then a small one of wheat kernels. The chaff would be burned and the wheat ground once more to make flour which was once again subjected to fire in order to make bread. 

The temple was built over what had once been the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. The rough stone of the threshing floor was the very floor of the Holy of Holies where rested the ark of the covenant. The center of Israelite worship was a threshing floor like the one John spoke of. This Baptizing in the Holy Spirit was symbolized in the very heart of the old covenant and there was to be a new temple and new threshing floor to make a new bread for sacrifice when the old covenant was at last fulfilled. Threshing involves crushing and burning and the separation of chaff from wheat by the wind. It is telling to realize that in Greek and in Hebrew “wind” is the same word as “Spirit”. Crushing, burning, separation from what is useless. Does this sound like what most people mean when they talk about the Baptism in the Holy Spirit? No, they mean a seminar after which there is usually coffee and cookies. The immersion in the Divine Presence is not an experience. It is a roaring and mighty wind that separates one from what one holds dear. It is a fire that purifies by steady and repeated  burning away of whatever is useless.

That is certainly what started in my life on January 24, 1968.  I cannot say that I have the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. I have been Baptized in the Holy Spirit and that night so long ago was when the fire was lit, that continues to burn and crush and purify, if I let it. To be washed in the Divine Presence is a fearful thing. It is not some kind of merit badge or graduation ceremony. It is a like the wrestling match between Jacob and the angel of God.  There is joy, but it is hardly an entertainment. It is fire and it is a mighty wind that will take you away from all that you thought was important to you. It is not given to anyone to make life better. It, like love, makes life in this world much more difficult and at the same time infinitely more purposeful. To be Baptized in the Holy Spirit is to offer yourself on the altar of the new temple, and having passed through the fire in the altar of sacrifice, to enter the threshing floor, the true Holy of Holies.

Next week: so what about the gifts of the Holy Spirit that you say aren’t gifts?


  1. Fr. Simon,
    Thank you for your usual entertaining and quite educational post, in this case, a letter to Kerry Zmatick. Your last paragraph is pure gold, in my estimation; as you describe so very well, the spiritual experience with which I (among others, I am sure) have been blown away this year (pun intended, as this relates to the Holy Spirit!). Your posts always give so much depth, history, biblical insight and more, to deep Spiritual/Catholic truths. I hope that one day you will have a compilation - a book - published as a reference work for those of us who benefit so much from your clarity of thought & communication. Think about it, please!

  2. Hello Father,

    I am enjoying your recent series that is really delving into the roots and origins of this movement. I am also liking this because I do have a friend who is a Charismatic Catholic (don't worry though. She knows where the crazy stuff is and avoids it, and has even come to two of my Latin Masses I've served!), and the movement seems to be anywhere from a funny joke to "avoid at all costs" amongst those who are Traditional Catholics.

    I have a question though. Have you already done so, or, when are you going to cover all those weird practices like laying hands on people, reaching your hands out above your head for the Holy Spirit, etc. In addition, I might want to add that it seems the practice of the "hands out" thing has seeped its way into Eucharistic Adoration with teens and youth. Just see the recent coverage from LifeTeen of the Stubenville summer conference for evidence.