(Letter to Kerry Zmatick continued)
Let me begin by saying that this current extended tirade may be nothing more than a confession of my own sins. I am a very bad Charismatic and the true
Charismatics whom I am insulting are guilty of none of these things. If you are offended by my remarks, please understand that they couldn’t possibly refer to you. Keep that in mind as I continue to rant.
In my last installment, I tore up prayer meetings pretty thoroughly and then said that I really like a good prayer meeting. Allow me to explain. Most prayer meetings, so called, aren't prayer meetings at all. There isn't a lot of prayer that actually goes on. At a mediocre prayer meeting, there is music, the purpose of which is to get people in “the mood.” There are testimonials that are also helpful, to get people in the mood. There is a lengthy teaching, which as often as not is supposed to inspire people about how to get into the mood. Then there is the mood, and everyone leaves happy. Remember, elsewhere I have told you that Martin Luther redirected the sacrifice of the Mass when he said that the Mass was not a sacrifice, but that it existed for the consolation and instruction of the people. Luther took the focus off God and made the congregation the object of the service. The service was no longer directed at heaven. It became earthbound. The earthbound liturgy of the reformation ultimately has no means of gauging its success other than the way that it makes people feel. This error has made its way into every kind of Protestantism including Protestant Pentecostalism and now makes its way, like an infection, into Catholicism by means of an inauthentic ecumenism. (“There really is no difference between us.” “We worship the same God.” “In our hearts we're undivided .” That sort of nonsense.)
"So what should a good prayer meeting be?" I thought you'd never ask! The best definition I've ever heard is that "a prayer meeting is a gathering of the people of God for the free exercise of the gifts of God.” Now that I have thoroughly demolished the idea that the charismatic manifestations are “gifts”, we’ll let it slide this time. Add to this the classic definition of prayer as “a lifting of the heart and mind to God” and you’ve pretty much nailed it. What passes for a prayer meeting is really the liturgy of a kind of parallel charismatic church. But a prayer meeting is simply a meeting where people pray spontaneously.
The best prayer meetings I’ve ever attended were completely unscripted. The old Pentecostals had something called the “tarry service.” An old translation of the Bible put it this way: “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.” Luke 24:49. The disciples were told to “tarry” that is to wait in Jerusalem for empowerment by the Holy Spirit.
The old time Pentecostals would spend a night in prayer and intercession on Saturday night preparing for Sunday services. They would just pray and wait until the Holy Spirit showed up. Remember that the beginnings of Pentecost in the 20th Century reach back to the Azusa Street Revival where Rev. Seymour would come into the building sometime in the early evening and Frank Bartelman, an early chronicler of the Pentecostal Movement, recounts the congregation sat on wooden planks for pews and that “Brother Seymour generally sat behind two empty shoe boxes (packing crates), one on top of the other. He usually kept his head inside the top one during the meeting, in prayer. There was no pride there.... In that old building, with its low rafters and bare floors...” The ceiling was too low for a raised platform for “the leadership” or for a formal pulpit. Brother Seymour would pray, face hidden away in a packing crate and the place would fill with a Holy Presence that changed lives and eventually changed the direction of Christianity, Protestant and Catholic alike. There were no microphones, no order of service, no music ministry. There was just utter, prayerful simplicity. The congregants would sing and pray and prophesy. The sick would be healed and the Gospel made visible, all without anyone looking at a watch or a printed sheet of instructions.
The old Catholic Puerto Rican Charismatics (Oops! I mean Icelandic Charismatics) would do the same thing. They would lock themselves in church at night with their Bibles, their blankets, pillows and a coffee pot, and of course a few tambourines and they would seek God. They called it a “Vigilia”. They would stay there until they were done and they weren’t done until they knew that God had answered. How did they know that God had answered? They simply knew that they knew that they knew. These gatherings were amazing; the intensity, the joy and the sense of the nearness of Heaven. They were wonderful meetings because people really wanted God. When my time as the Bishop’s liaison to Spanish (Oops again) speaking prayer groups was over, they still had the Vigilias, but they ended promptly at 10 and were conducted by the “leadership.” There was a choir and a sermon and God was expected to sit quietly in the back of the church and let the leaders do the talking.
Those old tarry services and vigilias were like torrents in the desert, the thirsty soul revived and encouraged. These were very poor people. Their lives knew real sorrow, but they were capable of so much joy when they knew that they had encountered the Almighty. It was as if they had spent a few moments in Heaven, and I believe they really did. One of the most interesting things about those meetings was the profound silence that often fell on the group.
These days, a Charismatic meeting is gauged as successful only when there has been measurable auditory damage. This is achieved by the use of electrified instruments and microphones. But I remember meetings during which a hush as thick as fog would fall over the crowd and one was almost afraid to look up. It was a kind of stillness that vibrated and glowed. In the midst of that tangible silence it seemed that someone had entered the room. It was like the beating of the wings of some great dove. You felt that if you lifted up your hands and stretched as far as you could, you could touch the silence. It was a silence that radiated strength and power from on high. Then the rejoicing would begin. There was shouting and weeping that was not forced or manipulated. God was in the silence. We human beings made the noise with our whole hearts and minds and souls and with all our strength. The excitement wasn’t divine, it was humanity meeting divinity and one understood what St. Irenaeus meant when he said, “The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God.” We used to sing an old chorus: “No puede estar triste el corazon que ama a Cristo, no puede estar triste el corazon que conoce a Dios. Por eso le canto...” “the heart that loves Christ cannot be sad, nor can the heart be sad that knows God. That is why I sing to Him...”
I am almost in tears to remember the joy of those meetings, and almost in tears to think of what has become of such a great favor bestowed by Heaven on the 20th century, until now the worst and most fratricidal of centuries. God poured out a healing balm in the renewal of Pentecost and the in the Vatican Council, but the balm was stolen and replaced with a spirit of division and dominance. The scriptures say that “the gifts (charismata) and calling of God are irrevocable.” (Rom. 12:6) I hope with all my heart that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit called for by good Pope John in preparation for the Vatican Council can be rediscovered under the pile of nonsense by which it has been buried.
You may have guessed, I have some suggestions about prayer meetings and the nature of Charismatic manifestations. Thank you for letting an old man reminisce.
Next week: A few casual suggestions.