Friday, August 2, 2013

Is Charismatic Renewal for Real? part 9

Letter to Kerry Zmatick, relentlessly continued…..

Let us move on, like a herd of turtles, to the essential expression of the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement: the prayer meeting. That the prayer meeting is a fairly recent historical invention may have surprised some of you, my faithful readers, who at this point are probably down to two or three. I have it on good authority that the two canaries who used to follow the column, have given up reading  my articles that line the bottom of their cage and are using them in a more appropriate  way. Again, I digress. The prayer meeting!

Perhaps you recall that the prayer meeting as a regular thing did not really exist until after 1675. It was a reaction to the publication by Philip Jakob Spener of the pamphlet, “Pia Desideria” roughly translated, “Pious Desires”.  This 200 page “pamphlet” was published as an introduction to the vastly larger and more turgid masterpiece, “Four Books of True Christianity”, by Johann Arndt. Arndt’s book reached back into pre-Lutheran, medieval Catholic mysticism and was thus suspect. Both Arndt and Spener were called heretical by Protestants. (That’s a hoot, the pot calling the kettle heterodox.) In 1590, Arndt was deposed from his pastorate by Calvinists for refusing to remove pictures from his church and using exorcism in the administration of baptism. Similarly in 1695 the theological faculty of Wittenberg charged Spener with 264 errors. The pietism Arndt and Spener initiated was too emotional and too Catholic.  Protestantism was rational and forensic (a polite word for legalistic).

Spener made Arndt’s ideas available to a wider audience. His pamphlet sold like “heisse Kuchen.” (That’s “hot cakes” for all you who don’t keep up with German theological terms.) Wherever it was read, people formed prayer groups that would meet in public places and pray spontaneously. The horror of it! There were three legal religions in the German Empire: Catholicism, Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism (Calvinism) This wasn’t any of those. Protestants decried the prayer meetings as “Catholic monasteries on Protestant soil!!!”  Pietists would routinely be arrested for public, spontaneous prayer. A Catholic was supposed to go into a church, kneel in back and mind his own business as good Catholics do to this day. Protestants were expected to go into unadorned meeting halls, sit on hard benches, listen to very long, heady sermons and then to go home and do something useful like make money. These Pietists getting all emotional about religion in public were just beyond the pale.

Certainly, you must be thinking, there were prayer meetings before 1675. Not really. St. Francis and his followers were known to break out in spontaneous prayer as they traveled the roads of Europe. They loved the Lord so much they just couldn’t help themselves. Certainly people have always prayed spontaneously. But a prayer meeting as a regular structure? Can’t find it before 1675. Surely the first Christians prayed spontaneously! You are forgetting that the first Christians were Israelites mostly from the tribes of Judah and Levi. Do you know any modern Jews? They are nothing if not liturgical.

We Catholics and our Jewish friends get our sense of liturgy and the idea of the liturgical calendar from the temple liturgies of the time of Christ. If you go to an orthodox Jewish synagogue, there is nothing spontaneous going on. Passionate yes, spontaneous no. There are certain prayers that one says on certain days of the week, month and year. The Roman Catholic missal is nothing compared to the synagogue prayer book. The flipping of pages, rolling of scrolls and bowing up and down make the Catholic Mass look simple. 

In short, the first Christians being orthodox Israelites didn’t have prayer meetings. They had liturgy. I’m sure they were passionate, and they often prayed spontaneously. We see it in the Acts of the Apostles, but in their coming together they were liturgical. I doubt that any of the first disciples ever said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea! Let’s just make this up as we go along!” The had a hymnal, the book of Psalms, and the melodies that went with it, some of which we still sing today in the Catholic Mass as psalm tones. They had liturgy that involved bread, wine, oil, and possibly even incense and holy water, the whole panoply of sacrifice. Their direct heirs, the Catholic and Orthodox wings of Christianity still have these sacrificial accouterments. But prayer meetings?  The prayer meeting is a modern thing, modern at least by Catholic standards.

I remember those who participated in the events telling the stories of the first days of Catholic Pentecostalism (Charismatic Renewal, most people now call it). This great outpouring of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit happened in 1967 during the second semester at Notre Dame and Dusquesne universities. These people were students. They only stopped to figure things out after final exams were done in spring. As I heard the story that they met not quite under Notre Dame’s golden dome to figure out “What next?” Suggestions were made: retreats, days of renewal and, of course, prayer meetings. After all, the first stirrings of the New Catholic Pentecost at Dusquesne University had been a result of a few students and faculty attending the Chapel Hill prayer meeting in the home of Miss Flo Dodge, a Presbyterian. The prayer meeting had entered American Protestantism through the Methodist movement, which was the English version of Pietism. By 1967 the prayer meeting was a standard part of Protestant life. When enlivened by Pentecostalism, the prayer meeting was actually worth going to. People were passionate about faith and expected God to actually do something! The students went home for the summer where they started prayer meetings.

Imbued with the Spirit of Vatican II, throngs of priests and nuns who wanted to take summer courses came to Notre Dame and Dusquesne where they were introduced to the prayer meeting. The whole thing was like throwing water on a grease fire.  In the Winter of ‘67, that’s where I come in.  I started investigating the whole deal, and was “baptized in the Holy Spirit” following a phone conversation in January of ‘68. I cherish the experience to this day, and still think of myself as a Pentecostal Catholic. I was invited to attend a prayer meeting conducted by a Methodist minister in a Presbyterian church. The Methodist minister eventually edged out the Presbyterian congregation, bought the church building and started a cult in which he made all decisions for the faithful down to who they would marry and what kind of kitchen table they should buy. I was long gone by that time, thank Heaven. 

You have perhaps heard the line about “assume.”  To assume makes a mindless beast of burden out of you and me. When we assume that the prayer meeting is a given, a structure that just is, we are making a very foolish assumption. The great weakness of Catholic Charismatic Renewal lies in this assumption. The Protestant error rests on the assumption that the first Christians were simpler, non-liturgical  people. This just isn’t true. Things don’t always get complicated, they often start out complex and then simplify. The Protestant error is to try to recapitulate an early  Christian simplicity that never existed. In trying to simplify the Church, they conformed it to their own expectations. The liturgy of Protestantism would be absolutely foreign to the first disciples. The liturgical movement of the 60's and 70's made the same mistake. 

The Charismatic Renewal drank the liturgical Kool-aid of the era and somehow assumed that the prayer meeting with a brief Mass tacked on to the end was closer to the early Christian experience than those boring dry Masses they had to endure on Sunday at St. Apathia’s church, or wherever they happened to be members.  They looked forward to the prayer meeting, which, if they could find a priest who was “spirit-filled” became a CHARISMATIC MASS, infinitely better than a dry boring regular Mass. The prayer meeting became the norm. Mass was an invalid who needed to be revived by dancing about and babbling in Babylonian. Since the prayer meeting became the new liturgical expression, the prayer meeting took on structure and became, you guessed it, boring,  but with tambourines. Sunday obligation became a thing of the past, because, unless it was Charismatic, some people didn’t “get anything” out of it.

The prayer meeting, on the other hand became an obligation. If one said “You  know, I’m not going to prayer meeting this Thursday. I’m going to stay home and watch television.” It was sure sign that you were, heaven forfend, backsliding and prayers were said for your repentance. To say “I don’t get anything out of Mass,” excused one from Sunday obligation. To say “I don’t get anything out of the prayer meeting," meant that you were obviously in sin and probably running around with a disreputable crowd. The whole thing eventually became absurd. Sunday was not  obligatory. Thursday night prayer meeting was. 

It got even sillier. As the prayer meeting took the place of Sunday Mass, it became structured, even quasi-liturgical. The structure was as follows. A half hour of spontaneous warm up that involved lively music and prayer “in the spirit.” If the throng was not excited enough, the prayer group “leader” usually at a microphone, would say something like, “Let's stand up and really let the spirit just flow. Or, “We are just going to praise the Lord.” Or, “We are just going to really seek the Lord.” The leader might start shouting over the microphone in an attempt to get people excited. The leader might start speaking in tongues with the volume turned up. I often wondered exactly to whom were these utterances were addressed. The whole nonsense gave rise to the saying, “Charismatics are people who believe God is deaf.” 

“Just” was a very important word. I’m not quite sure what it meant in the context, but it was pivotal. I think it implied that anything the prayer group leader was saying was “just” not important, or perhaps, “Let’s focus here group. We’re not as excited as we should be!” After the “spontaneous” half hour was over there would be testimonies, “I used to be messed up on drugs, but now I’m messed up on religion, hallelujah!” Then there would be a teaching, usually about a half an hour, given by someone who was as clueless as most of the participants, but his clueless-ness was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes rather than a clueless Catholic, a Protestant minister would come and explain the gifts of the Holy Ghost and lead everyone in prayer for the “release of the gifts.” In effect, you weren’t getting out of there until you could speak in tongues, no matter how late it got. Then there would be a time of quiet, or waiting on the Lord, during which people would prophesy.  “Thus says the Lord, My children I am coming very soon.” Or, “Thus says the Lord, My children, I love you very much.”  I believe in the prophetic gift, about which I will speak later, but prophesy, so called, really took a nose dive in 1982 after Assembly of God minister, Rev. Jimmy Swaggart, said that if you stayed Catholic you were probably going to hell.

We suddenly got very Catholic. If they were going to beat us with their Bibles, we would strangle them with our Rosaries. In order to make sure that prophesies were Catholic, they really should be written down, checked for doctrinal error and delivered only by approved prophets. A good prophesy makes the hair on your arm stand up and makes you want to run out of the room because it cuts to the heart. It’s usually one sentence long and gets to the point immediately. A good prophesy is embarrassing. It’s supposed to be. These written prophecies that became popular were merely tedious. They went on and on and on and drifted into that foggy realm called “locutions.” I wont discuss locutions here. I have enough enemies. 

After the prophecies, came healing, perhaps prefaced by testimonies. I remember one deacon saying, as he looked at his watch, “the time of healing has now arrived.” What he meant was, “I’m tired and have to get up fairly early in the morning. So let’s wrap this up.” And then announcements and a final rousing song. “Go in peace the prayer meeting is ended.”   

So we came to an absurd position. We had structured prayer meetings and spontaneous Masses. It never occurred to us that a Mass and a prayer meeting are completely different things. Again, we were through the looking glass!

Next week: Despite all I’ve said, I actually like a good prayer meeting and wish I knew where there was one.


  1. I was involved with the Charismatic Renewal from roughly 1973 until around 1985, including several years with a Covenant Community. I don't remember the prayer meetings being as structured as you describe. Maybe there are regional differences, or it could be a difference between the influence of the two major hubs found in South Bend and Ann Arbor.

    One bit you forgot to include was the person who would combine two different manifestations, and prophesy aloud in tongues. We would then all pray sotto voce while waiting for someone to "interpret" that prophesy.

    I once read about a visitor at a prayer meeting who went up to the microphone and said a prayer in Aramaic. The rest of the group thought he was speaking in tongues, and someone got up afterwards to give the interpretation. Needless to say, the "interpretation" had nothing in common with the actual prayer. That story helped me to understand that the charismatic experience seems to combine some truly authentic manifestation of the Holy Spirit (I know of some healings that are truly miraculous) along with no small measure of hocum.

  2. Based on this description of prayer meetings, it seems like some Catholic youth programs have adopted some of the same practices. They have a structure, but they dumb down prayer and accompany it with cheesy rock music. They don't go so far as to speak in tongues and prophecy, but they do invite open petitions, holding hands, and feature a fair amount of acting to convey just how sincere the whole things is. Additionally, just as many people start thinking prayer meetings actually mean more to one's soul than attending than Mass and receiving the Eucharist, quite a few kids and their parents thought going to Youth Night was more important than going to Mass. I start to wonder whether incorporating this format, which treats prayer as an outward expression on real piety and religious authenticity, confuses the meaning of prayer and how a person should truly orient himself towards God.