(Letter to Kerry Zmatick continued, like you’re surprised.)
I like prayer meetings. I really do. Despite my recent comments I think prayer meetings are a good thing. It’s just that most prayer meetings aren’t prayer meetings. They have more talking than praying.
In the early days of the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement, we were starved for teaching. Remember? This was 1968. Catholics had just rediscovered the Bible, some Catholics that is. As a child I had the Bible rammed down my gullet. I could never understand it when I heard Catholics say they didn’t read the Bible in the good old days. All the great authorities I knew from my father to Monsignor O’Brien, the local pastor were always pushing the Bible.
One of my earliest memories is looking at the pretty pictures in the Bible while sitting on my mother’s lap. We had Bible history, we owned Bibles, I had children’s Bibles bought at the parish bookstore. I still have my mother’s old Bible that she had as a school girl back in the first world war when Henry Ford was a ne’er do well farm boy down the road apiece. (His father thought he would never amount to much. Didn’t do a lick of work, just sat in the barn all day tinkering with motors. I‘m not making that up either.) When we cleaned out Grandma’s attic we found all sorts of Bible study books in German from around the 1880's, and Grandma was as Catholic as a Cathedral gargoyle! We read the Bible. Trust me. Big family dinners usually ended with a Bible, a bottle of wine and a theological argument at the table. I thus can’t figure out why people were hungry for teaching, but they were.
I got my start in the teaching biz right about then. In about 1970, I wandered into a prayer meeting in the old town section of Frostbite Falls and when they found out I was in the seminary, I was appointed to lead the introductory seminar for those who were first time visitors to the prayer meeting. I was to explain the history, the Biblical nature and the theology of the Pentecostal movement and then field questions. It didn’t matter that I had been coming to the prayer group for only a week and that I knew absolutely nothing about the topic I was supposed to explain. It didn’t matter that I was a recently re-converted college student of questionable sanity and recent sobriety. ( It was the groovy 60's, and I was a part-time hippy.) I had a pulse and was thinking about becoming a Catholic priest. It was all good.
That was what passed for teaching in the early days of the movement. If you could compose a sentence that contained both nouns and verbs and you mentioned God occasionally, you were golden. When there wasn’t a likely victim to throw to the teaching hungry crowd, there were always plenty of non-Catholics who were willing to come and rustle, er... I mean, feed the sheep. It was rhetorical, theological bedlam. And I was in the thick of it, blathering away about something about which I knew almost nothing.
We were big on John 14 :25
“All this I have spoken while still with you, but the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
We interpreted this to mean that the Holy Spirit would infuse Biblical and theological knowledge. We failed to notice that the text says the Holy Spirit would remind us of what Jesus had said.
Discipleship precedes teaching. If you haven’t learned anything then there is nothing of which the Holy Spirit can remind you. We appointed ourselves as teachers and ascribed to ourselves what amounted to infallibility. I am sure I have told you about one of great teachers of the Icelandic renewal to which I was the bishop’s representative, a deacon who stood up before all the assembled leaders of the movement and directing his comments at me, and said, “I don’t need a pope or a bishop or a priest to tell me what to say. I have the Holy Spirit.” He also had a sweet deal with the movement’s steering committee that gave him $5,000 for a down payment for his a new car and also funneled thousands a year to the parish where he was employed, guaranteeing his job and his salary.
There were some really good teachers and there were some infallible, self appointed teachers in the renewal who taught things like smokin’, drinkin’ and dancin’ were all mortal sins and that when the saints were raptured into heaven after the three days of darkness and the thousand years tribulation of the seven-headed beast the sinners who smoked, danced and drank would be left behind. And all this was going to happen on February 30th next year because a truck driver in Arkansas had taken a picture that was obviously Jesus walking on the clouds, but we didn’t have to worry because we were saved and once saved, always saved. Oh, and you had to be re-Baptized by immersion because infant Baptism and sprinkling didn’t work. (I may be exaggerating, but not by much. I think I still have a copy of the photo of Jesus walking on the clouds.)
We were hungry for teaching -- any kind of teaching -- and we would believe just about anything if it was said with enough intensity and phrased in Biblical sounding language. A prayer meeting had to have a teaching. The “leaders” met every week to plan these spontaneous prayer meetings and inevitably the question was asked, “Who is going to give the TEACHING this week?”, or even “Whose turn is it to give the TEACHING this week?” It never occurred to us that it is nowhere written that a prayer meeting must have a teaching. Of course a prayer meeting had to have a teaching! That’s somewhere in the Bible isn’t it? So we created a whole class of quasi-ordained preachers, many of whom were cretins, some of whom were predators. We would even impose hands on them in blessing, asking for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It looked just like a Congregationalist ordination ceremony. The prayer meetings seem to have less and less prayer and more and more teaching. The teachers were a special group, the superstars of the movement. Exciting dynamic teaching was wonderful. It meant that I could sit in a padded seat and absorb. I could gauge my level of charismatic-ness by the frequency of my goose bumps during a good sermon without actually having to use any of the charisms in the service of others.
An inspiring teacher was revered. His or her tapes and recordings would make the rounds of the groups. People came to meetings with tape recorders and note books, and if a teacher was really good, he would be invited to speak at a..... CONFERENCE! He was then in the big leagues. He would fly to places like Guatemala to give talks, meanwhile people from Guatemala would fly to Frostbite Falls to give talks. It occurred to me at one point, why don’t the talkers from Guatemala just talk in Guatemala and the Frostbite Falls talkers just talk in Frostbite Falls. It would have saved a lot of money, and I still wonder where all those frequent flyer miles went. The big league teachers were on the road a lot and they weren’t part of a community anymore, really. They didn’t actual go to prayer meetings to pray. They went to give the TALK. And while they were on the road talking about the Christian life, their spouse would occasionally make new friends and sometimes their children would meet interesting new people in jail. It was, as I have already explained, bedlam -- sometimes Bedlam and Breakfast. Prayer groups risked becoming fan clubs as people “piled up teachers to suit their own fancy.” (2 Tim 4:4)
There were a number of things that came together to change the meetings from places of spiritual power to a spectator sport. The hunger for knowledge was genuine, but somehow what we had always been taught wasn’t exciting. People found most of the clergy boring, which in fact we often are. I remember the hushed buzz if a charismatic priest came to a meeting, even if he was boring. I also learned that if you yelled every fifth word for no good reason, waved your arms and turned red people would mistake this for the anointing of the Holy Spirit. (More about the anointing of the Holy Spirit later. It is a very real and wonderful thing and has nothing to do with shouting.) If you were a priest but weren’t charismatic, well... needless to say, the 99.999% percent of priests who weren’t Charismatic were a bit put off by the distinction. There were not many priests who took the whole Pentecostal thing very seriously and so the Holy Loons and the Sheep Rustling Ministers were happy to take up the Sacred Microphone in their stead. It is a heady thing to be a factory worker by day and then to have a microphone in your hand at night with 500 people hanging on your every word as if it were the voice of God, a heady thing indeed. I suspect that the factory work by day is much more Christ-like than the preaching at night. Let us not forget that Jesus was in the building trades for 18 years, and often tried to escape His fans. As the Pentecostal movement grew, and morphed into Charismatic Renewal, the big fish in the small ponds became a leadership elite. The power and intimacy of Pentecost faded. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit risked becoming a sort of entertainment.
I would suggest, that if you want to have real prayer meeting, dump the teaching. If you want to have teaching, have a teaching seminar. Don’t confuse the two. Teachers must be tested. “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1) Anyone can pray, and “the Lord dwells in the praises of His people” (Psalm 22:3) not in the teaching of the leaders. Teaching is a very important thing, but it is not prayer. The apostles spent nine days in prayer; “These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.” (Acts 1:19)
Admittedly, they did pick a replacement for Judas, but even that was done by means of prayer. There is no mention that they did Bible Study for nine days. After the Holy Spirit fell on Pentecost, Peter delivered one of the great Bible studies of history, but it was the result of, not the cause of Pentecost. So, having dumped the microphone, I would suggest that you dump the teachings.
When you pray, pray. When you study, study, albeit prayerfully. There are lots of competent teachers out there now who take the charisms seriously. There is now and always has been plenty of good teaching in the Catholic Church. You don’t need to find 20-year-old recently converted reprobates like me to guide you in the use of the Lord’s favors.
When I came home from my first year of college I told my parents all about this new Pentecost, I told them that you could have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and that God healed the sick and that the Bible was God’s word and prophesy was real. They were mystified. They had always tried to teach me those things. That’s why they had crammed the Bible down my throat ever since Henry Ford left the farm. I realized they were right and I stayed a Catholic. I am awfully glad that I did.