Letter to Kerry Zmatick, (Must he drone on and on and on?)
Glossolalia as I said in my last thrilling installment, is verbal non-mental prayer. In this it has some commonality with the Rosary. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through unexpressible groans.” Sometimes you just don’t know how to pray, or even what to pray for. That’s the primary practical use of glossolalia.
Glossolalia is a spontaneous, though not uncontrolled, experience. I first spoke in tongues after hanging up a phone. I was so filled with joy after the conversation in which I learned about this whole business that when I ran out of hymns to sing I started praying in tongues. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world. An old college roommate was very unsettled one morning. He looked at me and said “Not only do you pray in strange sounding languages when you are awake, but now you are singing in them in your sleep!!!”
I noticed the other day when I dropped by a church to go to confession that the Blessed Sacrament was on the altar. (For non-Catholics, The Blessed Sacrament is another way to say the consecrated communion wafer that we believe is the body, blood, soul and divinity of the whole Christ. Sometime we bring the Sacrament out of the tabernacle, a little box where it/He is kept, and we spend time in His company. You should try it even if you’re not Catholic. It is very sweet to spend a quiet hour in prayer with Jesus present physically as well as spiritually. It is like a taste of heaven.) Where was I? Oh yes I noticed that the blessed Sacrament was on the altar and I knelt to pray, and after a few minutes I noticed my lips were moving and I was quietly praying in tongues. No shouting. No rolling on the floor. No waving my hands around. Just a simple quiet mumbling that couldn’t be heard by anyone except for Him. My spirit was praying before I knew I was praying. The Holy Spirit was helping me in my weakness.
Long before I was a priest I was keeping company with a young woman. (On the up and up. We were both good Catholics at the time). She had been a non-believer when I met her, but had come with me to some prayer meetings and had encountered the Lord. Being a doctrinaire Pentecostal with a capital P at the time, I nagged her about “when are you gonna get ‘baptized” in the Holy Spirit. She would glare at me and say, “When and if God wants to!” Well she “got baptized in the Holy Spirit” but did not speak in tongues. I nagged her again. “When are you gonna get the gift of tongues? Again she glared and said, “when God wants to give me the gift of tongues!!!” A while later as she was riding the subway, she noticed that she was quietly praying in tongues. All my nagging had nothing to do with it. Wisely, we drifted apart. I would have made her crazy in the long run.
There is nothing contrived or forced about glossolalia if it’s the real thing. There is a lot out there that seems to me anything but the real thing. Remember a month or two or three ago when I explained that the crazy politics of the American colonies insisted that in order to be a citizen of a religious colony one had to give proof of “election” that is of being among the chosen? Since then, certain sects have become obsessed with the “evidence of salvation”.
I know someone who was raised in a very Pentecostal sect that believes in order to be counted among the elect, that is to be able to say I am saved, it is necessary to speak in tongues at least once in your life. It’s perfectly logical. In order to be saved you must be able to say that Jesus is Lord. The Bible says that no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit, and if you don’t speak in tongues you must not have the Holy Spirit and therefore cannot possibly be saved. Eazy peazy! A=B=C=CRAZY. When people tell me they “have the Holy Spirit", I tell them I am much more interested in whether or not the Holy Spirit has them.
That’s the real meaning of glossolalia. It’s not evidence that one has the Holy Spirit. It is a way, among many, to let the Holy Spirit have you. This is true of all the manifestations of the Holy Spirit. They exist not for evidence, nor for individual advantage, but for the common good. By the way, the above mentioned friend is now a devout Catholic and a professor and I do not believe he has ever spoken in tongues. I do suspect that he is still heaven bound. He and his wife are a lot holier than I am.
Some of God’s special friends think speaking in tongues is an absolute requirement. If you don’t “have” the gift of tongues, you don’t “have the Holy Spirit, and you are not a member of the club. These people will back you into a corner until they are convinced you have spoken in tongues. I remember a preacher whose specialty was helping people to “release the gifts of the Holy Spirit.” He would have people repeat — and mind you I am not making a word of this up --- He would have people repeat the phrase “come and take a ride in my Honda.” Soon they would be babbling away and, hallelujah! they had received the gift of tongues.
Give me a break. I don’t think the Lord works this way. Perhaps I am wrong, but I suspect that if you force something it is certainly not a gift, and probably not a manifestation of anything, except perhaps a need for an increase in one’s medication. I remember the story of a Presbyterian minister who went into a Pentecostal church to see what all the hubbub was about and before the night was over the congregation had pounced on him with the laying on of hands to get an actual Presbyterian baptized in the Holy Spirit. They weren’t going to let him go until he had been baptized in the Holy Ghost, and that wasn’t going to happen until he spoke in tongues. After a half an hour or so he decided to end the nonsense by praying the Our Father in Greek, having studied Classical Greek in divinity school. There were shouts of acclamation and they let him leave. Later that night, in the privacy of his own home, the Lord filled him with His Presence and the fellow quietly and peacefully began to pray in tongues as the Holy Spirit prompted him.
Speaking in tongues has a certain sign value, but its greater value is a quiet means of speaking from the heart. Its primary use is for intercessory prayer, as it often is with the Rosary. St. Paul make this clear in his First Letter to the Corinthians (14:2 and following)
"Anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them they utter mysteries by the Spirit. ...I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy....Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church....If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding...When you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified....I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
St. Paul makes it clear that, while he considers this a useful gift, it is not the most important thing. The belief that it is in any way necessary for salvation or even for a full spiritual life is exactly opposite to the sense of Scripture. Above all, St. Paul does not consider this a liturgical gift. It seems in the early Church there were instances of enthusiastic praying in the Spirit such as Pentecost or the house of Cornelius the Centurion and a few other instances, but the idea that glossolalia was used liturgically is unfounded. It is a remarkably quiet gift which can also be used communally in a kind of prophetic worship.
I am often asked is glossolalia a real language? I have no idea. Once many years ago, before I had studied Polish, I was at a prayer meeting, a real barn burner of a meeting. A little old nun cam up to me and asked me if I spoke Polish. I said no, and she said “You’ve been praying in Polish for the last half hour!”
I remember the testimony of an Irish priest who had spent years with an obscure ethnic group in Africa. He was one of the few outsiders who could speak their language. His assignment was over. He had been reassigned to Boston and was feeling very much alone. He was out walking one evening, and from over a garden wall, he heard that language that he had spoken for so many years and now longed to hear once again. He rushed to the garden gate and the under a tree he found a man, obviously not African, who knelt with eyes closed, pouring his heart out to the Lord. The fellow it turns out had just been prayed over and had receive the manifestation of glossolalia.
I could go on and on with stories, as you well know, but suffice it to say there is something real and precious about glossolalia. There is also something that is borderline wacko about a fixation with it. I have no idea if glossolalia is a real language, my suspicion is that it is as much a gift of ears as of tongues. On Pentecost the hearers didn’t say, “These men are speaking our languages.” They said, “We can HEAR them in our own languages.”
I know of no instance of someone recording glossolalia and identifying a known language. I have heard linguists who study the phenomenon say it certainly has the cadence and feel of a language, if it is a genuine experience, and not just “wanting to ride in a Honda.” Glossolalia is not necessarily a supernatural ability to speak a foreign language, though this has been recorded in the history of the faith. It is a language of the soul that cries out to God. If you want to know more about the whole business, read John Sherrill’s book “They Speak with Other Tongues.” It’s a classic, not the best theology, but a classic nonetheless. Better still, if you want to know more, ask the Holy Spirit.
Just don’t let anyone take you for a ride in their Honda.
(I sincerely apologize. I am not done. More next week)