Letter to Kerry Zmatick, the Grand Finale (Which should only take two or three weeks — four or five at most. Probably)
When one think elephant one thinks “trunk”. When one thinks of things Pentecostal/Charismatic, one thinks of speaking in tongues. There is a lot more to elephants than trunks and there’s more to Pentecostalism than speaking in tongues, but still, it wouldn’t be an elephant without the trunk.
Speaking in tongues or with tongues — also called the gift of tongues, glossolalia and, by some, babbling in Babylonian — is ridiculous, embarrassing and undignified and these are merely a few reasons why it is a very good thing. Glossolalia is a Greek word that means “speaking in tongues”. It is the word preferred by snobbish pseudo-scholarly people and — being a snobbish pseudo scholar — I will now employ the word instead of the less impressive “speaking in tongues”.
People regularly tell the Lord, “I give you everything I am and have.” When the Lord confers glossolalia on a person he is taking the last shred of their dignity. They babble like children spouting nonsense words and surely we don’t want to be like little children. Who would even ask such a thing? (cf. Matthew 18:2-4) I have spoken in tongues on a daily basis for just short of 46 years and it is still embarrassing to admit it, even as I write this, the thought crosses my mind, “What will my eight faithful readers think of me?”
So, what is glossolalia? Once again, let us repair to the Bible, that big book on the coffee table.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.’”
The text goes on to say that three thousand were converted and baptized that day.
When I was a lad, we were taught that glossolalia was a means by which the apostles were able to preach in languages they didn’t know. That’s not what’s going on here. Everyone who was gathered outside the “house” where the disciples were gathered had at least two languages in common, many had three, some had four. There was no need for a gift of foreign language in the context. Everyone there spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, and probably Greek. Many would have added Latin to the three they already could recognize. What was happening at Pentecost was the symbolic reversal of the tower of Babel. Human beings had been divided by different speech and culture. The Church that was founded by Jesus became universal, in Greek “Catholic” that day. It became apostolic, that is missionary, an outreach to the whole world and not just to one ethnicity. This is why the Catholic Church has always regarded Pentecost as its birthday.
The next clear discussion of glossolalia we have in the text of scripture comes later in chapter 10, verse 44 of the Acts of the Apostles.
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”
In both instances, Pentecost and the encounter with Cornelius you are seeing what you might see at a good rollicking prayer meeting: everyone going nuts and babbling away and shouting “praise the Lord!” among other things. It seems that this is not unlike what the prophetic bands and schools of the prophets did in the Old Testament. As a pastor, were I to see a band of prophets coming toward me I would hide quaking in one of the confessionals. Just listen!
And it came to pass, when all that knew him beforetime saw that, behold, he prophesied among the prophets, then the people said one to another, What is this that is come unto the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets? And one of the same place answered and said, But who is their father? Therefore it became a proverb, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Samuel 10:11-12)
And he stripped off his clothes also, and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Wherefore they say, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Samuel 19:24)
At least this sort of thing doesn’t go on among Charismatics.... I hope. Prophesy is a messy business, all the manifestations of the Holy Spirit are prophecies in a certain sense. Jesus didn’t heal the sick so they could go back to their bowling league. He healed them in order to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Think about it. All those who were healed by Jesus ultimately became ill again and died. Even those he raised from the dead die again. Jesus worked His signs and wonders to say with more than words that the Kingdom of God was at hand.
Glossolalia is jarring. That is its purpose. It is jarring to the person who prays that way and jarring to the person who hears it. No one leaves a good Pentecostal meeting saying “It was a lovely service, Reverend.” They usually say something like, “All you people are out of your minds!!!” Then they come back next week to figure out the nature of the insanity. If you’ve ever witnessed someone standing up at a meeting and loudly proclaiming something that seems to be a language but it’s utterly unintelligible to all the hearers, you don’t forget it. All true prophetic words and actions stop you in your tracks. You want to get out of there and go some place normal. That is precisely the point. The Kingdom of God is not business as usual. One thing a real Pentecostal meeting isn’t: boring. Weird, yes — but never boring.
Shock value is certainly not the only purpose of glossolalia. It is also a very useful way of praying. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says,
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through un-expressible groans, and He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God's people in accordance with the will of God.” (Romans 8:26, 27)
Let me translate into English. Sometimes you just don’t know how to pray, or there are no words to express your gratitude and wonder. The Holy Spirit gives us a way to pray that is beyond words. It is verbal, non-mental prayer. In this sense it is not unlike the Rosary. PAY ATTENTION! I AM NOT SAYING THAT GLOSSOLALIA IS THE SAME AS, OR AS GOOD AS, OR BETTER THAN THE ROSARY!!! I am simply saying that glossolalia occupies a similar place in the human psyche. It too, in part is verbal non-mental prayer.
I learned this from a very holy bishop who was trying his best to figure out this Charismatic business. He realized that when the Charismatics prayed in tongues they were doing the same thing he did when he prayed the Rosary. It wasn’t the words that mattered. It was simply that he was allowing the Holy Spirit to give him a way to express the wonder of God’s love by repeating the angel’s greeting to our Blessed Mother, who is the very model of true. It was verbal non-mental prayer. There the similarity ends. St Paul says, “I will pray with the spirit, I will pray with the mind also.” (1Cor.14:15) The Rosary is both verbal/non-mental and mental prayer. We are invited to meditate on the Mysteries of the life of our Lord as well as to speak in prayer. There are people who try to say the Rosary, precisely, carefully, consciously. My hat is off to them. In actual Catholic practice, the Aves and Paters and Glorias that make up most of the Rosary are said thoughtlessly and lovingly. It is just good to be in the Presence of the Lord. I would say that the little Rosary groups who linger after Mass are wonderfully spirit-filled.
Next Week: How this glossolalia business works.