Talking to God: Some thoughts on the Gift of Speaking in Tongues
Pentecost was the Church’s birthday; it was also, of course, a field day for charismatics. Indeed the term ‘Pentecostalism’ has come to be identified with one of the protestant churches practising the charisms of the Holy Spirit (by charism we mean a free and unmerited gift); it is also used to describe the revival of these gifts within the catholic church during the past twenty-five years; it is claimed that within the catholic church alone there are now some three-million-plus pentacostalists. Nevertheless there is still widespread ignorance of the working of the charism of speaking in tongues (the technical term for it is glossolalia) and some misconception about it. This may be in part because the practice of this gift is so rarely recorded in history. Irenaeus of Lyons assures us that speaking in tongues was still practised towards the end of the second century, but by the fourth John Chrysostom was unfamiliar with it, and seemed puzzled by Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church on the subject. From then on references to this practice are few and far between until the resurgence among the Quakers in the seventeenth century. Our suspicion of this charism may also spring from its very nature: it is essentially a personal and private gift of limited social value. Of course the infant church was keen to parade its new powers, but Paul was less than enthusiastic about its performance in the church in Corinth.
What then is this gift? What is its purpose? Its Rationale? What indeed does it sound like? And why has it come back into favour during the past quarter century?
Before tackling these questions I must first lay two ghosts which have persistently haunted us over the centuries. The first is that glossolalics are in a state of hysteria, ecstasy, delirium or trance. Of course speaking in tongues may be done in any of these states, and it may be done by schizophrenics. There are false speakers as well as there are false prophets and false healers. However these conditions are not commonly appropriate for the exercise of the gift of the Holy Spirit. The typical speaker in tongues is fully aware of what he is saying, though he may not be able to interpret it; he feels inspired, but not possessed; and he can continue speaking, or stop at will.
The second misapprehension is that glossolalics are speaking foreign languages. Certainly the account in the Act is open to such interpretation, and has been interpreted by a number of eminent fathers of the church, including Gregory the great and Augustine of Hippo. Modern scholars however, are harder to convince. It is worth noting that when some ass in the crowd accuses the speakers of being drunk, Peter does not say, ‘Don’t be silly; can’t you hear they are speaking foreign languages?’ he contents himself with the tart observation that they are scarcely likely to be in their cups at nine o’clock in the morning. And Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians (writing of course after Pentecost but well before the account of it was set down in the Acts) deals at length with the subject of glossolalia, but makes only passing reference to the possibility of speaking foreign languages: ‘No doubt all these different languages exist somewhere in the world…’ (14.10); but this of course is speculative and may well be ironic into the bargain. Indeed in the same letter (13.1), Paul distinguishes between speaking ‘with the tongues of men’ – speaking foreign languages – ‘and of angels’ – glossolalia. The gift of spontaneously speaking a foreign language has been claimed for a number of the saints (notably Francis Xavier and Vincent Ferrer), but in no case, I think, is the evidence safe. All we can say is that at best this gift is extremely rare, and that it certainly does not lie in the main stream of glossolalia. In any case the very purpose of the gift of tongues makes such a variation unnecessary.
What precisely do we mean by ‘speaking in tongues’? Father Edward O’Connor, on of the founders of the new Catholic Pentecostal Movement, defines it this way: ‘It is a mode of prayer, not a means of communication. The one who speaks in tongues addresses God, not his fellow men. What he says is not ordinarily understood either by those around him or even by himself. If someone happens to be present who knows the language used, he will be able to understand it, of course; but this is quite accidental. . . The subject is perfectly calm and in full command of his senses; he is aware of what he is doing and what goes on around him. Frequently he is engaged in a normal, rational conversation before and after speaking in tongues.’
Well, this puts it in perspective, but it does not answer the question ‘Why do it at all?’ We can scarcely write it off as (with due respect) a quirk of the Holy Spirit. I would approach it this way. Some forms of prayer are quite straightforward, others present more difficulty. On the one hand petitionary prayer, from the first ‘God bless Mum and dad’, is comparatively simple: we are asking our father for something, and are happy to use everyday language to do so. On the other hand, an act of worship by ourselves as creatures to our creator is by no means easy to devise. Words of praise and adoration in our own language have worldly connotations which make them seem inadequate and even perhaps inappropriate; and while the church in its wisdom has provided us with a number of such prayers for common use, it may well be that we feel the need to make personal act. This is where the speaker in tongues comes into his own; for, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, he has the ability to evolve a form of praise to fulfil his needs; a form, untouched by mundane associations, in which he can express uniquely his relationship with his creator.
What does this speaking sound like? As we might expect, it will vary enormously, even on occasions with the same speaker. It will inevitably be influenced by the speaker’s linguistic background, but from this experience it will be as full an expression as he can make it of his feeling at the moment of speaking. Here is a transcription of one brief, and lyrical, example:
yamana kita siyanayasi
yamana kita siyanayasi
anakiyotana siyanayasi. . .
It looks like a language; it sounds like a language. Strictly speaking however glossolalia is rarely a language: it is a succession of syllabic sounds uncontrolled by language structure – grammar, accidence and syntax. It is not therefore translatable; but it can be interpreted, by the speaker if he has the complementary gift on interpretation, or by someone else present who has this gift. And this point can reasonable take us back to Paul and Corinth.
Paul’s observations on a number of charisms are contained in chapters 12, 13, and 14 of his first letter; and he has much to say on glossolalia, On the positive side he admits it is a gift of the Holy Spirit (12.10); he would gladly see them all speaking in tongues (14.5); indeed he himself can speak in tongues better than any of them (or perhaps he can speak with as many tongues as any of them) (14.18); they are not to prohibit the practice at their meetings (14.39). On the other hand it is clear that both the glossolalics and the prophets have gone overboard at Corinth, and as a result their meetings are out of control. Paul points out that the speaker in tongues is speaking to God, not to his fellow men, who cannot understand what he is saying – prophecy, at a public meeting, is more appropriate, though this too must be controlled (14.2-6); furthermore glossolalia is praying with the spirit (pneuma) but not with the mind (nous), and it is not therefore edifying for others present (14.13-18); the glossolalic should pray for the gift of interpretation (14.13) and should speak only when an interpreter is present (14.28); he deplores the habit of all speaking at once – people will think they are mad (14.23); and insists that not more than two, or three at the most, should address a meeting, and they should take it in turns (14.27).
And very sound advice this would seem to be. However we are still left, in the twentieth century, with one last question: ‘Why now?’
In the post-Vatican-II years, the Roman church has provided a vernacular liturgy, while the Anglican church (with what I feel to be a misplaced generosity) has gone to town with Series I, Series II, Series III, Rite A, and Rite B, together with a host of variations within these rites. In the one church there are many who regret the passing, or at least the down-grading, of the Latin mass; in the other are those who look back nostalgically to 1662. In the latter case it is claimed that the recent liturgies lack the beauty of Cranmer’s prose – which survived long after his deplorable theology had been discarded. And of course this is quite true. But it should be recognised that the gale of derision which met the recent Series III was of very moderate force in comparison with that which assailed each of Cranmer’s prayer-books in the mid-16th century, despite the beauty of their language. I think that the view that public worship must necessarily be in a language ‘understanded of the people’ is a very great nonsense. In each of us there is a deep-seated desire to find for the worship of our creator a language other than that in use at the breakfast table. Faced by the flaccid prose of the normative mass or the A.S.B. many of us yearn for the mystery of a language dead these many centuries; others would settle for a language if not dead at least well dated. Happier than the rest of us, perhaps, are those who, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, have learned to worship their creator with the tongues of angels.