The Cynic Confronts Charismata, Part 1: Glossolalia
Jane found Mother Dimble an embarrassing person to share a room with because she said prayers. It was quite extraordinary, Jane thought, how this put one out. One didn’t know where to look, and it was so difficult to talk naturally again for several minutes after Mrs. Dimble had arisen from her knees.
(That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis)
I empathize heartily with Jane. Though hearing others pray does not make me cringe, I confess that certain aspects of Christian mysticism make me fidget and stare at the floor. Such was my experience this past week when I visited a local Catholic church to listen to a man’s testimony of his miraculous recovery from 72 hours in a vegetative state, followed by visions of Jesus that have occurred regularly through the present. I believe God can and does work miracles, and that He may appear to whomever He wishes. I’m not so sure I believe in man’s faculties to assess and digest this stuff.
I suppose my main concern is that charisms – or gifts – such as visions, often look and sound to the outsider like lunatic ravings. Though the fellow I saw was certainly lucid, I have no way of personally telling whether or not he spoke the truth. He claimed his local bishop had approved the message, and the Vatican is on the list of places he’s spoken. We were informed that, though he spoke only English, many of the non-English speaking cardinals understood his message anyway.
The Greek term charisma denotes any good gift that flows from God's benevolent love (charis) unto man … in its narrowest sense, charisma is the theological term for denoting extraordinary graces given to individual Christians for the good of others. (Newadvent.org)
Charisma sounds pretty great, so why am I still fidgeting? It seems Catholics fall on one end of the spectrum or the other when it comes to charismatic phenomena. We either believe in every occurrence we are presented with, or else are highly suspicious or disbelieving. Persons who claim to have these gifts may counterfeit them, or else have convinced themselves they are real when they are not. In other cases, the source of power could be diabolical. It is important to listen to accounts with an open mind, but remember a mind is only open so that it may close upon the truth.
1Thessalonians 5:19-22: Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil.
This verse is helpful to me, because it strikes a balance between belief and disbelief. However, if you are still a bit cynical like me, then read on. We are going to learn about the charisms that make me squirm the most, starting with…. drumroll please…
Catholics do it. Pentecostals do it. Voodoo practitioners do it. So how do we know when this is a charism given by the Holy Spirit and when it is hogwash? I’ll leave that to the Inquisition, but I will share with you what I’ve learned.
There are two categories of charismata: those tending to further the inner growth of the church, and those that tend to promote her outer development. It is the latter category into which falls the gift of performing miracles and glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. The gift of tongues is diverse and can involve speaking in a known or unknown language while in a kind of trance. The object of the gift is to convey praise to God, and not necessarily ideas to listeners (For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit – 1Cor14:2). The gift of tongues edifies the speaker alone, so interpretation is necessary if the larger Church is to be enlightened. St Paul exhorts the Corinthians to pray for the gift of interpretation if they speak in a tongue, for he himself would, “rather speak five words in my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1Cor14:19). Tongues without interpretation are like a string of meaningless notes.
It is clear that this charism is real, but was it only so for early Christians? By the time of St Augustine of Hippo, the manifestation of this gift may have declined:
That thing [glossolalia] was done for a betokening, and it passed away. In the laying on of hands now, that persons may receive the Holy Ghost, do we look that they should speak with tongues? Or when he laid the hand on infants, did each one of you look to see whether they would speak with tongues, and, when he saw that they did not speak with tongues, was any of you so strong-minded as to say, These have not received the Holy Ghost; for, had they received, they would speak with tongues as was the case in those times? If then the witness of the presence of the Holy Ghost be not given through these miracles, by what is it given, by what does one get to know that he has received the Holy Ghost? Let him question his own heart. If he love his brother, the Spirit of God dwelleth in him. (Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John, 6:10)
Other saints throughout history have had a similar opinion:
"For who is there that seems to have these signs of the faith, without which no one, according to this Scripture, shall be saved?" St Bernard of Clairvaux’s answer was that these signs were no longer present because the transformed lives of believers was all the sign necessary for his times.
St Thomas Aquinas: “…no one speaks in the tongues of all nations, because the Church herself already speaks the languages of all nations.”
Now we come to the present time and I am still intrigued by the draw this gift has for Charismatic Catholics, considering many have declared it extinct, while St Paul recommends silence unless interpretation is forthcoming. My cynical side points out that modern manifestations of tongues seem to come with prior suggestion, such as heightened emotional states or perhaps the desire to fit in with a particular group. My smaller, humble and believing side awaits your comments.