Speaking in Tongues: as Silly as it Sounds?

I recently had a conversation with one of the philosophy lecturers at the College where the Missionaries of God’s Love seminarians study.  It was just the two of us in the senior common room, and so he seized the moment to ask me if a strange and worrying rumour he had heard about the MGLs was actually true.  “Do the MGLs really speak in tongues?” he asked.  What a relief!  I had thought he was going to ask something really difficult.  “Sure”, I replied, and that began an involved discussion where he peppered me with questions about praying in tongues.  Like many people I suspect the philosophy lecturer had some preconceived ideas about it.  So here are some (not so) random thoughts about speaking in tongues.

Firstly, it can be helpful to spell out what tongues isn’t.  When someone speaks in tongues they haven’t gone into an ecstatic trance or an altered state of consciousness.  They are in full control and so can stop and start praying in tongues whenever they want to.

I don’t believe that tongues is the infallible sign of the Holy Spirit.  Some tongues-speakers believe this, but I don’t see how that can be so.  The infallible sign of  the Holy Spirit in someone’s life is whether they are growing in virtue: whether they are becoming more loving, just and compassionate people.

Nor is praying in tongues usually to do with speaking an unkown foreign language.  The technical term for this is xenoglossia, and while I don’t think it would be impossible for the Lord to perform such a miracle, it isn’t what is normally happening when someone is praying in tongues.

The technical term for praying in tongues is glossolalia, and while it is not an actual language in that the discrete sounds someone is making are not actually words, tongues is like a language in that it is expressive of emotions and desires.  So while it is wordless, the gift of tongues does actually involve communication.  In this way, tongues is not actually so different from many other ways in which human beings communicate without using words.  When you shrug, smile, cry or hug someone you are communicating without using words.  Such actions are often called body language because you are using your body to ‘speak’, to express how you feel.  And as a shrug uses your shoulders, a smile your mouth, and a hug your body, praying in tongues uses your vocal chords.

If tongues is a form of body language then it stands to reason that glossolalia is a latent capacity that everyone possesses.  This is corroborated by the fact that glossolalia is found in the religious practice of non-Christians (including African tribal religions as well as the Muslim Sufi tradition).  In fact, I think that the jazz practice of ‘scatting’ and yodeling are pretty close cousins to tongues as well.  They are all wordless songs or sounds that express the emotions or desires of the one making the noise.  What distinguishes these practices is the recipient of the communication: with ‘scat’ the recipients are an audience, with yodeling it may be oneself, and when you pray in tongues you are expressing your feelings to God.

So anyone in principle can pray in tongues.  But why would someone want to talk to God in this way?  Wouldn’t it be more important to say something rational and intelligible to God than to babble incoherently?  This objection presumes that tongues is unintelligible, irrational and incoherent.  But just as a hug communicates affection and love without words, and just as ‘scatting’ while unintelligible nevertheless communicates emotions such as joy or pleasure, tongues is expressive of how someone feels.  It’s for that reason that Augustine called glossolalia jubilatio, as he compared it to people at harvest or vintage singing at first with words and then breaking into a wordless song:

For jubilation is a sound which signifies that the heart is giving utterance to what it cannot say in words.  And for whom is such jubilation fitting if not for the ineffable God?  For he is ineffable whom one cannot express in words; and if you cannot express Him in words, and yet you cannot remain silent either, then what is left but to sing in jubilation, so that your heart may rejoice without words, and your unbounded joy may not be confined by the limits of syllables.

Some people also think tongues is all a bit noisy and only for extroverts who aren’t afraid to be very demonstrative in public.  I want to suggest that while tongues is a vocal form of prayer it can, like other forms of vocal prayer such as the rosary or the Jesus prayer of the Orthodox tradition, be a valuable aid to contemplation.  Praying in tongues, like the repetition of the Hail Mary’s or the mantra of the Jesus prayer engage the analytical, conceptual side of the brain that is often so busy with thoughts, thereby freeing up the more intuitive, receptive side of the brain for silent, attentive presence to God.  Let me be clear: praying in tongues is not contemplative or mystical prayer in and of itself, but it can be an effective precursor to deep contemplative enjoyment of God.

I also want to suggest that speaking in tongues does something, or indeed three things.  Firstly, because praying in tongues involves a surrender of some of the usual powers of speech it can serve as an effective release of control.  I’d like to suggest that it can be very helpful in the act of surrender that we usually call faith, where we make an act of trust in God with a concomitant letting go of ourselves.  In a world where the self reigns supreme, such a contraction of one’s ego is vital for the obedience that faith requires.  Or to put it more simply perhaps, praying in tongues invites us to let go and trust in God.

Secondly, as an expression of  our emotions and desires, tongues goes a significant way to reclaiming the place of affectivity in the life of faith.  We do not believe by merely thinking our way into faith (which is not to deny the place of the intellect in the act of faith), but by the ordering of our desires to God.  As the quote above from Augustine suggests, praying in tongues or with jubilatio involves the ordering of our  ultimate desire to the ineffable God.

Lastly, in his book Thinking in Tongues, James K.A. Smith suggests that tongues is a language of resistance that expresses a person or a people’s nonconformity with the structures of mass-consumer capitalism.  Tongues defies the logic of the market; it is not a commodity that can be bought or sold, and it resists a commercial value.  It is an act of ‘play’, which is by definition, ‘useless’.  By praying in tongues, then one is saying that the Lord they worship is not the god of material prosperity, but the One who promises that the kingdom belongs to the poor in spirit.

Posted on February 15, 2012, in Catechesis, Prayer and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. So… how does one pray in tongues? Does one simply start incoherently babbling?

  2. As always, thanks for your thoughts Chris. I remember having a conversation with you about this in a little cafe in southern Tasmania last year!!

  3. Great article!
    Dan: in my experience, praying in tongues isnt something that can be forced. It requires being in a prayerful mindset and a sort of “loosening of the tongue” -letting whatever you feel towards to Lord just come out in whatever syllables and sounds happen to come out.
    Sometimes it can be very beautiful. I love hearing someone praying in tongues and they simply be talking but it sounds like singing.

  4. Oh wonderful! You’ve done a great job of explaining here. I’m all inspired!

  5. Great little article Chris. You are a great writer and a deep thinker.

  6. Chris, your knowledge and writing skill is wonderful. I just wanted to give impetus to elements of what you’ve said, especially in light of ‘how it happens’ and what exactly happens as it pertained to me. The first time I prayed in tongues it truly was something that was out of control. I was on N.E.T. training and it was during a song of praise. I had no idea I had actually begun until about 10 seconds had passed and I realised I was praying in tongues. It was a beautiful moment for me, touched by the Holy Spirit… who was truly in control at that time though I kind of ‘went with it’ from there I guess. So I guess it’s kinda like water skiing, you can’t really truly go anywhere without the boat, yet you are in some ways controlling your ‘following’.

    Bless you Chris,

  7. Thanks for the description of what tongues is and is not. It not only clarify’s tongues for me and allows me to let go of control but it clarify’s it so I can explain it to other people. I have found it to be an affirmation of what is in my heart and how I can freely express myself during times of prayer and worship. I have found it to be natural, joyfilled and even essential in my praise of God and my prayer of interession for other people. I particularly love the bit about defying mass consumerism at the end. My thoughts this morning have focused around how love for ourselves, others, our world and our environment can cap and even reverse our mentality on either being good little consumers or rampid captialists. Thanks for your words Fr Chris. I pray that you continue to be a light to the nations with God blessing you abundantly with all that you require. Love Patrick

  8. A great explanation of “tongues” Chris. I fully agree

  9. Hi father Chris my name is Joe Spinnato part of the DOJ in the blue mountains your sermon on Good Friday was awesome. I am wondering if there is any way I good get that sermon from you. It’s on my mind all the time.(where do you stand with Christ at the cross.) email lukey14@optusnnet.com.au

  10. Chris I found it easy to pray in tongues and I didn’t know I was doing it. I lead in the music ministry with guitar and when a particular song touches my heart I brake out in tongues just singing with meaningless words at the end of the song lifting my heart to God. I feel a deep joy in my heart almost crying with joy.

  11. Melita Talbot

    Dear Fr Chris,

    I’ve been praying and desiring to be baptizd in the Holy Spirit. First of all, (through discernment) I got the reply, you’re not receiving this gift because your intentions were to amaze your husband and son with it, and from there, try to get them to convert. Secondly, I now desire it for the sole purpose of being able to pray more effectively. Can you tell me what I’m doing wrong?

    My husband turned to Catholicism before we married (probably to impress both my parents and myself). When we went to Mass before Ben was due to enroll in kindergarten, there would be a massive argument afterwards (in the car before leaving for home) %100 of the time. This would be due to the fact that Ben didn’t sit stil & be quietl during Mass. Not that any other child did.

    I held so much resentment over this & other negativitys, ( that I told Steve were depleting my stocks of positivities, instilled in me via parents) that I turned to alcohol and drugs to cope. Anyway, the end result is that (despite sending Ben to two Catholic schools), Steve and Ben only say 1 prayer daily & that’s only if I remind them. Steve will say grace before meals. Somethings missing though; there’s no emotion, it’s as though they just open their mouths & the words just fall out. They don’t tend to really thank Our Lord (from the heart).

    I’d love to tell you more, especially regarding the huge miracle that our Lord granted me, but I don’t even know if you’re actually going to receive this. If you do, please reply as I’m anxious to reveal the rest of my story. Also if you’d be so kind, as to address the baptism in the Holy Spirit, that would be marvelous.

    May God bless you and your family and friends

    your sister in Christ Jesus


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