Category Archives: Prayer

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.

The Witness of Contemplatives

I’ve recently returned from my annual retreat at the Benedictine Abbey at Jamberoo, NSW.   The nuns and the Abbey were briefly famous some years ago when several women came to live with them as part of an ABC documentary/reality TV show.  For many of my friends and indeed for many Catholics around Australia, the Abbey is far more ‘famous’ for being one of the ‘thin places’ on the earth: a place that has been sanctified by the prayers of people throughout the years and where God seems very near.

For my final few days at the Abbey a group of schoolgirls (Year 10s, I think) came with several teachers for a retreat experience.  The inimitable Sr Hilda took them in hand, and was clearly seeking to give them as authentic an experience as possible of the life of the nuns (including an introduction to  lectio divina prayer at 6:30am).  I couldn’t help think about the ‘distance’ between the life of the Benedictines and the life-experience of the girls.

While I was observing the interaction between the these two groups of women a quote from Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard, one-time archbishop of Paris, came to my mind.  Cardinal Suhard said that

to be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.

And so I found myself hoping that the girls’ experience of life at the Abbey was messing a little with their heads… in a good way.   I was hoping that the witness of the nuns’ lives was throwing the girls into a holy confusion, as they tried to process why these gifted and capable women would make the decision to enter an enclosed order and dedicate their lives to prayer and simple work.  Because those nuns really do epitomize the Cardinal’s words. Their life of stability which involves a commitment to more or less remain at the Abbey for the entirety of their lives; their fidelity to the monastic office which punctuates the day with the chanting of the psalms in the beautiful Abbey Church; their support of themselves by their own manual labour and their extraordinary charism of hospitality: none of it makes sense unless God is real, and unless God is love.

I’m not idealising these women.  Over the years I have come to know some of the nuns quite well, and I have lived communal life as a religious brother for nearly eighteen years myself.  In many respects they are a very ordinary, diverse and earthy lot.  But to acknowledge that is precisely to provoke the question:  they could have done anything with their lives and yet they chose the hidden life of prayer and self-renunciation as monastic women. For me the real power but also the litmus test of the truth of their lives consists in the very undramatic but genuine love with which the nuns welcome all who come to the Abbey, for whatever reason.

When a good friend of mine joined the Carmelites some 15 or so years ago many of our mutual friends and fellow students at the theological college where we studied described it as a ‘waste’.  Julie was a great student, the SRC president, well-liked and respected.  She could have done whatever she wanted with her life.  But she chose to ‘waste’ it by joining an enclosed, contemplative order.  When I heard these comments I was reminded of the story of another woman accused of being wasteful: the woman who anointed Jesus before his death with the expensive perfume (Mark 14:1-10). To be a contemplative is to be an extravagant lover, ‘spending oneself’ as it were in a life given to God.  From a certain perspective that is certainly a ‘waste’, but it is that seeming wastefulness that actually constitutes their lives as living mysteries.  The proclamation that God exists and that God is love is inscribed into their very bones, written into the laugh-lines on their faces as they live their simple lives, hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3).

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

When I was a kid, I was pretty scared of the classic painting of the Sacred Heart that hung on the wall of my grandparent’s home.  You know how the eyes of people in some paintings seem to follow you wherever you go?  Well, I felt like that bleeding heart wrapped in the crown of thorns followed me.  That’s pretty unnerving when you are a little kid.

Fortunately my understanding of the Sacred Heart of Jesus has developed a little over time.  There are two scriptural images that are the biblical foundation for this devotion.  The first is the image of the beloved disciple resting his head on Jesus’ heart at the Last Supper.   It’s a wonderful icon of intimacy with Jesus, and tells us something vital about discipleship.  Following Jesus involves becoming his close companion.

Then there is the image of the blood and water flowing from Jesus’ heart after the soldier has pierced his side with the lance.  The symbolism here is raw and visceral.  The very life-force of Jesus is poured out for the world, for us.  Devotion to the Sacred Heart takes us to the very centre of the Redemption. He sheds his blood so that we might share in his life.

The meaning of these two scriptural images come together in an experience of St Margaret Mary Alacoque.  She was praying before the Blessed Sacrament one day when she experienced Jesus take her heart and place it in his own, burning heart.  He then returned her heart to her, only now hers was burning too.  To debate what actually happened to Margaret Mary is to miss the point, because her experience is really Christianity 101.  Our hearts are supposed to be set on fire by Jesus’ heart.  Filled with the burning love of God.

A few years ago I spent some time on retreat in the town of Paray-le-Monial, where St Margaret Mary Alacoque received her visions of the Sacred Heart.  I wrote the following poem as a result of the experience.

Paray- le- Monial

 “The disciple Jesus loved was reclining next to Jesus…”

 I wonder, do you pilgrim when you come,

exhale at the ordinariness of it all?

Pews, altar, ambo, tabernacle –

Solid if not stolid, and altogether unremarkable?

 

Do you wonder:

“will great graces be bestowed upon me here?”

for if not here then where, you

reason, little realising that grace does strike twice.

Are you awaiting wonders and signs in this

House of Apparitions

or do you nakedly seek the Christ

who did bear his heart here once?

 

Tell me, what manner of wonder

marks your passing pilgrim?

do you catch your breath, then inhale

the peace and power?

Have time and space whittled away to a needle-point

to this moment, at which a new unveiling is taking place?

Do you shudder, anticipation and agony

As truth runs you through

(unsparing honesty)

like a rapier-thrust of light

both unforgiving and merciful

(honest sparing)

Or are you blind to your apocalypse, my friend?

 

Do not fear, if all or part is hidden still,

Simply tell me this:

Can your heart keep time with his?

You need no other vision.

 

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