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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.

Why am I a Catholic? A Letter to K

A funny thing happened to me the other day. I got a letter, and I mean a letter, not an email, facebook message or sms, but a real letter with a stamp on it and everything from a twenty-year old.  I know, it floored me too.  And it included a self-addressed stamped envelope and a blank piece of paper so I could reply.  The letter went more or less like this:

Dear Fr Chris, I was wondering if you could do me a huge favour.  If possible could you please respond to the question, ‘why are you Catholic’? on the enclosed paper.  God bless, K

So I hopped onto Facebook to ask K if she would mind if I posted my answer on this blog.  No, I wasn’t oblivious to the irony of that either.  K said it was ok, so here it is:

Dear K,

Thanks for writing to me, it was great to hear from you. And thanks for letting me post my response to your question on this blog.

Why am I a Catholic?

I’m a Catholic because I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is Emmanuel: God with us.

I’m a Catholic because I believe in the God that Jesus Christ reveals to us: a God of unfathomable love, beauty and goodness.

I’m a Catholic because I believe that Jesus also reveals to us what it means to be truly human.

I’m a Catholic because I believe that the Spirit of Jesus has been given to me through baptism.  And as a consequence of the Spirit’s power at work in me, I know, as the deepest truth of my life, that I am so completely loved by God that the only Son of God was crucified for me and rose from the dead so that I might  participate in the very life of God.  This means that I experience myself as forgiven, loved even in my blackest moments.  And it means that I believe I have already begun to share in the Love that is God.

I believe all this because I have discovered an inexpressible joy that bubbles up when I least expect it, a joy that emerges when it should least be present, because it is the joy of knowing that even death has been defeated by the One who was raised from the grave.

I’m a Catholic because I believe that all of what I have described above is possible because of the mediation of the Church.  It is in and through the Church that I have met and continue to meet the risen Jesus.  I experience the saving love of Jesus in her Sacraments and in the Scriptures.  I experience the saving love of Jesus in the witness of those saints present and past, those publicly canonised and those hidden and almost unknown.  In the Church’s prayer and in her action on behalf of the weakest and most vulnerable and rejected members of the human family I meet Jesus the Lord.

I’m a Catholic because the journey is better with friends; in fact they’re indispensable.  Being Catholic means we’re in it together.  And there’s more laughs that way.

I’m a Catholic because Catholicism takes both my brain and my body seriously.  As a Catholic I neither have to leave my mind at the door of the Church nor pretend that I am an angel or merely a spirit.  The Catholic faith has real intellectual depth, and yet it is not a religion of the elite but is good news for those who can become like little children.

The Catholic faith provides the only response to the reality of human suffering that comes close to doing justice to the mystery of human misery that I see in the world. For only Christian faith says that God cared enough about our agony to join us in it. And my faith does justice to my deep sense that such suffering should not be by promising that it will end, for our destiny is a life free from suffering and pain, where every tear will be wiped away.  My Catholic faith commits me to the alleviation of suffering wherever I find it too.

I’m a Catholic because it offers a message of sanity and hope when many are peddling messages that are anti-human and destructive.  I’m a Catholic because our faith tells me that me, you and this world are all fundamentally good, but radically damaged, and that Jesus Christ is the Healer who can return you, me and this world to wholeness and harmony.

I’m a Catholic because I value the teaching office of the Church.  That’s not because I can’t think for myself, but because I trust in the wisdom that has been distilled over two thousand years and because I believe that the Lord promised to continue to guide and care for his Church.

I’m a Catholic because I know that I need to be challenged to truly love others as Jesus has loved me. The teaching of Jesus continually puts forward an ethic of radical loving that is at the same time deeply merciful and compassionate.  Being Catholic means that I am challenged not to be content with mediocrity or superficiality.  God means to make me whole, holy, truly human.  And he won’t be content until I am.

I know too that the Church’s witness to all of this is often disfigured and that her members all too often obscure rather than proclaim the truth of God’s saving love.  I know that I too don’t bear witness to Jesus as faithfully or as fully as I truly desire.  That means that I cannot say that the Church’s failures are simply ‘out there’ , because I fail to love as radically as  the Gospel calls me to too.   The Church has never been completely faithful to her mission to bear witness to Christ.  And so the Church always needs to be renewed through the power of the Spirit.  But I’m convinced that the light of Jesus still shines in and through his Body the Church.

Dear K, I’m a Catholic because the Catholic faith claims that Love is the meaning of the universe.  I find that immensely beautiful… and true.

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