The Cynic Confronts Charismata

Speaking in tongues. Ahem. I came across this on http://catholicphoenix.com and have to admit to being intrigued. I too am a cynic, and have spoken to a priest who believes implicitly in ‘the gifts of the spirit’, and another who most certainly doesn’t.
I have met charismatics who persist in telling folk “it’s yours if you ask”, and God love them! But me…… I have to confess to find this ‘gift’ rather worryng. Am I wrong? Or is my faith lacking insofar as I don’t ‘do’ it?

From Danica on catholicphoenix:

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…

GLOSSOLALIA

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.

About Gertrude

Sáncte Míchael Archángele, defénde nos in proélio, cóntra nequítiam et insídias diáboli ésto præsídium.
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5 Responses to The Cynic Confronts Charismata

  1. rebrites says:

    very interesting post, on a fascinating topic. I have no good answers for your questions, just a comment or two:
    My family was involved in the “charismatic movement” the the US during my growing-up years. For a while there everyone felt the Lord was speaking to us on first-name bases, handing out specific advice and support to a community facing hard times. How exciting! But as time went on, the rebukes, hurtful manipulations, and wishful thinking set in, and “the Holy Spirit” was caught out at times saying the same self-serving rubbish the speaker was known to spout when he/she was not “flowing in the spirit.” And so like most things made of smoke, mirrors, and hot air, it blew itself out.
    But not without leaving behind many scars, cynics, and embarrassing memories.
    Glossolalia must be for real somehow. It must serve some important purpose, to have recieved so much “ink” over the years. Having a “gift of tongues” must be a bit like having Stigmata — it appeals to the very few church insiders. And even they might think twice about having you over for dinner when “regular people” are present.
    And ultimately, Who does it serve? What does it have to do with making God´s will present in the world?

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  2. The Raven says:

    I’ve always had a problem with the “speaking in tongues” thing. The account of Pentecost makes it clear that the Apostles’ hearers comprehended them as if they were speaking in their own languages, as opposed to a buzzing babble of nonsense words!

    I think that what charismatics experience is, at best, a joy that overwhelms them (which is hopefully from God), in the society of other blissed out people dancing around and speaking in tongues might be a natural release for this joy, but I think that it is a mode of expression that comes from within themselves and from the company that they are keeping, not necessarily from God!

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  3. Brady says:

    Do you know if, during apparitions, Our Lady ever spoke to the Saints in tongues?

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  4. John says:

    This is an area that has always made me feel extremely uncomfortable and leaves me with very mixed feelings, partly of embarrassment and partly of guilt. The former because I was not brought up in the kind of religious environment that was prone to public outpourings of religious expression, and the later because I would find myself wanting to slink away quietly from what was to all others present, a seemingly genuine and profound religious experience in which the Holy Spirit was present, my guilt being centred on that very real possibility that I would be turning my back on God.
    For me, I think that it is entirely possible that individuals can be given the ability to speak in tongues. After all why not? God can endow any gift on any one of us at any time, but one has to consider what might be happening when whole groups of people at the same place and at the same time suddenly appear to demonstrate this and other gifts, for what is usually a short time, and amongst that particular group only. I do ponder on God’s purpose on such occasions.
    I myself have been to a few Charismatic churches and even ( in my youth ) to one or two massive rallies led by well-known American evangelicals, and where massive crowds have felt the need to suddenly start raising their arms and waving them about, adopting other worldly expressions on their faces and seemingly entering a state of ecstasy. I have to be honest, but as a lifelong, and I think quite devout Christian, I have never felt any compunction to join these ecstatic goings on, and would dearly have loved to know how they were feeling, and what was it that made them act in such a ( to me at any rate ) bizarre manner.
    Perhaps it’s because I was brought up as a stuffy old fashioned stuck in the mud traditional Anglican Englishman, that refuses to accept change and finds such expressions of faith “not quite the thing”, and perhaps because of who I am, part of me is “closed” to the power of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps I have not yet encountered my own “Damascus” experience. Alternatively, perhaps it is just that I am watching an example of mass hysteria, brought about by the power of simply being amongst likeminded people, led by someone who can create an atmosphere wherein the “throng” can act as a single entity in the safety and security of that very throng, which en mass does not consider itself to be in any way as acting odd. The power of the crowd is after all self-replicating.
    I am in no way saying that I do not believe in the gifts of tongues, I need to make that very clear, or that each of us individually cannot be touched in a profound and visible way by the Holy Spirit, of course we can. I simply question the circumstances, and the fact as to whether can identify if it is real, or something that we convince ourselves is real through a genuine desire to be touched by the spirit, or something brought about by a psychological condition caused by our immediate environment. We must be VERY careful about this and as individuals, need the guidance of the church to enable us to evaluate what may or may not have happened
    As with all gifts from God, they are personal to us and tailored for us to use in our own very different lives for the purposes of extending God’s Kingdom here on Earth, as such I do believe that when called upon, God will send his Holy Spirit to us as long as we can open a channel to him.
    My own personal view is that the correct channel is through contemplative Prayer. Each of us can however receive the spirit in different ways, of that, I have no doubt. It will suit God’s purpose to endow the gifts on the spirit in ways according to our different circumstanced, but the real issue for me is whether God will choose to endow entire likeminded groups of people at one time and in one place and at regular intervals, and if so to what end.
    For me personally I think that it will always be the small quiet and often unassuming personal encounters with Our Lord that might touch us unexpectedly in our daily lives, or through personal contemplative prayer, or simply through discovering the truth of Christ in scriptures, and through the Eucharist that will endow us with the gifts of the spirit, after all these are the only true ways of communicating with the third person of the Trinity.
    I hope I have not offended anyone by what I have written, as this was never my intention, since all of us have our own ways communining with God and I have only the greatest respect for those who may have a different approach

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