Like many people I had always felt rather dubious about the Charismatic Movement. I had seen programmes about it on T V and it all seemed much too emotional and exhibitionist for me. I didn¹t quite know what to make of peaking in tongues¹; I knew a priest who was very quiet and gentle and at the same time had a quality of freedom and unselfconsciousness that was very real and all the more convincing because it was so natural. When I learned that he quite often prayed in tongues when alone I was all the more intrigued.
My own prayer had always been characterised by an economy of words and I was most at home with a few simple phrases and a naked intent of the will. I thought I would be the last person ever to pray in tongues¹.
However, the Holy Spirit came and took me by surprise and I realised that He knew better than I what was good for me. For some months there had been a sense of expectancy in prayer, a sense that something I had no idea what was going to happen. I had the feeling, which I could not clearly articulate, that I was going to experience some sort of release. Then a friend confided to me that she had the gift of tongues, although she seldom admitted it to anyone for fear of misunderstanding. We had a good talk about it and I began to feel very much that I too wanted to receive the gift and at her suggestion we prayed together about it. I was rather disappointed when nothing much happened. I did not receive the gift of tongues then and I continued with my usual quiet form of prayer for about three weeks, feeling, I must admit, a bit sad and left out.
One day it suddenly came to me that if I really wanted this gift I ought to use verbal prayer more often and so make my speaking faculties more available, as it were, in case the Lord did really want to give it to me.
I started saying some prayers aloud, but quietly, and soon realised that this was exactly the right thing to do. I went on to use prayers that I knew by heart and didn¹t have to read or even think about, while my attention rested on the presence of God in the heart. Not long after this I realised that I was being greatly blessed in this way of prayer and this encouraged me to persevere until, one day, the gift of praying in tongues came to me. Using vocal prayers had seemed like pushing a bicycle up a hill some effort was required; now I was suddenly at the top of the hill and there was a changeover. The words came without any effort, of their own accord, and I was now free-wheeling happily down the other side of the hill praising the Lord with more joy and freedom than ever before. It was exactly as if I were speaking directly into the heart of the Lord and he were speaking so to me, all the previous vocal prayer I had ever made now seemed like a long distance telephone call, real yet rather remote, whereas this was heart to heart.
Now that I have seen what it is like from both sides, I feel I must try to tell those people who, as I used to, regard praying in tongues with distaste. For one thing, I have found that it actually helps me to centre down into that quiet prayer of the heart, which has been in no way diminished. It is a means; of overcoming distractions as the unknown words literally come over¹ them. It is also a great help and strength in times of trial for, in a difficult situation, I can pray silently in tongue and so block out the temptations of thought arising from that situation.
It is also a wonderful way of interceding when there is a longing to help someone, yet one feels at a loss to know what to do or how to pray for them.
One can simply hold the person or the need in one’s mind and surround them with this prayer; when I feel grief or anguish the groaning of the spirit is more eloquently expressed in tongues. When I am with other people I use it silently as a means of recollection and intercession. When I am alone or driving the car, I can freely use it aloud but it is never noisy or emotional. All that is true and full of blessing and joy, but what I had not under-stood before is that the actual speaking itself is only an outward sign of a much deeper opening up of the self towards God. I feel that I now operate on a level of consciousness entirely unknown to me before, and that explains why those who have had a vivid experience of a new coming of the Holy Spirit, whether manifested in the gift of tongues or not, and those who have not had such an experience, cannot really see eye to eye with each other because they are literally not side by side. To me it seems that what justifies the gift and proves more than anything else that it is authentic is that there is an opening up also towards other people. This means that I am freer and less self-conscious, capable of more spontaneous love, but also more aware of the pain and restriction in other people¹s lives and so more compassionate and desirous of helping them.
This leads to more heartfelt intercession and service where it is possible. Having lost a good deal of inhibition and some layers of self-protection, I am more exposed to the risk of pain, more open to being hurt and, because I am more in touch with the reality of life and death, both sin and joy are felt more keenly.
And so, speaking in tongues is not a selfish indulgence in emotion, but a further entry by grace rather than by personal effort into the life and death struggle, the Crucifixion and Resurrection have come right on to my door-step.
It is a gift, which, for me, is associated with a return to the marketplace¹. That does not mean that I have given up contemplative prayer or the contemplative attitude but rather that whereas, before, my conscious being was set upon recollection and interior prayer, now it must spend and be spent in service and love and intercession. My hope is that this will set free the inner core of my being to be drawn ever more deeply into the Cloud of Unknowing in a way that must inevitably remain unknown to me.
Now I would like to say something from the point of view of one who has not received this gift. We are in a realm where mutual courtesy and gentleness are especially needed. One should never try to force the desire for this gift upon other people. Lay hands lightly on no man¹ says St Paul. Much harm and offence can be caused by those who do not exercise self-restraint and to try to insist that what is right for them must be right for everyone.
I think one does become more perceptive and able to recognise the people who would like to know more about this gift, but the invitation must be extended with the greatest gentleness and courtesy.
There are people who say it is not for me¹ and I don¹t want spiritual experiences of that kind¹ and I would readily agree with them that it is mistake to go all out to seek spiritual experience for its own sake. But there is also the more subtle danger of thinking that we not only don¹t need, but won¹t have spiritual experience such as a charismatic gift. Have we, though, either the right or the power to decide what spiritual experiences we will or will not have? Surely that decision rests with the Lord Himself who gives His gifts where and when he will and to the most unlikely people. Before I had the gift of tongues I had no way of knowing what it was like, and could therefore form no objective opinion. Now that I do have it and I thank God for it- I know that I must use it with reverence and perseverance but also with restraint, courtesy and consideration for other people. Used thus it will not only be a source of personal blessing and joy but will enable me to share more fully in the work of Redemption and Reconciliation, witnessing to the truth that it is neither the having not the not having of spiritual gifts that is the aim of the Christian life, but to be united with the will of God by obedience and faithfulness to our own vocation.
This article first appeared in the Fairacres Chronicle, vol. 13:2 (Summer 1980), published by SLG Press, and is reproduced with permission.
I feel the bringing together of the charismatic and the contemplative in prayer is very powerful - as well as being a tool for increased understanding across the boundaries of churchmanship. (Comment from editor).
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