Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Tongues and Interpretation of Tongues

1 Cor. 12:4-10 — There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same spirit… To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another, the expression of knowledge… to another, varieties of tongues; to another, interpretation of tongues… 
Acts 2:1-11 — And when the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together… Then there appeared to them tongues of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, and the Spirit enabled them to proclaim… “We are Parthians, Medes, Elamites… yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God…”

On a weekend trip to New York City, Darwin and I attended noon Mass at St. Vincent Ferrer, on 65th Ave. We arrived early and had a chance to sit in the empty church and pray. It was one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen, surprisingly intimate for such a massive gothic space. And up behind the altar, an ensemble was practicing the polyphonic motets for mass. 

This group was exceptionally talented, and their practice involved fine-tuning passages and working on the group dynamic. With the reverb in the space, I could not make out the Latin words, but I could follow the melismatic flow of the vowels, or sequences of repeated phrases sung on “i-i-e”. Even uncomprehended, the sound was glorious and transporting. I could have sat in the space for hours letting the harmonies wash over me.

The second reading for this Sunday was 1 Corinthians 12:4-12, about the different gifts bestowed by the Spirit. Perhaps the most controversial item on this list is “varieties of tongues”. I grew up in a community heavily influenced by the Charismatic Renewal, a movement first started by students at Duquesne University in 1967. A hallmark of the Charismatic movement is “speaking in tongues”, a kind of vocalization that is a oral outpouring of a form of ecstatic prayer. Perhaps you’ve heard this phenomenon, which sounds like multi-syllabic babbling (unkindly spoofed somewhere as sounding like an auctioneer’s chant: “Shoulda bought a Honda bought a Ford bought a Ford…”). 

The charisms of the Spirit are many, as 1 Corinthians testifies, and “varieties of tongues” are almost the least of the list. Yet speaking in tongues is a baseline indicator of spiritual openness in the Charismatic community, and reluctance to babble is seen as reluctance to the movings of the Spirit, as blocking the free movement of God in one’s soul. And indeed, Charismatic worship relies heavily on an emotional (and often emotionally manipulative) abandonment, what Nietzsche would have termed the Dionysian side of the Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy of religious experience. Specifically, what is called praying in tongues is supposed to flow from a sub-rational state in which you are free to make meaningless sounds as you are moved because the meaning can only be understood through the Spirit. (It can easily be simulated, of course, and as there is a certain amount of pressure in Charismatic communities to display this gift, who is to say how intertwined are the urgings of the Spirit and the conscious decision of a person to utter free vocalizations?)

Yet the tongues of Pentecost are not sub-rational. The words the Apostles spoke had a specific meaning, not just in the spiritual realm, but in human, linguistic terms. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, all the nationalities who were in Jerusalem for the feast understood the Apostles in their own language. Not only were the sounds not meaningless, they had a concrete, practical, specific immediate application. The Apostles were not speaking some spiritual language, because there is no spiritual language. Angels, of their own accord, do not speak because they have no bodies, no senses. When they are sent by God as messengers in the Bible, their words are always clear and immediately understood (if not immediately believed). 

We are told in the epistles that the Spirit speaks through us through inexpressible groans and longings, because we do not know how to pray as we ought. And it is true that prayer is turning the heart toward God, and so an outpouring of sound and syllables, directed to God as an act of worship, is prayer. But I do not believe that the Charismatic form of prayer which manifests as singing or chanting of inherently senseless syllables is the Biblical gift of tongues.

There are different spiritual droughts in different eras, but it is incredible that God would have withheld a gift important enough to merit a mention in Holy Writ until 1967.  Even before I heard the mass readings this week, as I sat and listened to the singers behind the altar fine tune phrases and start and break off at the prompting of the conductor, it struck me that in some ways the gift of tongues is much like hearing beautiful music without fully understanding what is being said. There is meaning behind the sound, if only you could understand it, but even so the structure and the rhythm and the talent of the singers conveys something significant. It is not an individual babbling, but a highly complex, highly intelligent communication. You can feel the underlying coherence, even if you cannot understand exactly what is being said. It is super-rational, not sub-rational — when the meaning is revealed to reason, suddenly new layers of comprehension are available to the mind and to the senses.

After communion, the ensemble sang the piece I’d heard them rehearsing earlier, and now I had a worship aid that I could consult for the title of the piece, the Latin words, and their English translation. The text was about the wedding of Cana, which had been the gospel reading, and the repeated, interwoven vowel pattern of “i-i-e” I had heard earlier now resolved itself into “bibite”: drink. The head waiter of the wedding feast drank the wine poured from the water jars, the guests drank and were satisfied, Jesus pours out his blood for us to drink, I drank in the music which until then had carried all beauty and emotion of this moment without revealing its meaning. And I praised God for the gift of tongues given to me through the singers, through the conductor, through the composer, through a language I didn’t understand myself. 

Small surprise that in 1967, as that gift of being able to worship in a language not understood was being withdrawn from the American church, people should long for renewal and for the ability to lose oneself in sound and praise. Small wonder that as the liturgy became basic and comprehensible and banalized, people should still long for the emotional release of waves of sound, human voices rising and falling in ecstasy. We have a human need to pray in a way that overwhelms our senses, and the human need to have that experience interpreted to us so that it becomes even richer and fuller and more significant, because worship is not an individual act but a communal event. Like the gift of tongues, worship is something that has an underlying meaning and structure which is immediately apparent, if not fully understood. And once it is interpreted, it stirs into flames which come to rest on each of us. “Were not our hearts burning within us?” asked the disciples who walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, as he interpreted the scriptures for them. That gift of tongues is, I think, not just the physical gift of making vocal sound, but the burning of our hearts within us as we hear something that is too much for us to comprehend immediately. And may God send us interpreters so that our individual burning becomes subsumed in the larger fire of the Holy Spirit.


Catholic Bibliophagist said...

What you've written expresses everything I've ever thought and felt about Charismatic worship but was unable to put into words.

Antoinette Brenion said...

I agree with Catholic Bibliophagist about your ability to put into words things I have thought about.