Speaking in Tongues and Other Terrifying Gifts of the Spirit

I don’t know if the sky is really more interesting lately, or if I’m just noticing it more as I spend more and more time looking up, but it pains me sometimes how this particular sky over this horizon will never happen again. This hour is unique. The sun is on my right hand, the full moon on my left, staring eye to eye over the corn fields, and curiously, two flocks of geese approach each other directly overhead moving in opposite directions. From the southbound flock, two geese break off, make a u-turn and join the flock traveling North. I’ve never seen that happen before, and probably never will again.

At Pedge’s house for coffee earlier in the afternoon, we said a prayer for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, since the Church celebrated Pentecost last weekend, and even going into the prayer, we were hesitant–because who are we to ask for such gifts, and… what if we actually receive them? Are these gifts we really even want–to speak in tongues, to heal, to discern spirits…? Irene said that all of us have the gifts, because we have been Baptized and Confirmed with Spirit and water, but the gifts have not yet been released. It’s not something we could say with certainty–“I’m not called to that.” How would we even know?

The question was whether or not we wanted to know: Do you want to be overcome by the Spirit of God? Do you want to be transformed, and do you trust God to do it, or are you even still overcome with self love, and attached to an idea of your self that arrests you from becoming more fully who God wants you to be?

I think my time has come–not necessarily to receive the gifts, because that timing is up to God– but to desire them. I want to move into the places formerly occupied by fear and cynicism. I’m still trying to push against that cloud of unknowing, to learn God anew, as if I were illiterate, untaught and nonverbal.

We passed around the prayer, each reading a paragraph, and when I read my part, it was a supplication for the gift of speaking in tongues, which included asking forgiveness for any haughtiness or disregard I’ve held towards this particular gift. I had to admit to myself that my fear of ever receiving such a gift was all tied up in my perceptions of other people I’ve met over the years who claim to have it. They were all just a little bit crazy. And to compound my fear, a chorus of fellow cynics speculated that these tongues were made up, that they were gibberish, or worse, unclean words in praise of dark spirits.

My guess is that if you submit the language of the Spirit–something that could only be the most intimate conversation between a soul and God–for scholarly interpretation by a third party or to appease curiosity seekers, it would be especially susceptible to misuse or malevolence.

Still, is it a sin that my prejudices against other people entice me to shun the Holy Spirit’s gifts? Probably so.

It might be time to humble myself and admit that I’m a little bit crazy too: I’ve made it my life’s singular focus to think and write on the work of God in my life, even when that work seems exceptionally minor. Most people don’t seek a supernatural cause and effect for every beat of their own heart. The saner people I’ve known never lay their metaphysical trump card on the table, much less do they play it every single hand.

It might be time to set aside any note of irony or self-consciousness, and admit in earnest that I want to speak God’s language. I want to heal and discern and obtain wisdom. And maybe…I wouldn’t die of speaking in tongues.

Walking in the evening and looking at the sky, I felt an urge to vocalize something in honor of the unique hour I was able to witness. I opened my mouth with a loose tongue, salivating even a little bit. I wished I could sing well, or had some worthy prayer that could match the beauty.

When a woman is in labor, the natural birth manuals talk about “sounding” or using primal noises to foment an opening through the pain. The closest I’ve come to speaking in tongues was delivering my children, and being so out of my rational mind, I allowed my tongue a bit of anarchy. I hate, hate, hate losing control of my words. I’m always editing and measuring the possible effects of what I speak and write, because I have a very bad track record for the times I’ve loosened and released my tongue when not for an exceptionally good cause like delivering a baby. Childbirth aside, my tongue is loosest when I’m angry, in pain, or trying too hard to be funny.

I’m ashamed to admit it was an altogether new sensation to want to loosen my tongue in praise or thanksgiving. What would I say to God if I were a baby, seeing the world for the first time, and I had no speech with which to effect my wonder with it? What would I say to God if this were my last night on Earth–what words would I use to thank him for every gift he’s given me?

There are no words, of course. There are no adequate words. There is only the longing to pour out the distillation of perfect love, to praise and thank God as one who is simultaneously new born and at the end of life.

Saint Paul says:

“A man who speaks in a tongue is talking not to men but to God. No one understands him because he utters mysteries in the Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 14:2)

“If I pray in a tongue, my spirit is at prayer but my mind contributes nothing. What is my point here? I want to pray with my spirit, and also to pray with my mind. I want to sing with my spirit and with my mind as well. If your praise of God is solely with the spirit, how will the one who does not comprehend be able to say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving?…You will be uttering praise very well indeed, but the other man will not be helped. Thank God, I speak in tongues more than any of you, but in church I would rather say five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1 Corinthians 14:13-19)

Speaking in tongues may be very appropriate for someone who seeks to return to infancy in their prayer life, as I sort of do–mainly because I’m pretty sure I never left my infancy, but Saint Paul also says, “in mind be mature.” He prefers that we set our hearts on the greater gifts of apostleship, wisdom and prophesy, which help to build up the Church.

If and when I’m blessed with any of them, I’ll probably not say. But I can testify, there’s fruit in desiring them, and even the least gift of the Holy Spirit is very, very good.

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About Elizabeth Duffy