Speaking in Tongues

In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.

— Denise Levertov

I grew up in a church where everything was done by the book. The volume in question was the Book of Common Prayer, which is used by Episcopalians and other Anglican churches around the world. Unlike some other denominations, worship services in the Episcopal Church are carefully scripted. Hymns are sung from another book, and there are readings from the Old and New Testaments. The priest delivers a sermon he has prepared beforehand on the scriptural readings for the day. The remainder of the service is found in the Book of Common Prayer: the order of worship, prayers, collects, creeds, confessions, psalms and litanies. In addition to Holy Communion, there are services of morning and evening prayer, daily devotions, pastoral offices (baptism, confirmation, burial, marriage, etc.) and the ordination of clergy. There is a separate section containing dozens of prayers and thanksgivings for every occasion imaginable.

Along with the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare, the prayer book is widely acknowledged as one of the glories of the English language. Published in the immediate aftermath of the Protestant Reformation in England, when religious affiliation was still sharply contested, the Book of Common Prayer, as its name indicates, was meant to guarantee that adherents were all on the same page. Its prayers were theologically sound and appropriate to the occasion. Although Anglican worship might be faulted for its lack of spontaneity, churchgoers could take comfort in the fact that their services were always dignified, and there would never be any unpleasant surprises.

Imagine then the consternation of worshippers at St. Mark’s Church in Van Nuys, California when their rector announced one Sunday morning in1960 that he had received a “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and had begun speaking in tongues. Father Dennis Bennett had until that Sunday been the respected pastor of this large and prosperous Episcopal congregation in suburban Los Angeles. It quickly became apparent that his parishioners were not prepared to embrace his new spiritual leanings, and he resigned his post. Bennett went on to spearhead a charismatic renewal within mainline Protestant and Catholic denominations.

Traditional Episcopalians are not the only ones to do things by the book, although the book that charismatics point to is the Bible. The Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament describes how Jesus’ disciples gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Pentecost not long after his death. According to the biblical account,

…suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

This episode is regarded as the founding event of the Christian Church. It was not something Episcopalians would have considered to be dignified; indeed, many onlookers assumed that Jesus’ disciples were drunk. Needless to say, there was no mention of anyone reading prayers from a book.

I don’t recall now whether I had even heard of the charismatic renewal when I first encountered it some 40 years ago. My wife saw a notice in the local paper for a “charismatic mini-convention” at an Episcopal Church nearby and suggested I go; in fact, she insisted upon it. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why – and still can’t. She wasn’t the least bit religious herself, and I hadn’t darkened the door of a church in years. But I went and realized right away that something was amiss. The setting was familiar, but the place was packed with an odd assortment of humanity, including a fair sprinkling of nuns. People were clapping and singing and raising their arms in the air. In sharp contrast to the solemn church services I remembered when I was growing up, everyone seemed to be having an enormously good time. Various individuals came forward to “give their testimony,” the substance of which had to do with turning their lives over to Christ. All of this was quite alien to me, and yet I found myself getting caught up in it. Part of me was appalled. What was happening to me? I didn’t know, but I had a strong sense that if I stayed, my life would change in ways I couldn’t even begin to imagine. Inexplicably, I decided to stay.

I became aware of a strange murmuring around the room that I later learned was people speaking in tongues. People were invited to stand if they wished to give their lives to Christ. I stood, tears streaming down my face, feeling like an utter fool. What was I doing? I could be described as many things, but impulsive was not one of them. And from there things only got weirder. In a chapel behind the sanctuary you could receive a laying-on of hands for a baptism of the Holy Spirit. I went. The effect was like the cyclone that carried Dorothy to the Land of Oz, except that it my case the cyclone spun my life around and landed me right back in Kansas. I staggered from the chapel and somehow made my way home, feeling thoroughly intoxicated without having touched a drop. If nothing else, I now understood why the onlookers at Pentecost thought Jesus’ followers were all drunk.

I did not speak in tongues, and I was just as happy I didn’t. Although I had surrendered my life to Christ, I wasn’t prepared to surrender my tongue – at least not yet. That came several weeks later in my sleep. I dreamed I was speaking in tongues, and when I awoke these same strange syllables were passing through my lips. They have been bubbling up periodically ever since. Although they usually arrive unbidden, they never force themselves on me. I can stop as easily as turning off a faucet. I have no idea what I am saying, or if the syllables when strung together even constitute a language. My sense is that I am praying. But if I am in church, I am careful to keep the volume down so as not to disturb those who are reciting prayers out of a book.

For most of the last 40 years I earned my living as a writer, which would appear to have little in common with speaking in tongues. Granted, both involve stringing syllables together, but there the similarities end. Writing introduces a whole range of disciplines that need not burden an ardent charismatic: spelling, grammar, syntax and – not the least – meaning. The stuff you put down on paper has to mean something, which means you have to think about what you want to say and how best to say it. Writing is, by definition, premeditated, if not premasticated, like a cow chewing its cud. Although you strive for fluency, what you often get are fits and starts masquerading as fluency. I’d love to turn on a faucet and get the words to flow, but more often than not I get drips. At such times I take comfort in a story about Oscar Wilde, who supposedly spent a morning inserting a comma in one of his poems and an afternoon taking it out again. The story may well be apocryphal but a writer will recognize the essential truth of it. Wherever the words come from, they arrive in their own sweet time.

Where exactly do the words come from? The short answer is that we think them up. Yet this merely begs the question. Words come to mind, but we don’t really know whether they bubbled up from the dark recesses of the brain or were piped in from somewhere else. For the most part, they arrive unbidden, and we happily take possession of them -- finder’s keepers. If the words please us and we write them down, we may even sign our name to them.

The issue of ownership looms large here, because their provenance tends to get ignored once we have deemed them to be “mine.” They are all wrapped up in our sense of personal identity; indeed, our thoughts are our personal identity, if Descartes is to be believed (“I think, therefore I am.”) To disassociate from the words that arrive unbidden from God knows where is to risk disassociating from oneself. This can either be a recipe for severe psychological dislocation or a breakthrough, depending. Why a breakthrough? Because once we have learned to see ourselves and our words impersonally, we can recognize them as gifts. For a writer, this can be liberating. The words may no longer be mine in the sense of owning them, but they are clearly mine to use. I am not inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth. I do not need to know where the words come from. I suspect they come from the same place that everything comes from. No matter whether I am speaking in tongues or speaking the King’s English, there is really only one source.

Romans 8:26

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