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Fr. Anthony Sciarappa @FatherSciarappa
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A thread on "speaking in tongues"
I've encountered a lot of confusion, particularly in charismatic communities, about the gift of tongues. I'll try to offer a clarification.

First of all, we have the apostles who spoke in tongues at Pentecost.
They were given this gift that allowed them to be understood by people who spoke various languages who were gathered in Jerusalem. This miracle was a sign that the Church would encompass every culture and people. The Gospel is for everyone.
Next we have "speaking in tongues" as referred to by Saint Paul, particularly in 1 Corinthians 14. Its important to remember that Saint Paul is writing in large part to help organize and order community worship in the early Church
They didn't have neat missals or rubrics, so things could get a bit chaotic. While this "charismatic" way of praying wasn't a bad thing, it was better, to Saint Paul at least, that worship should be ordered.
I think the continual development and reform of the liturgy in the Church supports this, but that's for another thread.
ANYHOO, we see in his writing two charisms in the community First, speaking in tongues: "For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to human beings but to God, for no one listens; he utters mysteries in spirit"
This "speaking in a tongue" seems to be a kind of language of the Holy Spirit. The wisdom of the spirit overwhelms a humans capacity for language, but at the same time needs to be expressed, and so the person offers prayer in a way that can't be understood.
This is not at all surprising. St. Paul also refers to the spirit growing with in us, praying for us. So, this speaking in tongues is certainly a good thing. But, for the community, it is not terribly helpful. No one knows what the person is saying.
Vocal prayers in the community are meant to be understood (looking at you, my trad friends) for the building up of the community. Not being understood doesn't mean they have no value (looking at you, my lib friends), but St. Paul prefers they be understood. Enter: Prophesy.
This is the gift of interpreting what is said in tongues. Clearly, there is a lack of this in the community, so St. Paul asks that the community pray for this gift:
"Now I should like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be built up."
This is how the gifts should be used: "If anyone speaks in a tongue, let it be two or at most three, and each in turn, and one should interpret." Nice and ordered liturgy for the building up of the community.
St. Paul seems to desire a separation of personal piety and public prayer of the Church: "But if there is no interpreter, the person should keep silent in the church and speak to himself and to God." Liturgy is for the community, not the individual alone.
So yes, I think 1 Corinthians 14 has a lot to say about various "liturgy battles" in the Church. But let's get back to the whole charismatic thing.
People in Saint Paul's time seem all geeked up about speaking in tongues. Makes sense, its a neat gift. It is of obvious spiritual benefit to the one who has been given it. It also takes some pride of place in the liturgy *IF* there is also prophesy
But it also seems to be leading people in the community into pride. St. Paul, in his usual pastoral tone, desires people to think clearly about these gifts: "Brothers, stop being childish in your thinking. In respect to evil be like infants, but in your thinking be mature."
Which brings me to the modern understanding and phenomena of "speaking in tongues"
On a personal note, I have had truly wonderful experiences with various "charismatic communities" as well as pretty terrible ones.
The "charismatic renewal" is certainly a gift to the Church in our time, but one that is still in its infancy and so is often unexamined and undisciplined, lacking competent spiritual fathers. I say "often" but certainly not always.
We often see in these communities the same danger and pride around the "gift of tongues." It is a marker if you are "in" or "out." There is also often pressure for people to speak in tongues, so that they may prove themselves "spiritual" or charismatic.
These attitudes are obviously spiritually unhealthy. But let's examine the phenomenon of "speaking in tongues"itself.
In my experiance, this gift is really two different things that get confused. One is the gift that St. Paul speaks of: the person utters mysteries in spirit. There is a meaning behind the sounds the person speaks.
If this gift is not accompanied by prophesy in a community, then I seriously doubt that it is the same thing that Saint Paul talks about. The other, more common and certainly NOT BAD version of speaking in tongues is different.
It can happen that someone is overwhelmed by genuine spiritual consolation and has a desire to make this feeling manifest, or to vocalize or express it in some way. Yet, not words seem to work. Instead, they just make a joyful noise to the Lord.
AIN'T NOTHING WRONG WITH THIS. Its a good thing, and it often can even sound quite beautiful. Other times, a person desires to vocalize prayer, but doesn't want to be burdened with intellectualizing it, so they make sounds as they pray. NOTHING WRONG WITH THIS EITHER.
I think its easy to detect if this is what is going on. Often, the person "speaking in tongues" repeats the same phrases or sounds over and over again. Its a rhythm or a song, but not a language or even an imitation of a language.
If we take away pride from these experiances and just see them for what they are, then there is nothing wrong with them. but they should not be idolized and I doubt if one should even strive for them. If it happens it happens.
This is my 2 cents on the matter (I guess with the length of this thread, its even 3 cents). But with regards to all spiritual gifts, they must be subordinated to Love:
"If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing."
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