calix meus inebrians quam praeclarus est—my chalice which inebriateth me, how goodly is it!
—Latin Vulgate, Psalm 22 (Douay-Rheims translation)
The Lord of April
It was strange, but in the pre-service prayer that Sunday, as I began to feel the crushing presence of God and to slip into the intense spiritual intoxication we commonly call “speaking in tongues”—as my prayers in English began to give way to a language that, in sound, could be every language, or none—the words that came to my mind were not from the Bible. I sensed these words so strongly and clearly, it was as if someone was whispering them in my ear. But they didn’t belong to any prophet or apostle. Instead, the words that came to my mind were Chaucer’s: Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote. . . .
I had often heard my husband shout these words to himself as he walked back and forth in our tiny apartment and prepared to teach The Canterbury Tales to his high school English students. But this time, a jolt ran through me as I felt them and considered their meaning—“When April with its sweet-smelling showers has pierced the drought of March to the root. . . .” I began to cry out aloud. My mouth could not form familiar words. My mouth was out of my control. Whatever words were coming out of me at that point, they meant this: pierce through my drought to the root of my Self. I was really starting to slip now—three sheets to the wind, in a holy way. Rhythmic sounds, very like a language, yet unintelligible to me, began to gush out of me like water out of a broken water main. And then I was fully gone. Under the influence of an intoxicating God.
Somewhere, in the fertile crescent of the Middle East, a few generations after Noah set foot on dry ground outside of the ark, all of the people of earth gathered together to build a city. In defiance of God’s command to spread out over the whole earth and multiply, they decided to stick together and make a city, with a tower. God, angry at their disobedience, took from the people the one thing that united them: a common language. He caused each person suddenly to start speaking a language no one else could understand. I imagine the confusion, the people talking and then screaming at each other. Maybe they made signs, waved their hands, and made wild gestures, desperate to be understood. But only frustration ensued. Eventually, they gave up, and each family made its own way out into the lonely desert and into the wide world beyond. The bricks of the city they longed for returned to dust.
The Christian worldview is ultimately a set of guiding principles built on words. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is referred to as “the Word.” In Christianity, in order to believe, you must be able to read—or to hear—and you must be able to understand the words of the Bible. There is no obedience without the ability to gather meaning from those words.
In churches like mine, the Bible itself is referred to as “the Word.” It is considered a living book, a collection of words that are alive with the Spirit of God. The book of Hebrews, chapter 11, verse 3, of the King James Version says, “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God. . . .” Thus, the Word, the very Spirit of God, is the creative power behind the universe. In the creation story of Genesis, God speaks into the void and calls the world into being. In a beautiful reimagining of the Christian creation story, C. S. Lewis has the lion, Aslan, bring Narnia into existence by singing the words of creation. Zephaniah 3:17 promises that the Lord rejoices over his people “with singing.” The words of God permeate every object in the universe. The reverberations of God’s perpetual song are over us, around us, written down in the form of the Bible to guide us, and for those of us who believe in speaking in tongues, they flow through and out of us. These divine words give meaning to all we have and all we are.
The Apostles, Act 1, Scene 2
The first time any Christian on earth spoke in tongues is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2, verse 4. In the weeks that followed Jesus’s crucifixion, more than 500 disciples claimed to have seen Jesus alive. Two disciples had a long conversation with him as they walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus. He had miraculously entered a sealed room to speak to a distraught disciple named Thomas, rolling up his sleeves to show Thomas his scars. And Peter and John sat with him on the beach of the Sea of Galilee, eating the fish he had cooked for their breakfast. Finally, Jesus told his closest followers to wait in Jerusalem for something called the Holy Ghost, which was to imbue them with the power to be his disciples. They watched his ascension into heaven and then had nothing to do but go to Jerusalem and wait for—what, exactly? They didn’t know what it was Jesus was promising, only that they wanted it. And so, in a rented room on the day of Pentecost—the Jewish harvest festival—120 people sat praying together, waiting. And then:
Suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind. . . .
And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
The scene must have seemed wild. The thing so longed for turned out to be Babel all over again, but this time it was a welcome, holy takeover. The Spirit that had divided the language of the disciples’ disobedient ancestors as a punishment now distorted their language as the fulfillment of a promise to empower them. The disciples made such a ruckus that people began to gather in the street below the window. People from all over the region had traveled to Jerusalem for the holiday, and each person gathered outside the window heard the disciples worshipping God in his own native tongue. It was Babel in reverse—the curse of confusion turned into a blessing of understanding. Some in the crowd were awestruck. Some, skeptical, said the disciples must be fall-down drunk. How, after all, could a bunch of backwater Galileans speak so eloquently in so many languages? Finally, Peter stuck his head out of the window and began the very first Christian sermon by saying, albeit in fancier words, “We’re not drunk. It’s only 9 in the morning.”
Tongues: A Brief Personal History
I was born to two Pentecostal parents, and people speaking in tongues must be one of the first things I ever heard. A calf knows its mother’s scent, and I know the sound of my mother praying in the Spirit. Even if I were blindfolded in a crowded church, I could find my mother just by following her sound—a rolling set of staccato phrases that glide in one long, deep moan (a moan that is almost primitive, the kind of moan that women make in childbirth to alleviate the pain), the volume of her voice—now loud, now soft—undulating like ocean waves, pouring onto the church carpet. I first remember hearing her pray at home, kneeling at the couch in the living room. I loved to hear my mother speak in tongues; I loved the sense of calm that pervaded our home as her words grew less intelligible and her voice louder. Once, when I was perhaps seven years old and my sister Sarah would have been about five, we sat in our room playing with our Little Tikes dolls as the sounds of tongue-talking began to fill our entire house. We sat for a long time, listening, our arms outstretched with the dolls still in our hands, as if time had suddenly stood still and we had been frozen in the act of playing. Finally, we went out to find our mother, curled up over the couch and convulsing with tears. She was often like this. Nothing was really wrong, or, at least, things were not worse than usual. Nobody had died. For a long time, this was what I understood prayer to look like: a woman, wobbly on her knees, crying like nobody’s business, her words unintelligible, and all of this noise so loud that her children couldn’t even hear themselves playing. In another house, perhaps, this scene would have been a signal for distress. In our house, however, this scene meant that everything was going well. It signified peace. I climbed up on the couch and wrapped my body around my mother’s head and arms. And then, feeling warm and heavy, I fell asleep.
Glossolalia: A Biological Perspective
The passionate, sometimes rhythmic, language-like patter that pours forth from religious people who “speak in tongues” reflects a state of mental possession, many of them say. Now they have some neuroscience to back them up.
Thus begins a 2006 New York Times article about the work of one Dr. Andrew Newberg and his team at the University of Pennsylvania. The researchers performed SPECT scans of the brains of several women as they sang gospel songs and spoke in tongues.
According to the evidence provided by the scans, while the brain seemed to function normally during the gospel singing, activity in the frontal lobes—“the thinking, willful part of the brain”—and the language centers declined during the periods when the test subjects spoke in tongues. This would seem to explain why people who speak in tongues don’t seem to be in control of our bodily movements, as the frontal lobe controls fine motor skills as well as language. What Dr. Newberg found is that the tongue-talking Christian has lost control of many of her conscious cognitive functions. In his book Why We Believe What We Believe, he notes that with the language centers of the brain essentially inactive, “one might expect that this would cause disruptions in speech patterns, but the language that emerged during the glossolalic state was highly structured, filled with clearly articulated phrases.” Though he isn’t exactly convinced of this himself, Dr. Newberg says believers may take the uncertainty of the origin of these language patterns as a sign that some other entity is controlling them. And I would say most believers do. A loss of control on our part is not simply a loss of control. When we give up our conscious thought, something else—something very real—takes over.
Now, a caveat is necessary. Though this research is extremely interesting to me, it is also highly problematic. I have chosen to include it to make a point that may or may not be better made in another way: tongue-talkers are not making this up. All my life, I have been repeatedly asked by people of other faiths or by non-believers if speaking in tongues is a conscious act. That is to say, am I choosing a point in my prayer at which I will stop speaking English and start speaking something else? The answer is no. There is an alteration in myself that is beyond me, outside me, and I cannot control it. Though I can prevent it by my refusal to surrender my conscious will, I cannot force this alteration to begin. This, at least in part, is what is wrong with the study. It is not something that can be done on command or for display—even for an accredited neuroscientist with a research grant. Almost every other person I know who is a sincere believer in the Holy Ghost was extremely skeptical of Dr. Newberg’s entire project, especially of the validity of test subjects who seemed to be able to conjure the Spirit almost on command. But, I’ll be honest, I like the look of the brain scans and the fact that the study seems to confirm what I already know to be true: this is truly an altered state of consciousness.
Praying in the Spirit is a holy gift, and when my parents taught me to pray as a child, I was taught never to pretend to speak in tongues. To pretend to speak in tongues was considered irreverent, and to perform was nearly, if not absolutely, sacrilegious. To participate in a study like Dr. Newberg’s would be unthinkable to me and to all the tongue-talkers whom I know. My parents taught me, as a child, to say the prayers that are common to many Christian children—Now I lay me down to sleep—and humbly to request the gift given to the apostles at Jerusalem. Jesus commanded them to go to Jerusalem and “tarry . . . until ye be endued with power from on high.” Like the disciples before me, I had to hope and wait for the promise of the Holy Ghost.
Tarrying Until . . .
It is important to note that I am not a person who likes to lose control of herself. This foible seems to be part of my inborn character. I don’t think any external influence could have made me quite as much of a wet blanket as I am. I was the kid who didn’t like water balloon fights or getting pushed into the pool. I have also never liked roller coasters, meeting new people, or surprise parties. I could go on, but the list of things I don’t like might be interminable. The number of times that my own mother—a woman known to our family and community for her reliability and good sense—has looked at me and said, “You’re just no fun at all,” are too numerous to count.
This, as you might imagine, made praying for the Holy Ghost difficult for me. Normally, a person prays for this promised gift with faith and hope. It is meant to be a joyful search. I however, always ended up talking to God with clenched jaws and fists. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to speak in tongues—I had, as I said, listened to my mother speak in tongues since I could remember, and it was always a source of comfort to me—but I could not imagine losing control of myself the way she did.
I have vivid memories of times when I was maybe seven or eight and, as I prayed, felt my tongue grow thick and my lips begin to tingle with numbness. I could feel a growing pressure creeping up my spine. I guess, according to Dr. Newberg’s study, this would have been the point where my frontal lobe began the process of shutting down. Almost always, at this point, I would pop my eyes open and clamp my mouth shut. Once, when I was maybe nine years old, as I prayed—alternately craving and dreading this feeling of being taken over by God—I dug my fingers into my bedroom carpet and clenched my fists so hard that I pulled the carpet up from the floor. There was a wonky-looking bubble in the middle of my bedroom from then on.
Speaking in tongues is a paradoxical thing. It is a deliberate decision to surrender your conscious will and give over control of your most basic faculties to another entity. You expect that as you thoughtfully pray, God will slip in and snatch the reins of your mind. It is a strange state of being: you’re not entirely lost to yourself. You don’t black out. You know where you are. Even with your eyes closed, you have a pretty good sense of what is going on around you. And you know when it happens; that is, you can feel it coming. You know the point when your mouth begins to feel numb and, then, when it suddenly begins to move and make sounds you do not intend for it to make. You begin to hear, in your own voice, a rolling language you don’t understand. Your body begins to shake and sway without your consent. And all this while, there is a warmth and a pressure creeping over your entire body, as if the pull of gravity is coming from within, rather than without, you. As if those feeble cries you are making to God have actually attracted His notice. He hits you, fast as lightning.
Quite often, when I was young, I grabbed the bar that held my little twin bed together until I was white-knuckled, and when I stopped praying, I would find I was not so much kneeling as I was totally prone, with my forehead on the floor and my arms covering my head the way schoolchildren in the 1950s were taught to crouch under their desks in case of an atomic bomb. God felt like an eighteen-wheeler barreling at me at seventy-five miles per hour. Sometimes God still feels like that, but I have learned not to be afraid. I have learned to let go.
Fire, Fire, Fire, Shut Up in My Bones
God is the faceless Name, the God of words, the unspeakable, unknowable, and all-knowing Word. By faith, I know that the world was framed by the Word of God. And then the Word became flesh. The great unpronounceable Word made Himself a body and walked around in that body among bestial creatures, whose own sad languages are made up of meaningless signifiers. What’s in a name? God, the Name, in anger, muddled the languages of the workers at Babel. Now the Name, in love, is the heavy, humming presence that confounds my language. I fall, as if seized by this invisible, unutterable Word. The Word was nailed to two planks of wood. I celebrate the Life of the Word by drinking cups filled with crimson liquid. Not blood, but a likeness of blood. I symbolically drink the Blood of the Name—the greatest of all signifiers—and am drunk on its power. And I have no more power of my own. Words? I have no more words. My words mean nothing. I am drunk on the Word.