Ten days after the Lord’s Ascension into heaven, the gifts of the Holy Spirit were manifested on the day of Pentecost as a sign of the reconciliation that had occurred between God and man. But one of these gifts in particular, that of speaking in tongues, was different. The gift is difficult to understand, partly because it had all but disappeared by the end of the life of the Holy Apostle Paul. Moreover, it is clear from the later epistles of St. Paul, in which he puts it last on the list of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, that its importance had diminished. How are we to understand this?
We know that the fits of speaking in tongues (glossolalia) was given to the nascent Church for a specific purpose. The old Israel had become accustomed to worshipping and praying in a largely external manner, and when the Spirit came on the day of Pentecost, He wanted this to change. His intention, therefore, was to teach the people to pray in spirit, in the ‘hidden man of the heart’ (I Pet. 3:4). But on the day of Pentecost, we see that the people began to speak in foreign languages of the mighty works of God; the gift was soon widespread, because God wanted His words to go ‘unto the ends of the world’ (Rom. 10:18) and the new faith to bring salvation to all the peoples. Many were encouraged to speak in tongues, and the Spirit of God condescended accordingly. Those who prayed in tongues were happy, being certain of one thing: God ‘had broken into’ them and was at work within them.
However, this gift slowly began to disappear, for it would no longer be useful or helpful in the edification of the Body. It often happened that glorifications and words would be pronounced which the Body itself could not understand, and this would require the help of an interpreter inspired by the Holy Spirit. Although some of the faithful continued to use their gifts of tongues, at some point it became clear that the prayer of those who were listening was no longer being inspired in the same way as before. For this reason, St. Paul says the following in the Epistle to the Corinthians: ‘I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also’ (I Cor. 14:15). Thus, he distinguishes between prayer in the spirit (pneuma) and prayer in the mind (nous), and identifies prayer in the spirit with praying in foreign tongues. One verse earlier he says, ‘If I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful’ (I Cor. 14:14).
It is true that for St. Paul, spirit and mind are almost identical: he sometimes says that the highest purpose of Christianity is the renewal of the spirit and sometimes the renewal of the nous. Nevertheless, in trying to distinguish between the two, I would say that the spirit is present in the mind as something higher, deeper than the mind itself -that it is revealed through the mind, just as the soul can be said to be revealed through the emotions.
But when the Holy Apostle says ‘I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also’, we must admit that a certain opposition has been introduced. Prayer in the spirit is identified with prayer in tongues, when man’s spirit is aware of the irruption of God into his life. Furthermore, there were times when the grace that taught the people to worship God ‘in spirit and truth’ (John 4:2) - with their inner being - was present in such abundance that it flowed out in torrents of enthusiasm. In this kind of prayer the highest faculty of the human being is inspired by God, receiving His energy. Man then surrenders to the ‘breath’ of the Holy Spirit, which ‘bloweth where it listeth’ (John 3:8), and the Spirit intercedes with ‘unutterable groanings’ (Rom. 8:26) for those in whom He dwells, sometimes with words which are beyond the understanding of the psychological man.
In prayer of the mind, by contrast, the mind rises towards God in pious thought and godly desire. Such prayer is characterised by holy contrition or joy, but it is not liable to surrender to the great impetus and boundless spiritual exaltation we have just described. A degree of control is exercised by the person who prays in the mind: he is able to direct his thoughts, desires and feelings. His spiritual faculties act in the usual way, in characteristic order; his prayers and doxologies are pronounced in an altogether understandable manner, and can provoke any hearers to participation in the worship. Of course, the heart participates in this kind of prayer of the mind, but there is a definite absence of total surrender to the breath of the Spirit. St. Paul recommends both types of prayer. He advises us not to use either one to the exclusion of the other, considering that it may at times be better to pray in tongues, and at others with the mind. When we pray in the spirit, we pray for ourselves and for God, but when we pray in the mind, we pray not only for God and for ourselves, but also for the edification of our neighbour and, therefore, for the rest of the Body.
It is, however, surprising to see that St. Paul shows a definite preference for prayer of the mind, which is a free activity of the human spirit, rather than for prayer of the spirit, which is a pure gift of the Holy Spirit. But his choice is entirely keeping with the rest of the Epistle to the Corinthians. For example, he also says that the true prophet will be in control of his spirit: ‘The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets’ (I Cor. 14:32). Total surrender to glossolalia involves a certain loss of control: it is an explosion of grace and joy, and while we are fully aware that God is within us, somehow we deny ourselves any awareness of our fellow-members of the Body.
Many in the early Church were gifted with tongues, but over time the gift became rarer. The problem was, quite simply, that if someone spoke in tongues, he would unintentionally take up all the spiritual space of the congregation as a whole, which would not derive the least profit from the gift. The best explanation for God’s gift of tongues to the early Church lies in the necessity of teaching newly-converted Christians to pray with their heart rather than just externally, as they were likely to have been used to doing. But the Church soon discovered a deeper way to educate the heart, for She was concerned to cultivate the inner man. She discovered the invocation of the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And little by little, the Prayer of the Heart replaced the gift of speaking in tongues. The Jesus Prayer is a way of praying in the spirit without losing any control of the spirit, and, therefore, without running the risk of usurping the space of the other members of the Body of Christ. (All the things we do in church must be done in a way that respects the spiritual space of our fellows. When I was studying theology in Paris, I learned from my old professors that the priest could sometimes lift up his hands in the Divine Liturgy, but also that there is an unwritten rule that he should not lift them above the level of his ears. Similarly, with the Gospel and the censer or when we say, ‘The Holy things unto the holy’, we take care not to exaggerate our movements. We must be humble and discreet, so that our behaviour does not attract the attention of the others.)
In conclusion, to speak in tongues or to pray in the spirit is indeed to immerse our nous in the sea of the Spirit. But the Apostle himself prefers to draw us in to shore, that we avoid even the possibility of disorder in the Body of the Church, and that everything be done for the sake of the edification of the people.
By far, the best possible way of approaching the phenomenon of glossolalia in our times, as our Tradition teaches us to understand it - that is, without condemning or criticising - is to consider that, if people are prevented from worshipping God with the heart, God can once again bestow on them this gift of speaking in tongues. The fact that this gift has reappeared now in modern times, when the way of the heart has been forgotten or is not known, points towards one single purpose. Clearly, the Spirit of God yearns to lead all people home to the Church, to place them within the Body of the Church, and to instruct them in this noble form of worship that has been practised by Christians for so many centuries, that their hearts might once more be cultivated through the invocation of the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And we know that whosoever bears His Name, does so unto salvation, ‘for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). If this gift has indeed been given temporarily to some people, perhaps it will enable them to discover the true unbroken Tradition of the Church, the Tradition of the Prayer of the Heart, which is the surest and humblest prayer in the edification, inspiration and salvation of man. Through this prayer, we receive the greatest of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the gift which will heal our nature and strengthen it, ‘guiding us into all truth’ (John 16:13). It will enable us to bear the fullness of divine love. And this gift will never outlive its purpose - indeed, it will accompany us beyond the grave.
It is important that we understand this phenomenon of glossolalia - we must not be seduced by it. But let us, above all, be gracious to those who believe they have experienced this gift, and gently point out to them that it is the beginning of something far greater that will lead them to the heart of the Tradition. In order to evangelise people, we will not reject them, or dismiss them as ‘heretics’. We will rather try to find a positive element, and use it to lead them to the full truth, as St. Paul did when he addressed the Athenians. He used their ‘unknown God’ (Acts 17:23) to lead them to the One True God, the known and beloved God.
Questions and Answers
Question 1: What is the connection between language and speaking in tongues at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles?
Answer 1: At Pentecost, they spoke in different languages. They were Parthians, Medes, Elamites, etc., and those who received the gift spoke in those tongues. But in their exaltation, they also spoke in unknown tongues. The Apostle Paul says that they themselves did not understand what they were saying and needed someone else to interpret. But where is the benefit in that? They know that they worship God, but the others receive no profit. Of course, there have been occasions in the history of the Church when holy people received this gift and were able to communicate through it; for example, when St. Basil the Great and St. Ephraim the Syrian met, neither of them knew the other’s language, but they managed to understand each other.
Question 2: Currently in America, among the Pentecostals and the Charismatics, there is a certain contention that speaking in tongues is some secret prayer-language provided to them by God, through the Holy Spirit, such that the devil cannot snatch away their prayers. Could you comment on that?
Answer 2: Maybe what these people feel is real, but what they say is wrong. Sometimes people do not understand what they go through. Maybe they received a touch of the Spirit, because God looks at the heart of man, but when they start speaking, they make mistakes, because they do not have the key to interpret their experiences, and the key is the Tradition. In the West, I have often seen people receiving great gifts. There was a minister in a town south of London, and when he preached you thought that honey was running from his mouth. I happened to hear some tapes of his talks. He had such a gift and mind for the Scriptures! With such ease he used to combine different parts of the Scriptures, using one passage to speak for the other, and it was such a pleasure and joy to listen to him! He had this gift for a certain time in his evangelical parish, but suddenly the thought came to him that he must go out and preach the word of God to the whole world. Unfortunately, he had no point of reference in his church, no one to discern the will of God for him, and tell him, ‘No, God has put you in this place. Stay here! It seems that the Spirit bears witness that this is your place.’ Anyway, he embraced the idea of going and preaching the Gospel to the whole world, and after a few years, I happened to hear that he was in Switzerland in a state of depression, not even wanting to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. He would ask a layman to do it, while he would just sit in a corner, downhearted. I think that he had this great gift for a certain time, but there was no Tradition to uphold and strengthen him, or to help him discern the ways of salvation and of the Spirit. Consequently, when the moment of trial came, he was lost. The problem these people face is that there is no institution of the Church, because there is no Tradition. There are individuals who sometimes, because of their personal love for God and the Scriptures, have a certain enthusiasm and they manage to do a lot, but it all evaporates so easily, because there is no vessel in which to place and store the grace that they have received. For us the vessel is the institution of the Church, together with the Tradition which is the vehicle that carries us. I do not despise them - some of them are very gifted people - but they are the victims of their own traditions. There is no stability in them, because they have no notion of the Church in the sense that we do. We often have Anglican priests visiting our monastery, and they keep saying to us, ‘Only you, the Orthodox, have an unbroken Tradition.’ But they say no more, they do not go any further and, of course, I keep quiet. What can you say?
Question 3: Some years ago, I hear a theologumenon [a theological opinion] for the gift of speaking in tongues, and I would like your reaction. It said that the original gift continued Pentecost and used the languages of humanity, and that when the languages of humanity had all been covered, the gift ended.
Answer 3: Yes, it implies the idea that the gift of glossolalia was given just to bless all our languages. I think I have read something similar in St. John Chrysostom, but I do not remember it exactly. Nevertheless, whoever has the experience of the true Tradition of the Orthodox Church has no want, he lacks nothing. All the modern Christian denominations reflect certain aspects of our Tradition. They call themselves Evangelicals, but surely we are evangelical too, maybe even more than they are.
Question 4: Either someone gave me, or I purchased a copy of the spiritual memoirs of Elder Porphyrios, called Wounded by Love. I began to read it, and he describes how he received the gift of the Holy Spirit of clear sight. He was praying in the narthex of the church, when an old hermit came into the church. Thinking he was alone, the hermit spread his arms out like a cross and made sounds that could be described as glossolalia, and he became radiant with the light of God. Fr. Porphyrios, from that moment, believed that his gift of clear sight was connected to the prayer of the old hermit. So the process of receiving the gift was very hidden and secret. My question is, are there any other similar things we find in our Tradition?
Answer 4: All of us more or less know something of the gift of speaking in tongues, or praying in spirit. When we are alone in our rooms, we pray in ways in which we cannot pray in church, in front of others. We can just let ourselves be immersed in the Spirit of God and speak to Him in an unrestrained way. We can say to Him, ‘Lord, I thank Thee that Thou art as Thou art and there is not like Thee’, or ‘Lord, it would be better not to live even one day upon earth than to be without Thy love.’ When the Spirit carries us in that way, we utter prayers which are very personal, and we feel the power of the Spirit within, but in no way could we pray in like manner together with our brethren. That is why we read in a neutral tone in church, so that others who are there can listen to the reading if they want to, or if they do not want to, they can follow their inner rhythm of prayer without being disturbed. It is unacceptable to read in a sentimental, personal way in church, because it undermines the peace of others. I have heard readings which were really awful; I could not bear it, and I just wanted to run away from the church. Sometimes, in monasteries, monks appear to read in a manner that may even seem impious, just flat and straight, because they know that other monks might have spent the whole night in prayer in their cells, and have come to church with all their spirit recollected in their heart, so they just want to keep the same rhythm of prayer. And this is possible as long as everything in church is done in a neutral way.
We even try to understand the gift of speaking in tongues in the same spirit. Maybe God gives this gift in order to help people to learn to pray with their heart, to make the transition from the external to the inner. I am sure many of you have known this kind of prayer. Many times, when you are in your room, and God gives a particular grace and inspiration, you can kneel down, you can knock your head on the floor, you can beat your chest, you can do whatever you like, but when you are in the church, you do not usurp the space of your fellows. What a great culture! I remember a story from the Desert Fathers. A great old man of the desert of Egypt entered the church and, thinking that he was alone, he let a big sigh come out of him unrestrained. Suddenly he heard some movement in a corner and realised that there was a novice hidden in the church, praying. He went and prostrated to him and said to him, ‘Forgive me brother, for I have not yet made a beginning.’
Many of the Desert Fathers had this culture of hiding their charisms. One great ascetic received three monks in his cell. He wanted to observe their practice, so he pretended to be asleep. The three monks, thinking that their host was sleeping, encouraged each other, and then started praying. He saw the prayer of two of them coming out like a flame, while the third one prayed with difficulty. But they had waited for their host to fall asleep and they had themselves pretended to be asleep, so that everything could be done in secret, without losing the reward of our Father Who sees in secret and rewards openly. Every precaution is taken so as not to lose the ethos of humility. This is the great culture of the Orthodox Church, and we must not lose it!