invited to a breakfast after Mass, a Catholic Woman’s Society. . . .
For the most part their aims seemed holy enough. A desire to promote Consecration
to Our Lady, Eucharistic Adoration, holiness within the family, supporting
the poor, etc. After the discussions there was a bit of prayer, and those
who felt the desire to pray in tongues were invited to do so. I was very
taken aback by this, and embarrassed as people around me began to sing in
unintelligible words. There was also group discussion where people would
propose their ideas, and how they felt the Holy Spirit was motivating them,
and then everyone around the table would punctuate this with “Praise
Jesus! Thank you Jesus!” which is all quite well and good, but I felt
like I was at a Protestant thing I’ve seen on TV. You know? I could
only hang my head and pray silently that He would guide these good people
as they seemed to think they were being guided. I think it was their certainty
that it could only be the Holy Spirit that guided them, that frightened me
Now, when it comes to tongues, I myself have never desired to pray in this
way, but I cannot condemn others if God inspires them, and I mean a genuine
inspiration. But what is real and what is false? What is the Holy Spirit
and what is simply human emotion trying to find satisfaction in the wrong
places? When I read St. Paul in 1 Corinthians, it seems tongues are kind
of a pointless thing as they bear little fruit, and he more or less tells
them to stop wasting their time. Or so it seems to me.
peaking in tongues is first mentioned
in Acts in regard to Pentecost when the Apostles spoke to the crowds, and
everyone from the various nations heard everything in his native
Then there appeared
to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of
them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in
different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
Now, there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem.
At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because
each one heard them speaking in his own language.
Notice that, in this case,
speaking in tongues had the purpose of increasing communication, so
that the “mighty acts of God” (viz., the Incarnation, Passion,
and Resurrection of Christ) would be proclaimed to all nations; it had nothing
to do with babbling unintelligibly.
Nevertheless, in his Epistles,
Saint Paul does mention that speaking in tongues can be a gift of the Spirit.
Furthermore, we know that he was referring to unintelligible speech because
he also mentioned the gift of interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians
Now, the problem, as you well
perceive, is that speaking unintelligible things can lead to abuse. If we
don’t know what is being said, then, despite our feelings, we could be
uttering a mouthful of diabolical curses. Plus,
when people get together in groups, social
pressure can easily lead to mass hysteria, shared delusion, and
In fact, Saint Paul had to correct
this very problem of spiritual pride within the Corinthian church. Paul told
the Corinthians that “building up” the church—edifying others
through encouragement and solace (1 Corinthians 14:3)—is far more
important than speaking in tongues. Thus he asks, “If you, because
of speaking in tongues, do not utter intelligible speech, how will anyone
know what is being said?” (1 Corinthians 14:9), and so he rebukes
the Corinthians’ inflated
you pronounce a blessing [with] the spirit, how shall one who holds the place
of the uninstructed say the “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since
he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks very well,
but the other is not built up. I give thanks to God that I speak in tongues
more than any of you, but in the church I would rather speak five words with
my mind, so as to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a
Because Saint Paul truly understood
the meaning of dying to the self in the service of others, in the imitation
of Christ’s love for us, he offered pure,
practical advice to the Corinthians: set aside personal
pride and self-satisfaction, and instead seek always
the salvation of others.
Saint Paul is telling us here that
if we want to speak in tongues privately, to express simple feelings of
thanksgiving or joy, it might serve our own edification; still, it does
nothing to assist the salvation of others. If others are present, however, it’s
a different matter. So again listen to Saint Paul’s counsel:
If anyone speaks
in a tongue, let it be two or at most three, and each in turn, and one should
interpret. But if there is no interpreter, the person should keep silent
in the church and speak to himself and to God.
Note that when Saint Paul speaks about
someone who should interpret he is not referring to self-interpretation,
for if that were the case, the whole experience could be a matter of self-delusion.
Interpretation is a real gift in itself, distinct from the gift of tongues. It’s
also a gift rarely, if ever, manifested today in prayer groups that encourage speaking
in tongues. That lack says quite a bit. Just like in psychotherapy, when
is absent, there is no healing meaning to what has been said. It’s all just a lot
of “talking to the air” (1 Corinthians 14:9).
Real Catholic Prayer
So do we praise God when
we babble nonsense? No.
Do we praise God when we wave
our arms around in the air? No.
Do we praise God merely by saying
the words Praise the Lord ? No.
We praise God by praying for the grace to live
a holy lifestyle; that is, a life of
and humility; a life of gratitude
and constant awareness of the presence of God; a life purged of
lust and hate; a
life without competition; and a life
detached from the world and all its
Sadly, it’s a life that is rarely,
if ever, seen in most prayer groups. And if your privately speaking in tongues does
not bear spiritual fruits, then you are just
speaking to the air, and, as Saint James wrote (James 1:26), you are
interpretation is a process whereby the well-trained and experienced
psychotherapist brings out into conscious awareness the
meaning of the client’s speech.