For many Catholics, the practice of speaking in tongues can feel like unfamiliar (and—if we’re honest—pretty uncomfortable) territory. The idea of foreign sounds emitting from believers’ lips may conjure up images of snake handling, fanatical dancing, and all sorts of unruly behaviors we don’t associate with reverent worship. It can seem, in short, kinda freaky—a practice for other members of the Christian fold, not us. But a small contingent of Catholics embraces speaking in tongues as a treasured component of a healthy prayer life. I know, because I do so myself.
My inherent comfort level with using a prayer language stems from my growing-up years. As a charismatic Evangelical Protestant until my mid-20s, speaking in tongues was a given in my religious experience. The “baptism of the Holy Spirit” (speaking in tongues for the first time) stood out as an expected rite of passage, much like a sacrament, in the churches I attended. Miraculous accounts circulated through my childhood of people speaking decipherable messages in foreign languages to others who could understand. And more commonly, “glossolalia,” the term for this sort of speech, served as an intimate form of personal prayer.
While I don’t recall my first experience speaking in tongues, I do remember feeling uncertain as to how to actually do it. Would the Holy Spirit take over my mouth, speaking through me like a scene from a horror movie? Would I say something in a real language, suddenly able to spout spiritual messages in Japanese? Or was I supposed to just make up some gobbledygook and hope it sounded right?
At some point, an older, wiser mentor gave me some advice: simply allow yourself to give voice to the sensations in your spirit. If you couldn’t use English, how would you express your praise, your thanks, your cries for help to God? When I finally embraced this concept, a flow of syllables did indeed follow. Some believers feel their prayer language contains literal content, with certain words signifying specific meaning. Personally, I don’t experience this to be true. Rather, my “prayer language” feels like an outpouring from my deepest heart to God’s in vocal (but not translatable) form. As a writer and a former foreign language teacher, I adore language—but sometimes it simply doesn’t go far enough. Speaking in tongues takes me to the next level, connecting me with God in a more profound, mysterious way.
Since my conversion to Catholicism nine years ago, praying in a spirit language has remained a cherished form of my prayer life—but seldom do I find other Catholics who experience this gift in their own lives. When Pentecost Sunday comes around, we hear about the “tongues of fire” descending upon the apostles in the reading from Acts 2. So, why do we hesitate to embrace this gift in the 21st century? Perhaps it’s due to the fact that the Church does not offer an official position on the use of glossolalia, whether in community or in personal prayer. Many Catholics may also believe the gift of tongues was a one-time-only dispensation for the Apostles in the early Church. Or perhaps we simply feel that to use it would result in chaos. Even St. Paul discouraged believers from speaking in tongues in the midst of others unless they could be translated. He wrote to the church at Corinth, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the Church, I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1 Corinthians 14:18-19)
Still, whatever we may believe about the historical use of tongues, the Charismatic Catholic Renewal movement alone is proof that they continue to be accessible today. This revival, begun in 1967, seeks to experience the Holy Spirit’s gifts of miraculous healing, prophecy, and speaking in tongues. Every pope has acknowledged the movement since its inception, and Pope Francis has praised it as “a current of grace.” Clearly, as far as Church authority is concerned, we have nothing to fear from speaking in tongues.
Years ago, a Protestant friend told me her youth pastor used to encourage students to “practice” speaking in tongues for a half hour each day. You don’t have to go so far as that, but perhaps you’d like to try incorporating this gift into your prayer life. Find a solitary place. Ask the Holy Spirit to bless you with the freedom to speak in this intimate way. Don’t worry if you feel self-conscious (because you probably will). Give yourself permission to talk to God in whatever words or sounds feel right, rather than sound right. At worst, you’ll end up uttering something that sounds a little funny to your ears. At best, you will have discovered a wonderful new channel of communication with God.