Even though I believe that The Gift of Speaking in Tongues as the Pentecostals practice it is a malpracticed theology that is closer to group hypnosis and the madness of crowds than it is of any true spiritual event, we often take on a useful variation on the concept which takes us farther away from daily distractions and closer to a place of meditation and the contemplative life.
Think about how many times in you life you quote lines of scripture using the archaic language of the King James Bible:
thy kingdom come, thy will be done….
Or in school, reading:
Life’s but a walking shadow,
a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
and then is heard no more;
it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Most people outside of Quaker circles no longer use variations on thee, thy, and thou in daily conversation. Yet by using those words in the language of spirituality, we place ourselves in a different emotional state – more reflective than using you and your. How easy it is to change our mental state by changing the pronouns we use or to add -eth onto the end of verbs:
He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock.
that shadows the dry thirsty land;
he hideth my life in the in the depths of his love,
and covers me there with his hand,
and covers me there with his hand.
In talking to my friend Rev. D-Frazz about teaching religious ideas to non-religious people, this idea of speaking in tongues came to me, but not in the way the Bible speaks of it.
The Pentacost story speaks of the Holy Spirit falling upon men as if tongues of fire and by this visitation they all began to speak to each other in other languages, as the spirit enabled them. Not everyone could so speak, and some could instead hear.
This is the point at which my Pentecostal friends seem to stop reading and comprehending. It’s what happened next that is the making of the story:
At this same time, God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven were there in Jerusalem. When they heard this enormous sound (of the visitation,) the crowd came together and they were utterly amazed, because each person heard the sound in their own language. There was no incoherent babbling in ancient Sumerian, what they heard was in their own words. They asked the question of the day:
How is it that each one of us hears them in our own native language?
And so it is with our meditations.
The story above is a lead-in to teaching us about the Ministry of the Word to all nations and all peoples by coming to them and speaking in a language that they can understand. Using a language of both words and actions. Oh a second level it is also the story of how we can use language to speak within ourselves in a tongue understood by the heart.
The perfect example of this is the mantra. Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ is the most familiar of the Buddhist mantras and is a series of seven syllables used in a spiritual practice of repetition. By removing focus from the outer world and focusing on the meaning of the syllables (rather than parroting the sounds) the practice leads to focus and inner peace. And even though the phrase is universal, probably only a small percentage of its users can speak or read Sanscrit.
A couple of decades back, Gregorian Chant was all the rage as the album Chant by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos was marketed as a $15 answer to finding peace and serenity. But this is something contemplatives had known all along.
Again, by moving the conversation away from our daily home tongue into a now dead language (Latin), the focus became not so much on what we were saying, but how it was being said. By taking away the challenges of “trying to form a sentence” in a prayerful moment, the prayer comes through the cadence of the sounds of the chant, and through the body vibrations of sounding the Om mantra, deep within our diaphragm. In that moment of simple movement of sound through the air, we catch a glimpse of the definition of prayer being “the breath within the breath.” It exists also as the silence beyond all silence, and as a simple hum.
How does this relate to non-religious or non-spiritual people? The same way that hymn singing does: when beginning a contemplative practice, any particular belief (or non-belief) is not a requirement. The must-have lists includes things like patience and persistance, a desire to self-learn within a great silence, and to work through what an early anonymous writer called The Cloud of Unknowing. Some form of spiritual enlightenment is the goal of such a practice. When you get there, please send me back a post card.
Practices vary greatly. My own includes the use of a single “sacred word,” same as is taught in the tradition of Contemplative (Centering) prayer. Some friends us visualizations or guided meditations in a yoga practice, and some recite rosaries or concentrate on plainsong. In each of these examples, the practice demands our moving away from the everyday words that we use and moving toward the words that we understand. The deeper knowledge of that which we seek then enables us to better respond to those around us, to see beyond words for words’ sake, and to hear instead the voice of the universe all around,
in our own native language that we can understand.
Keep the faith!
Russian Polyphonic Chant
The American Song Book