“Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire”
Just over a year ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury said in a radio interview that he prays in tongues every day.
He said: “In my own prayer life, and as part of my daily discipline, I pray in tongues every day – not as an occasional thing, but as part of daily prayer.”
He added: “It’s not something to make a great song and dance about. Given it’s usually extremely early in the morning [he rises at 5 a.m.] it’s not usually an immensely ecstatic moment.”
The disclosure may have been startling to some but, before he was ordained, Archbishop Welby attended Holy Trinity Brompton, the home of Alpha courses, during which people are encouraged to speak in tongues.
Stories of charismatic behaviour like this serve to remind many of us of our tendency to domesticate religious experience. We often go through services or say our prayers finding them satisfying and worthwhile, no doubt, but neither wanting nor expecting anything dramatic to happen.
The opposite is also true. When I was very young and being confirmed, I expected to ‘feel’ something. Well, it was moving but it wasn’t remarkable. The remarkable moments have come unbidden, though perhaps when I was receptive.
This is different from actively seeking dramatic religious experience. That would be testing or challenging God, effectively saying, “Come on then God, show me what you can do!” But it does mean that we should be far more open to the idea that God’s Holy Spirit may be powerfully active in our lives. We need to make room for the Holy Spirit, as the disciples did.
However, although the disciples in Sunday’s story of Pentecost were open to the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, it’s unlikely that they had any clear expectation of what was going to happen. They had already experienced the double loss of Jesus: first with his cruel and awful death on Good Friday and then when he had gone from them after a series of resurrection appearances. St. Luke describes this by using the picture language that Christ had ‘ascended’ to be with God in heaven.
The only thing that they had to hold on to was Jesus’ promise that he would send them the Holy Spirit (“you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you”). They were gathered together in a room in Jerusalem because it was an important Jewish festival, Pentecost – so named from the Greek word for 50 and the fact it was 50 days after another important Jewish festival, Passover. Suddenly, they were seized by an experience of the Holy Spirit, which is described as a rushing wind and tongues of fire. This is picture language to describe how overwhelmed they felt, just as we can say that people in love say that they feel on fire or people when they are angry say that they are boiling with anger. (If there had literally been wind, how did the flames hover over their heads?).
But the disciples didn’t receive this gift of the Spirit just for their own benefit, just to make them feel comfortable. In some way, the experience enabled them to talk about Jesus and the meaning of his life to a huge variety of people. Everyone present believed that the disciples were speaking directly to them in their own language. Exactly how this happened, we cannot know but we do know that the effect of the Holy Spirit was to draw people together. This was the opposite of the effect of human pride – symbolised by the story of the Tower of Babel being built to reach heaven. This had crashed down leaving people speaking different languages and unable to understand one another easily.