Summary: Focus on the greatest gift, love, and the least gift, praying in tongues. They must tie together, or the Holy Spirit is not behind them.
Solemnity of Pentecost 2020
Anyone who has participated at some point in a Catholic charismatic prayer meeting will find today’s readings for Pentecost pretty familiar. Whether or not you felt drawn to the charismatic or Pentecostal experience, you recognize that when the Holy Spirit was sent into the minds and hearts of Mary and the apostles, they prayed in languages not their own. And when in their enthusiasm they went out into the surrounding streets of Jerusalem, their prayer words attracted the many pilgrims in Jerusalem for the great feast, fifty days after Passover. All of them heard words that sounded familiar–and they were words of praise to God in their own native tongue.
The early assemblies of the Church, born on that day, were characterized by the display of many spiritual gifts, of which the gift of tongues, in St. Paul’s words, was the least. Prophetic utterances either in a strange tongue or in plain Aramaic or Greek came from some. Others were able to interpret those strange tongues. You see the result in the Acts of the Apostles, in the life of Paul himself. On his last missionary journey, he told the elders of Ephesus that in city after city, “the Holy Spirit” told him that he would travel to Jerusalem and face persecution and imprisonment. That must have been a prophetic word he heard in each of those cities. And, as he was accustomed to following God’s will, no matter how difficult, he pressed on toward his ministerial destiny, one that took him to the center of the Empire, Rome.
So there are many gifts, but Paul also tells us that none of them is for the recipient of the gift. They are all given by the Holy Spirit for the upbuilding of the Church, of the community of believers. And they are all meant to be a means of bringing human beings together for right worship, right teaching, and the one mission of bringing the love of God to the world.
I would, today, like to focus on the greatest gift, love, and the least gift, praying in tongues. They must tie together, or the Holy Spirit is not behind them.
Let’s talk about the basic level of this relationship. Paul alludes to it here in his first letter to the church at Corinth. Now that was a truly charismatic community. But the problem with things like the gifts of tongues and prophecy is that those who are filled with the Holy Spirit can also be taken in by an unholy spirit. That was happening in Corinth. So St. Paul is led to write, probably in response to a story he has heard about one of their prayer meetings, that “no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus be cursed!’” Instead, they should be hearing the words “Jesus is Lord.” Paul knows that openness to the Holy Spirit is a two-edged sword. If sin leads someone in the other direction, Satan, the great wicked adversary, is all ready to fill that person with ideas that don’t give praise to God, that don’t bring the community together. So in a part of this passage we did not read today, he emphasizes that it is important to discern between good and evil spirits. That, too, is a spiritual gift. It’s my belief that everyone receives this gift, the gift of discernment, and it must be developed as one learns the faith. Not every prompting in my or your weak mind and will is going to build up the Church and inspire faith and love. We need to learn the difference if we are to make a positive difference. Spiritual gifts must help us grow in love, and grow to love others.
One of the great barriers to loving others is egotism, selfishness, arrogance. As an only child, I grew up with way too much of that, and it’s a constant battle to turn outside my own desires to will the good of the other, to love him. But this is really a battle that all humans have to fight if we are to be useful members of an evangelical community. I find that praying in tongues every day, usually after my daily Rosary or in the car when the radio is silent, can be a very effective anti-ego trip. When I pray in my native language, I generally focus my intentions on those things that are important to me. And I try to be articulate and well-thought, even when nobody but God can hear my prayer. Prayer in tongues is the exact opposite. St. Paul tells us that when we pray in what sounds like nonsense tongues or gibberish, it is the Holy Spirit, who knows my spirit and yours best, who is praying in me. So I turn my will and my vocal cords over to the Holy Spirit as I mouth words that would weird-out a nonbeliever, and that is an effective antidote to egotism. It also is an act of love, because I am praying in most cases for what the Church needs, or for the needs of people I don’t even know. Either that or I’m giving praise to God or thanks for gifts I don’t even know about. Or–to go to the fourth purpose of prayer–I am praying to God to convert me of some bad thought or wish or action I am not yet aware of doing.