Today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles is quite amusing: it talks about some of the shaky first steps of the growing Church. There’s a group of disciples in Ephesus who have not only never received the Holy Spirit, they “were never even told there was such a thing as a Holy Spirit.” A minor oversight! Just a Divine Person! It can make us smile, but I’m not so sure we’re always so different to this little community of disciples in Ephesus. Often among all the things we know about our faith, we fail to recognise which are the key and most important ones. It’s like not seeing the wood for the trees. Even though most Christians know that there is a Holy Spirit, lots of Christians go through life without this being an important truth for them.
This is good for us to reflect on in the run up to Pentecost. Just like these disciples, if we don’t have that lively sense of who the Holy Spirit is, if we aren’t tuned in to his action in our lives, then we will make our Christian faith into something purely human: just another religion like the others, one that we’re more attached to maybe, but not really so different from the other faiths.When the disciples at Ephesus receive the real baptism, baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus, they receive the Holy Spirit. Immediately they begin to speak in tongues.Speaking in tongues is a curious phenomenon, that lots of Christians have never heard of. When someone prays in tongues they are moved by the Holy Spirit to express themselves in words that are not the words of any human language. They speak and sing words that sound like babbling. (It’s not exactly the same as what happened on the day of Pentecost. That was an exceptional miracle in which everyone could hear the apostles in their own language.) Speaking in tongues was very common in the early Church, we can read about it in St Paul’s letters, but then it was only “rediscovered” with the charismatic renewal in the 20th Century, this movement that rediscovered the value of these extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit.Speaking in tongues is not an essential component of the Christian life. You can pray very well and grow in holiness, without ever praying in tongues. But speaking in tongues is like a sign of what our deep relationship with God should become, through the action of the Holy Spirit.
Firstly, it reminds us that our prayer is a supernatural phenomenon. It doesn’t just come from us. When we pray, we are not just expressing ourselves: the Holy Spirit is moving in our hearts so that we can speak to God. Secondly, those who speak in tongues experience a great sense of freedom. Prayer is a place of freedom. The more we learn who God really is, by speaking to him in prayer, the more we become free.Thirdly, just like those who pray in tongues speak unknown and mysterious words, when we pray what we express to God is even deeper than our conscious thoughts and the words we choose, whether this is a joy that is too deep for words, or a sorrow and a pain which is too hard to put into words, or simply the praise of our God who is greater than anything we can ever think or say. As St Paul says, when we pray, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness… interceding for us with groans too deep for words.” (Rm 8:26). You can try praying in tongues at home, if you like. Close your eyes and tell the Holy Spirit that you want to experience it, and let the Spirit move you. (You may need to be faithful in this request several times before you can pray in tongues.) But whether or not you want to pray in tongues, the most important is to enter into that relationship with the Holy Spirit of which they are a sign: that joy and praise that are too deep for words.
– Philip Thomas Edwards CSJ