On speaking in the tongues of mortals and angels.
The sea is the site of the improper, that is, of that which isn’t proper because it is the site of being far from home and of wandering. […] That we are mariners has no other meaning than this: our condition is that of a voyage that takes us far away from ourselves.
Roberto Esposito, Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community (1998)
There are doubtless many different kinds of sounds in the world, and nothing is without sound. If then I do not know the meaning of a sound, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.
1 Corinthians 14:10-11
Eyes shut tight, a crowded room, knees knocking on cold cement. Under the barn’s tin roof, canned praise music on the stereo speakers. All around, the chatter of incessant whispered murmurs, the moans that pitched above the din, the yearning and the noise, a chaos of singing. Focus, focus. The visionary woman we had come to see – not unlike the Oracle – passed me on to her assistant. She asked if I would let her pray for me.
“It helps to loosen your jaw a little bit. Let yourself be open to whatever God has for you,” she said. “You’re an analytical person, like me. It’s harder for us to be open to this, because it’s not really a reasonable thing.”
“Try making the first move, letting yourself mumble little sounds. This shows God that you’re willing.”
“When it happened to me, it was sort of like…ba…ba…ba, like a baby’s babbling. You kind of have to be childlike.”
Focus, focus – but don’t think too much. In my praying, I chose to stop speaking intelligibly, to unhinge my jaw and to move my tongue, gently and sympathetically, to any motion the Holy Spirit might attempt to exert upon it. What would it feel like, I wondered. Would my tongue start dancing beyond any act of my own will? Would the temperature in my mouth alter, a chilled stammer, or a warm pressure?
I positioned my hands palms up, at times resting on the tops of my knees and at others lifted, supplicating the ceiling in a posture of receptivity, of openness, desire. In my search for the physical manifestation of the Spirit’s conduction, I nearly gagged with the awkward strain on my throat, as my muscles groped for an encounter with the Divine You: as in, You are all I need. You are all I desire. All I want, Holy Spirit, is Your utterance playing off my tongue.
Ba… ba… ba…
We were walking through parking lots on the campus of our community college. Friday afternoons we met in a classroom with some others, some friends from high school or church, some friends from other countries whom we had met at the college. In that classroom, we prayed fiercely, urgently, for the student body. We figured that in the economy of God’s grace and love, those who could tap into the spiritual realm with our words would create functional spaces where the divine economy would move toward the dominion of the Kingdom. The arc of the universe tended toward justice, toward judgment, and meanwhile, we were riding the wave of personal salvation. We spoke a great deal about the overwhelming peace of Christ, the joy he gives so unceasingly – despite all the times we felt dark, depressed, or anxious.
The others, it seemed, believed with genuine conviction that a body could experience the love of Jesus, and that this divine encounter would radically alter that person’s relationship to her own life. They were the sort who felt an exciting kind of guilt at failing to ask a paraplegic student if they could pray for the healing of his legs. Our new Ecuadoran friend shared with them that he had met Jesus in a dream, or awake in his room at night, as in a vision, and he fell in love. This was what the others were after, and to an extent, so was I. But I was always reaching, always flexing and straining. Maybe – when? I believed as a sheer act of will, but the belief was beginning to bleed. And so I spent my time in the community of believers, living a life that took the form of the believer, and this was the most effective way to remain in contradiction to my own entropy. Sunk cost. Besides, it was good to have some friends.
Not many days before the night at the barn – I don’t remember where we had been this time, but it was evening, the sky had shaded into a marine blue. We walked beneath rows of silent streetlights toward the parking garage. We talked about encountering God.
“Do you speak in tongues?” she asked, tentatively, a simple curiosity.
I hesitated, recognizing in myself the weight of a long and fraught coming-of-age that revolved around this question. “I haven’t – but I believe it’s real.”
I told her about how I had tried so many times before, but always wanted to be sure it was genuine, that I wasn’t faking it.
She told me a few days later that she couldn’t get over how surprising it was to her that I believed in the gift of tongues but hadn’t experienced it myself. I probably shrugged, or nervous-chuckled, not knowing how to respond. “But you do want to?” she asked.
“Yeah. I do.” I said it with a slight hint of hopeless resignation.
Soon, she invited me to go with her and the others to the barn.
It’s a strange feeling, when you realize for the first time that something about the way you grew up was, by all accounts, strange. What could be less normal than my life? I didn’t feel the peculiarity of my Pentecostal boyhood until I was a few years into college, when I started hanging around a lot of lapsed Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Episcopalians – my beloved mainline misfits. There was only one time before that, at a lunchtime prayer meeting in high school: Austin started to pray in his Spirit-language, and Ryan, who had never seen this before, asked me what was happening. In that case, I knew that Ryan was a Baptist, and so he simply lacked an education in the full gospel. I was happy to oblige. But it was late in college when I was fielding questions about it all through a perspective that no longer felt that former belongingness, no longer that blessed assurance. That was when I started to joke about it – shouldaboughtahonda… oughtabuyakia…and so on.
But in the most buried way, for a while, it hurt me to make those jokes. As I babbled in my made-up nonsense, ridiculing something that defined the particular community of my childhood, I saw images of what my eyes had once seen, what desire I had felt in the seeing.
I saw the packed room at kids’ Bible camp, after the worship meeting. They had invited those of us who wanted the spiritual gifts to come up for a special prayer meeting, in an upper room like the one hundred twenty at the first Pentecost. I saw the younger boy with chestnut hair, who wore an ill-fitting tank-top, aping the sounds the man with the microphone made. Sha-ta-ta-tut. I saw the same hands of mine, several years smaller, the same palms poised open to the ceiling. I felt the same mouth hanging limp, waiting for something to move it.
I saw a couple of other scenes, blurry through the old tears. The close fabric on my knees as I pushed my head against them, alone in my bedroom on a Sunday afternoon, begging, “Why won’t you talk to me, God? Why won’t you give me what you promised?”
I saw the youth retreat, the leaders sitting around me in the hard church pews, the people who cared about me, people I respected and some of whom I remain friends with today. I had been crying again, and enraged, with that utter sincerity of teenagers. “I’m not going to fake it. I want it to be real. But I’ve been committed to all of this for so long, going to church, staying involved, studying the Bible – I feel like I’ve done everything that he asked of me, and he still hasn’t kept his promise!”
“Isn’t this supposed to be for everyone? Isn’t this the ‘initial physical evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit,’ supposedly for all believers? I believe! I’ve believed my whole life!”
Samantha, as an attempt, read to me from 1 Corinthians chapter twelve, where Paul talks about there being one Spirit but many gifts, that the body of the church has many members and a hand should not want to be an eye, an eye should not wish to be a foot. It was starting to make sense, in a way. Maybe this one was not for me – maybe my spiritual gifts were something much less fantastical. I was good at reading. I liked to study. Maybe those were no less spiritual than the magic tongues.
I let the issue fade into the background for years. I gave up desiring what I had been promised and learned, above all, to wait – to wait without hope, because hope would be hope for the wrong thing, as Eliot says. I learned to wait through the howling silence.
That silence – I probably recognized it even then, but it’s easy to admit it to myself now. The silence bothered me above everything else. I wanted the gift of tongues so badly, for so long, but I don’t think I ever really wanted it for the apparent reasons. Why would I need a prayer language to use when no other words seemed sufficient, when I always had so many words? I only ever had words – ways of talking about what seemed to me the ineffable that yet still required articulation. I wanted to understand the God I had chosen over and over again to love. I wanted to describe him, to capture him in poetic eloquence, to tell him who I thought we were together. I heard a story once about a Christian imprisoned for his faith who, in solitary confinement, would sing that old song with the lines,
I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses
And he walks with me
And he talks with me
And he tells me I am his own…
As the story goes, this prisoner would sing this song and Jesus would be there with him – the cell walls would dissolve into a garden scene, or a woodland meadow, and the two would walk and talk with each other like old friends. I wanted that sort of relationship with this God.
Denominations and Christian traditions other than mine treated God as a more distant force. Though sovereign in his command of the Earth, he governs remotely, exists as Wholly-Other and so lives beyond the reach of our little human minds or experience. The way to him, in those traditions, is the way of unknowing – the via negativa through an inverted world, beyond the confines of human life. That was not our God. Our God was a close personal friend, one who stuck closer than a brother, our Heavenly Father to whom we could always turn in prayer. We were taught to have a “quiet time” every day, where we could lift up our struggles, our hopes and dreams and failures, to God in familial, intimate communion. My friends and teachers talked about “hearing from God” or “what God said to them” that morning, as they read their Bible with their coffee and their breakfast. They talked about their wonderful relationship with Jesus. We were taught that a key mark of a true believer was her ongoing partnership and communication with the King of kings and the Lord of lords.
Imagine being a pubescent child, taught to resent every natural impulse that brushes against an ascetic and totalizing morality, living constantly with the overwhelming feeling of shame at your constant failure. Now imagine being taught that God can set you free of all that, because he loves you so uniquely, so intimately – that you can bring all those sins and failures to him, in your brokenness, and he can make you whole. He will whisper, in his still, small voice, words of comfort and peace and joy. Then imagine that every time you follow those procedures, with the earnestness of a child who feels his shame so viscerally, all you ever meet is that suffocating silence.
I wanted to speak in tongues, because I wanted to know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that he was still there, and that he knew who I was.
This is the kind of existential frustration that sticks around, long after you feel any commitment to its source. It’s the kind that you won’t shut up about, that people come to know you by. Over the years, I reasoned my way away from the belief in a personal God and toward, initially, something more mystical, less humanized, but the sensus divinitatus – that God-shaped hole that John Calvin told us about – remained for me in the shape of the particular god I had chiseled into me as a child. Yet as I made my way further and further from the faith, I still could not get on board with the angry atheists who jeered about the stupidity of devotion to the bearded man in the clouds reaching his finger to make contact with us Adams. Though I didn’t believe in that God anymore, I felt that those critics obscured lives like mine, who defined their loss of faith as struggle, as pain.
A while after I had dissociated myself from Christianity to the point where I could make cynical and blasphemous jokes about its no-longer-sacred cows, I had a small moment in which the gravitas of my process of loss washed back over me. I was sitting in a dark basement, with the first misfit friends for whom I ever felt a sense of post-faith belonging-with, and we were watching Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The Knight knelt in a confessional booth, not knowing that he was speaking to his enemy, Death:
Knight. And what is to become of those who neither want to nor are capable of believing? … Why can’t I kill God within me? Why does He live on in this painful and humiliating way even though I curse Him and want to tear Him out of my heart? Why, in spite of everything, is He a baffling reality that I can’t shake off? Do you hear me?
Death. Yes, I hear you.
Knight. I want knowledge, not faith, not suppositions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand towards me, reveal Himself and speak to me.
Death. But He remains silent.
Knight. I call out to Him in the dark but no one seems to be there.
Death. Perhaps no one is there.
Knight. Then life is an outrageous horror. No one can live in the face of death, knowing that all is nothingness.
And the old tears, diffused into new ones, fell out of my eyes again. The scene presented to me a reminder that memory is not something we are able to leave behind – who we were, what we were taught to love and to fear, remains with us to the end. They made us, and they converse with every new element we introduce in an effort to remake us.
The communities we belonged to sought to save us by making us into something we could not live with, in the face of death. Having found that reality, that mythology, and those anxieties unlivable, I tried to shake the dust from my feet and find a new path into a bigger world, yet I am reminded again and again that the dust I tried to shake from my feet is the dust of which I consist. All I can do is work it into new shapes, to adapt it to new materials, make it open to encounters with the something-else.
In the experience of religious ecstasy, mystics write about their feeling of oneness with God, as though their entire sense of self becomes orgastically bound to the being of their Creator. When one reaches the height of religious devotion, one dies, seeks a selfhood in the One who is other than them. But why would they want that? Maybe they’re tired of who they are and want to be someone else for a while. Or maybe they’ve been made to understand their lives as frail attempts at imitating Christ, and so the only real hope for them is to become Christ, to lose themselves in his Presence.
I think for us – for us Pentecostal boys and girls – we only wanted to lose ourselves to the Spirit, not because we necessarily wanted our own absence or negation, but because we wanted God to make himself present. We felt the utter loneliness of a world that was supposed to be filled with the presence of a God we could not see, feel, or hear. The irremediable loneliness terrified us, so we took the strange ecstatic sensations, stirred up by our own desperate desire, to be signs of His life. Some of us couldn’t feel it though, and so our souls were marked by divine abandonment.
There is a reward, however, in actively working to kill the God inside us. If we can blot out the contrived signs of his presence, his absence will no longer enshroud all the multitudes of others who live and breathe around us every day. We can kill each other’s loneliness. If we give up on our idolatrous constructions of Being – the images of a God graven, by our fear, into our imaginaries – then the nothingness no longer presents itself to us as a lack, but a fullness. We will lose our footing in this. We will necessarily lose our certainty, the rigidity of our old selves, but we gain so much more. We gain a life no longer beyond this world, but a life within this world, among these people. Suddenly everything else comes back into view. You can see me, and I can see you.