Ignite February 2019
How I learned to speak in tongues and how you can too by jeff Mazzone
When I was a college seminarian, I heard of people speaking in tongues, but I knew very little about it. I thought it was pretty whacky and folks who did it a little loopy. But ten years ago, my two-week application visit with the religious order I would join a few months later changed my ideas on tongues, and put me on the road to discovering and receiving the God-given gift for myself.
I came to know the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal quite well before I applied to join them. They were crazy, but I certainly did not think they were whacky or loopy. The Feast of Pentecost fell during that application visit, and the friars and sisters were holding a public festival of praise the evening before. What I experienced that night completely rocked my world. I saw the superior general of the friars, who stood about six-foot eight, waving his hands in the air, dancing, singing, and praying . . . in tongues. Complete jibberish. I had never heard anything like it. Then I saw a brother and two sisters from England, who to me exemplified what I believed was the height of English propriety, doing the same. All of them were utterly free, totally abandoned, and filled with joy. This was the closest thing I had ever seen that could compare to the story of David dancing naked before the Ark of the Covenant, disregarding the shame his misunderstanding wife felt in her embarrassment over her husband exposing himself in the city streets. And then there was me. A little freaked out and trying to balance my previous notions of whacky and loopy with the respect and admiration I held for these people.
After I joined the community, I heard a friar giving a talk on tongues. He related it to baby talk. Babies cannot communicate what they want or feel, but they make noises in an effort to do so. Those noises have no boundaries, rules, grammar, or structure. They just flow freely. Likewise, just as the sweetest sounds to a parent are the little coos his or her child makes, so are our little noises before the Father.
When I come home from work, I feel pure joy when my five-month old daughter smiles and makes her little noises upon seeing my face for the first time since the night before. In the Gospel, we hear Jesus say "Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 18). The greek word there is not “children” like an eight year old, but is actually infant. Unless you become like a infant, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We need to be dependent on the Father like an infant depends on its parents. Likewise, we remember the psalm,
“You whose glory above the heavens is chanted by the mouth of babes and infants” (Ps. 8).
Perhaps praying like an infant before the Father is a type of praise we can render. Speaking in tongues, he said, is an experience of free and boundless prayer that is unconventional, unpracticed, unsophisticated, unsystematic, and unformulated. While we rationally guide when and how we use the gift once we have discovered and received it, the gift itself is an experience of freedom from the mechanics of language that often clog our wheels; it frees us from the moments when we cannot find the right words to express what we are thinking or feeling. Furthermore, this form of prayer helps overcome the mental obstacles that often arise when trying to pray “the right way” while praying in silence, yet still leads us to the end goal of the silent contemplation we struggle to reach.
Now a little Scriptural catechesis. C’mon Catholics; dust off those bibles – let’s go! St. Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14 what could be seen as an ancient charismatic prayer meeting. He addresses the dynamic between the gift of tongues and the gift of prophecy. I imagine St. Paul as a New Yorker because his words sound something like “Hey – you guys speaking in tongues? Good for you, but what good is it for everyone else? We’re all supposed to speak in tongues. Come find me when you learn to prophesy. Now get outta here and quit wasting my time.” St. Paul is telling us that though this is a gift that only comes from God, it is also a gift that everyone should have already received and should be using regularly. He tells us that the gift of tongues is not for speaking to men; it is for speaking to God. The gift of tongues is not for the edification, encouragement, or consolation of others; it is for the edification, encouragement, and consolation of self.
A commentary on this passage written in 1922 by Father Charles J Callan a priest of the Order of Preachers totally nailed it. He wrote: “The gift of tongues is not for preaching or teaching, but praying to God. He edifies himself not because he knows what he is saying, but because he knows he is praising God and speaking to God in prayer, stimulating and increasing faith and love, but not helping others.” The gift of tongues stimulates and increases faith and love in the one who uses it. Turns out that those who approve of or believe in the gift of tongues are not just folks who participated in the Charismatic Renewal in the 70s and 80s, or graduates from Franciscan University of Steubenville. This priest of an order famous for its orthodoxy throughout the centuries commented positively on it forty years before Vatican II! Not exactly whacky or loopy.
By the way, did you know that the Preacher to the Papal Household – the personal preacher to Pope Francis, Pope Benedict, and Pope St. John Paul II – prays in tongues? Yup. I saw it too when I met him in New Jersey at a charismatic conference. So back to the friars. I was in the community a year when the next class of guys joined. Two of them were visiting the friary where I was for the night, and they got into a conversation with some of the older friars about the gift of tongues. For the last few months, I had been praying for the gift to speak in tongues, but nothing was happening. I was too caught up in trying to do it right, too bound by my own fear of failure, and too worried about becoming whacky, loopy, or both. So later that night, I sat down with those two guys and asked them, “How do you pray in tongues?” They told me that God gives everyone the gift of tongues, but not everyone has learned to use it. They instructed me to pray against the pride, pray for openness, pray for freedom, pray like the mute man who could not speak yet managed to ask Jesus to free his tongue. And they gave me some practical suggestions. First pray with words . . . then pray with syllables . . . and then, fasten your seatbelt. So when I returned to my cell, I closed the door, lit a candle, knelt before my crucifix, and started praying aloud repetitively:
Praise you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. Glory to you, Lord. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia . . And then the monosyllabic baby talk: Ah . . . ah . . . ba . . . ah . . . la . . . ah . . . ba . . . And then, an explosion of sound flowed from my tightened lips like water breaking through a dam. A wind blew through me that may not have shaken the walls of my cell, but certainly shattered the walls of my self-consciousness. I experienced what the multitude might have felt in the upper room or what happened to the mute man when Jesus freed his tongue and opened his lips.
That 1922 commentary put it lightly when it said that speaking in tongues stimulates and increases faith and love. My faith skyrocketed through the exosphere and my love burst into a conflagration that consumed my heart. I collapsed in joy, crying and laughing. Ten years later, I still use tongues whether in groups or in my personal prayer. Don’t get me wrong, nothing beats long periods of silent prayer. And not to equivocate the two, but I can pray in tongues during praise and worship with guitars just as easily as I can after receiving communion at a Mass in the extraordinary form.
Have we tapped into this gift that the Lord may have already placed in our souls? After all, gifts are meant to be used. Maybe we admire others who move in the gift but think it could never happen for us. Or perhaps we are as I was: afraid of being whacky or loopy.
For me, it is like dancing. I was terrified of dancing at weddings because I did not know how to dance. Then I married a woman from Dominican Republic. I still do not know how to dance, but now I have a ton of fun trying. I see other men watching me have fun, and I wish I could shake them from their fear . . . or introduce them to a nice Latina.
The Liturgy of the Hours begins with this prayer from the Psalms: “Lord, open my lips and my mouth will proclaim your praise.” May the Lord open our lips that our mouths may praise Him in every way and form that He desires and not just those with which we are currently comfortable.
Bio: Jeff Mazzone, a former diocesan seminarian and Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, received his M.A. in theology from St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, NY and is currently enrolled in an online M.A. in professional counseling through Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. He and his wife live north of New York City with their first child and a second due in February. Apart from a job at a charter bus company, Jeff regularly leads music at various parishes and events in the New York area.
Originally written and published for Catholic365.com on 09/07/2016