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I Can't Be Charismatic. I'm Catholic!

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[This is an updated version of an article written in 2003 called "I Can't be Charismatic...I'm Anglican Catholic!" The author became Catholic, and in 2006 rewrote the article from a Catholic perspective. This article reflects on what it means to be both Catholic and a part of the Charismatic movement.]

Am I charismatic? I asked myself this question a few years ago, when this article was initially written, after I had a "charismatic experience." I was really hoping the answer was "no, I was not charismatic." After all, I was a proudly formal and liturgical Anglican, not exactly known for being spontaneous. I was proud to be a conservative, yet mainstream, Christian, far from the charismatics I saw on TV. However, despite my background and misgivings, I had some very positive experiences I can only describe as charismatic. This essay describes these experiences and is a theological reflection on Catholicism and the charismatic movement.

In 2003, for a graduate-level spirituality class, I bought some classic books on Christian spirituality: Practical Mysticism (Underhill), The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Lossky), Contemplative Prayer (Merton), Beginning to Pray (Bloom), and one I got to be different from my classmates, How to Pray for the Release of the Holy Spirit by Episcopal priest Dennis Bennett. Until this point, my study of Christian history was largely one of historical facts, worship patterns, and theological trends. For this class on spirituality, "Seeking God," I had to focus on individual, but also collective, spiritual practices, including monasticism, contemplation, and ascetical practices.

While I learned a lot from the classics, it was Fr. Bennett's charismatic book, which emphasized speaking in tongues, that seemed to pull at me the most. I had always been familiar with the mystics of the Church, and was always a bit puzzled by many of their spiritual and ecstatic experiences, and my thought was that such experiences were genuine, but not for me. Despite acknowledging the possibility of miracles, I was always suspicious of modern day ones. I guess if miracles and mystical experiences happened in the past, I believed them genuine, but in my own day, I was a practical skeptic, even if a believer on paper. To buy Fr. Bennett's book, even if it was only $1.70 secondhand, was quite a big step.

Fr. Bennett's book tugged at me for many reasons. First, while I considered myself a "catholic" Anglican with an evangelical spirit, I knew little about the charismatic movement. Even if only for educational purposes, I felt a need to explore the movement. Second, I had recently made friends with some members of the Charismatic Episcopal Church, and at the time was impressed with their lively liturgical worship. Their blended liturgy was my main fascination, while tongues and other charismatic emphases I saw as peculiarities, something I appreciated in others, but would not claim as my own. I now have seen that the Charismatic Episcopal Church is not quite the ideal entity I once thought, and that they have many of the individualistic and faddish trappings of Pentecostal groups. Third, many of my Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox friends had charismatic leanings, and prayed in tongues, and spoke positively of the experience. As I was learning about praying in tongues in the "Seeking God" class, I was also going through a troubling time in my life, because of increasingly non-Catholic direction the Episcopal church was taking. A charismatic friend of mine suggested maybe God is opening me up to praying in tongues to deal with the crisis.

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Pentecost Stained Glass, photographed by David Bennett

So I thought, "what the heck, praying in tongues seems weird, but so do many of the practices and experiences of the mystics." St. Teresa of Avila's students believed she floated before their eyes. Eastern monks have experienced the divine light. Even St. Paul knew of someone who went up to the third heaven. As someone who understood the modernist criticisms of such experiences, and who gladly deconstructed the modernist deconstructions, I was open to such aberrations of common experience. If St. Paul, St. Teresa, and many Eastern Monks experienced such things, why could I not open myself up to different spiritual experiences?

So what I did next went contrary to virtually every instinct I had. I read Fr. Bennett's book, prayed a few of the "prayers of renunciation," and then I followed his instructions to begin praying in tongues. Fr. Bennett's book doesn't give a magical formula for speaking in tongues, nor does he suggest it is something that just "happens." His advice is to just simply say aloud syllables and sounds that come to mind. He suggests that being speechless, when we can only get out groans and syllables, is similar to speaking in tongues. That is it; praying in tongues is not complex, and anybody can do it. Anyway, I lit some candles as I always do when praying, and started off the prayer service using a confession of sin from the Book of Common Prayer, followed by the sign of the cross. Then I took a deep breath. Then I took another deep breath and opened my mouth...and then I stopped. "Can I really do this?" I thought. Believe it or not, it is harder than it may seem to start uttering syllables and words that are unrecognizable. Finally I just did it. As I very reluctantly began to utter unknown words and syllables, I honestly did feel a kind of peace and warmth, and a non-emotional invigoration. I prayed in an unknown language for a few minutes, then I began to pray in English, and I felt the need to return to unknown words. I felt as if a kind of wall was around me while I prayed, a detachment from everything. Following that I went into silence, which came very easy this time (and silence rarely comes easy for me). Then I cut off the prayer in tongues earlier than I wanted, not wanting to "overuse" the prayer, which is my usual response to many things that I find meaningful and special. I came out beaming, and told my brother that in spite of my skepticism, I felt something. I couldn't say what, or how, but I felt something. I wasn't bragging, but rather telling him that there might be something to charismatic manifestations. Needless to say, I was humbled by the experience, because I had not intended on September 22, 2003 to go inside my bedroom, and come out a charismatic. Would I now have to let my hair grow out on top and tour the country as a televangelist, broadcasting on TBN? Surely not!

All of this made me think, "Am I now a charismatic?" I spoke to some charismatic friends, and they said, "Yes you are! You have released the Holy Spirit." Talk about scary. To assuage my fears that I was now an official nut, I started looking for other liturgical and Catholic Charismatics, for Christians then and now who have spoken in other languages, healed, and prophesied, yet who were fully liturgical, sacramental, traditional, and Catholic. Even now, in 2006, when I think of speaking in tongues, I still can't help but think of mass confusion, people in big hair screaming and barking like dogs, behavior that is hardly contemplative or mystical, but more like an out-of-control circus. I think of non-Trinitarian Sabellians, who think dressing in a 19th century fashion and not cutting their hair constitutes true holiness. In other words, unfortunately, I think of all sorts of hyper-emotional and ahistorical American groups.

Fr. Bennett's book, some Catholic books on the subject, and charismatic friends convinced me that praying in tongues is much different than I expected. It is trans-emotional, i.e. above and beyond the emotions, although it may feel emotional, initiated by the believer with God's help, not a trance, and is not a public manifestation. Fr. Bennett describes the public manifestation of tongues as the "gift of tongues," and he argues, along with St. Paul, that public speaking in tongues must be organized, with an interpreter, and be for public edification. Thus the implication is that most charismatics who speak in tongues during public worship are doing so improperly. Praying in Tongues is an unknown prayer language, a deep spiritual groaning, that also can be manifested as real human language, such as was the case of Jesuit St. Francis Xavier who is said to have mysteriously spoken foreign languages without ever learning them. Tongues are the prayer language of the Spirit, perhaps the groanings too deep for words that the Spirit prays on our behalf. I have never been too comfortable objectifying the mystical, and words and descriptions here fail.

When I went looking, I found that many thoroughly traditional Anglican individuals were charismatic, including the Episcopal bishop of San Joaquin, the Rt. Rev. John-David Schofield. When he was young he had a vision of Jesus while adoring the Blessed Sacrament. While Schofield is not Catholic, he is about as close as an Anglican can get. Catholic and Orthodox friends let me know that they too were charismatic. Hundreds of mystics throughout history have had charismatic experiences, or at least experiences analogous to today's charismatic manifestations. I was in good company, even if I was crazy to the rationalists, and being at a liberal Episcopal seminary at the time, I knew what a modernist rationalist looked like.

Statue of Jesus Outside, photographed by David Bennett

Many of my doubts in 2003, and even now, come from the perception I have of charismatic experiences leading to individualism and a low ecclesiology. In other words, often "charismatic" is pitted against "liturgical" and "Catholic." I thought charismatic experiences led one to abandon tradition and the liturgy. The sheer number of charismatic Catholics, most which are faithful to Church Teaching, helped convince me otherwise. Liturgical and Charismatic are not mutually exclusive, and in fact can complement one another. Even in Church history we see a kind of tension between the hierarchy in Apostolic succession, and the various renewal movements, mostly monastic in origin. The mysticism and ascetical lives of the monastics are kept in check by the doctrinal and moral guardians of the Church - the Bishops. Conversely, the renewal movements keep the Spirit alive, stirring the hierarchy and laity afresh when needed.

Such a balance is beneficial, preventing novel doctrines and praxis, yet enlivening the ancient faith. A Church without Christian renewal is dead, and so is Christian renewal without the Church errant. A lone mystic whose mystical experiences lead him or her to believe that a particular Catholic Teaching is false cannot trump the Holy Spirit working in the collective experience of the Church (Tradition). However, the Tradition can be kept from becoming mere Traditionalism through the spiritual stirrings of mystics and other renewing elements. Perhaps Charismatics are stirring the Catholic Church up a bit in our own age, as we recover from self-inflicted declines during modernism. However, when Charismatics promote liturgical silliness or the abandonment of historic Catholic Teaching, the movement has erred. This system of checks and balances is not only historical, but puts me at ease with my new experience.

In 2006, three years after my initial experience, I still accept the validity of charismatic experiences, pray in tongues occasionally, and I support, with reservations, the charismatic movement in the Catholic Church. Why with reservations? Part of it is that many from the 1960s and 1970s generation want to change the Church to mirror secular culture. Some charismatics, many who are of the baby-boom generation, are guilty of embracing this trendiness, and wish to turn the Mass into a praise and worship service, get rid of it entirely, or downplay distinctive Catholic doctrines. Some charismatics seem willing to jettison the past, including meaningful Catholic traditions such as Gregorian Chant, embracing only the "new." Even Fr. Dennis Bennett, who started out as an Anglo-Catholic Anglican, began to embrace many faddish charismatic views, and I noticed that his view on baptism deviates from Church Tradition. However, I have also met charismatics who are faithful to Church Teaching, including some of the priests and monks at the Our Lady of Consolation Shrine in Carey, Ohio. Thus, as is true with all movements and doctrines in the Church, there is always a possibility of error and going too far. However, if we understand and cultivate our spiritual experiences with the guidance of the Church, always willing to accept her loving correction, we will be fine.

In conclusion, I think I am a charismatic, if a very reluctant one. I pride myself in critical thinking. I can deconstruct with the best of them, and I often do. I don't think I can, or want, to disown the charismatic experiences I have had. I have not "gotten the Holy Spirit": that happened at baptism. My experiences do not make me superior, more spiritual, or holier than others. Using praying in tongues as a thing to lord over others is, in my estimation, spiritual immaturity, and "a clanging gong" since such behavior is contrary to love. A great father of the Eastern Church (whose name evades me right now) speaks of the worthlessness of spiritual gifts followed by arrogance and egotism. After all, St. Paul says that above all spiritual gifts and experiences is "love." Also, how much better are those whom the Holy Spirit uses to help the poor, spread the gospel, clothe the naked, etc! They are truly temples of the Holy Spirit, whether they have ever uttered an unknown word in their lives.

I originally wrote this essay to hash out a few of my experiences. I hoped what I experienced would be a help to others who might have had a similar experience, especially those from liturgical churches. Also, for those seeking a more liturgical and Catholic understanding of the faith, but who were charismatic, I hoped this essay would demonstrate that there are Charismatics in the historical churches. In this 2006 update of the original article, I have similar goals. I want Catholics to understand the charismatics in their own ranks a little better, and to allow non-Catholic charismatics to appreciate the charismatic phenomena in the Catholic Church. For some possible excessive tendencies of the Charismatic movement, please check out my articles, Dangers Inherent in the Charismatic Movement.

St. Symeon the New Theologian prayed to the Holy Spirit:

Come Down, O True Light.
Come down life eternal.
Come down hidden mystery.
Come down ineffable treasure.
Come down O constant rejoicing.
Come down Light that never fadeth.
Come down Eternal Joy...!

Last updated 02-22-2010

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