Chapter 12: The Uses of Adversity
“While enduring these afflictions he takes himself to prayer with sighs and groans.”
A month ago, an Episcopal priest encouraged me to pray in tongues every day. I had heard of charismatic Episcopalians, but never met one until then. She proceeded to lay her hands on me and pray for me in her own sacred language. She then suggested I read some Dennis Bennett, one of the central figures in the Charismatic movement who also happened to be an Episcopal priest.
I recall this encounter now as I read Kempis’ description of a prayerful person who “takes himself to prayer with sighs and groans.” Similarly, St. Paul writes, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26). Years ago, these words of Paul led me into a prayerful encounter with Christ that broke through the confines of the English language. I do not know what language I was speaking, but I believe God heard my prayer and, in some ways, God was praying through me.
The gift of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, arouses controversy and discomfort among Christians and non-Christians alike. Although many writers of the New Testament upheld the gift as a sure sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence, the patristic theologians and most Christians since have looked upon the gift with concern and suspicion. Some mystics and fringe groups recorded speaking in “new tongues” during their worship throughout Christian history, but the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 certainly got the most press. The LA Times described the phenomenon as a “Weird Babel of Tongues.” Charles Fox Parham and William J. Seymour were the pioneers in this revival of “Pentecostal” worship, which flowered even more during the Charismatic movement in the 1960s, thanks to the Episcopal Priest Dennis Bennett (and others like him).
I have not been praying in tongues every day and frankly, I still find the prayer practice rather foreign, especially since it has not been consistently practiced throughout Christian history. However, Kempis’ words in this chapter remind me of the priest’s challenge. During times of trial and adversity, Kempis maintains, God is inviting us into deeper intimacy with the One “without whom we can do nothing.” I believe there are many spiritual tools at our disposal that help us plumb the depths of God’s love for us. Though it may make me and others uncomfortable and I do not recommend practicing it in public, the gift of glossolalia has served as an effective tool in my own spiritual growth and in enduring afflictions. I am sure that Thomas A Kempis would be surprised and perhaps appalled to learn that his words inspired me to deepen my practice of glossolalia. Dennis Bennett, on the other hand, I am sure would be proud.