For the last couple of weeks I have been talking about the gifts of the Spirit that we celebrate in the season of Pentecost. One of the most confounding gifts for Episcopalians I think is the gift of speaking in tongues, or glossolalia (literally a compound of the Greek words for “tongue” and “making noise”). Speaking in tongues is not part of the traditional Episcopalian religious experience on Sundays, but a surprising number of Episcopalians do practice and manifest this gift.
But the nature of the gift can be confusing and intimidating to people who are unfamiliar with it, and I’d like to contextualize and de-mythologize it a bit. Like all Spiritual gifts, they are intended to build up the ministries of the Church. In this case, that ministry is specifically one of prayer and relating to God. Have you ever said to yourself, “I’m speechless!” or “I’m so angry I cannot think straight!”
In both cases, you are being constrained by the burden of language to convey an emotion, a thought, or a spiritual need. Glossalalia gives the supplicant the chance to pray with God without such constraint, to pour out oneself freely and authentically without having to shoehorn whatever is going on into a language. As you might imagine, in some circumstances this can be a tremendous gift.
There is a whole additional aspect to glossolalia involving the interpretation of tongues and the ways in which prayer can be communicated to the greater community, but in this time of intense stress and anxiety, I wanted to highlight the particular aspect of speaking in tongues involving release and the freedom of restraint. Episcopalians are traditionally very connected to the written word when it comes to prayer (in fact, you could argue that is our own defining characteristic), but glossolalia offers us the chance to pray when the words fail us.