When I was young St. Nicholas was the only church I knew, a second home (but with more candles and rows of hardwood pews). Under this Catholic canopy I received the gift of tongues – I wasn’t even six years old yet.
Those days the small parish buzzed with talk of the charismatic renewal movement. Most likely I overheard the grown ups talking about tongues between Maranatha choruses and closing prayers spoken from the heart, not the prayer book. Maybe in the fellowship hall, under the florescent lights, I even heard them speak in their prayer language.
How else could I explain what happened next?
I remember dad being away on a business trip and mom allowing me to slide under the covers into her gigantic king-sized bed. I remember staring up through the square skylight, straining to see stars through all the leaves crowding the glass. But in the darkest part of the night, when the television was off and even my mom’s snoring was stilled by a deep sleep; I sat straight up in bed speaking.
Nonsensical words poured out of me into the quiet, piercing the slumbering space unprovoked. The Spirit pushed words out of me and while the sensation felt unfamiliar, I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t hesitate to speak the Spirit-shaped words into the starless night.
My mom noticed, of course. She watched as I got for free what others pleaded and prayed for during her meetings in the fellowship hall. She watched as I spoke, then went back to sleep.
But truth be told, nothing changed in my world after my midnight Pentecost. Eucharist remained in tact the next Sunday, we still recited The Lord’s Prayer and the vigil flames continued to flicker under the icon of Mary cradling baby Jesus.
No one treated me with special regard – or disregard. I felt no better, worse or different. I never thought speaking the Spirit words meant anything to anyone else except God, who was the only person I knew who understood the words anyway.
I simply carried on with Jesus. I kept listening to the Bible stories and learning the names of all the apostles (only later did I learn someone left out Junia). When the guitars came out and the strumming started, I pulled out my tambourine to join in the songs. And I never stopped talking to Jesus, but now and again the Spirit words would burst out and that was okay, too, because I knew He understood what they meant.
As I grew up and ventured into different church circles, I’d learn that the Spirit words meant so much to others. The fact that I could speak in tongues distinguished me from those who didn’t. This phenomenon never made sense to me – my treatment based on an unasked for gift of the Spirit.
As I look back now, I’m glad the Spirit chose to gift me in a Catholic context where speaking in tongues wasn’t put on a pedestal or seen as a badge of honor. The gift, while good, never trumped sacraments. While the Spirit words enhanced my personal practice of prayer, I never had the notion I claimed a superior spirituality to anyone else.
While I ran around St. Nicholas possessing one gift, other parishioners operated in variety of other gifts and together we worshipped God in Word and Sacrament every Sunday. There was no hierarchy among us, no distinctions based on Spirit-given gifts.
I didn’t realize what a true gift that was – now I do.