On the Gift of Speaking in Tongues

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


By Arhimandrite Zacharias

Ten days after the Lord's Ascension into heaven, the gifts of the Holy Spirit were manifested on the day of Pentecost as a sign of the reconciliation that had occurred between God and man. But one of these gifts in particular, that of speaking in tongues, was different. The gift is a difficult one to understand, partly because it had all but disappeared by the end of the life of the Holy Apostle Paul. Moreover, it is clear from the later Epistles (Letters) of Saint Paul, in which he puts it last on the list of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that its importance had diminished. How are we to understand this?

We know that the gift of speaking in tongues (glossolalia) was given to the nascent Church for a specific purpose. The old Israel had become accustomed to worshipping and praying in a largely external manner, and when the Spirit came on the day of Pentecost, He wanted this to change. His intention, therefore, was to teach the people to pray in spirit, in the 'hidden man of the heart' (1 Peter 3:4). But on the day of Pentecost we see that the people began to speak in foreign tongues of the mighty works of God, the gift was soon widespread, because God wanted His words to go 'unto the ends of the world' (Romans 10:18) and the new faith to bring salvation to all the peoples. Many were encouraged to speak in tongues, and the Spirit of God condescended accordingly. Those who prayed in tongues were happy, being certain of one thing: God 'had spoken into' them and was at work within them.

However, this gift slowly began to disappear, for it would no longer be useful or helpful in the edification of the Body. It often happened that glorifications and words would be pronounced which the Body itself could not understand, and this would require the help of an interpreter inspired by the Holy Spirit. Although some of the faithful continued to use their gifts of tongues, at some point it became clear that the prayer of those who were listening was no longer being inspired in the same way as before. For this reason, Saint Paul says the following in the Epistle to the Corinthians: "I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also, I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also" (1 Corinthians 14:15). Thus, he distinguished between prayer in the spirit (pneuma) and prayer in the mind (nous), and identifies prayer in the spirit with praying in foreign tongues. One verse earlier he says, "If I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful" (1 Corinthians 14:14).

It is true that for Saint Paul, spirit and mind are almost identical he sometimes says that the highest purpose of Christianity is the renewal of the spirit and sometimes the renewal of the nous. Nevertheless, in trying to distinguish between the two, I would say that the spirit is present in the mind as something higher, deeper than the mind itself--that it is revealed through the mind, just as the soul can be said to be revealed through the emotions.

But when the Holy Apostle says "I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also", we must admit that certain opposition has been introduced. Prayer in the spirit is identified with prayer in tongues, when man's spirit is aware of the eruption of God into his life. Furthermore, there were times when the grace that taught the people to worship God "in spirit and truth" (St. John 4:2)--with their inner being--was present in such abundance that it flowed out in torrents of enthusiasm. In this kind of prayer the highest faculty of the human being is inspired by God, receiving His energy. Man then surrenders to the "breath" of the Holy Spirit, which "bloweth where it listeth" (St. John 3:8), and the Spirit intercedes with "unutterable groanings" (Romans 8:28) for those in whom He dwells, sometimes with words which are beyond the understanding of the psychological man.

In prayer of the mind (nous), by contrast, the mind rises towards God in pious thought and godly desire. Such prayer is characterized by holy contrition or joy, but it is not liable to surrender to the great impetus and boundless spiritual exaltation we have just described. A degree of control is exercised by the person who prays in the mind: he is able to direct his thoughts, desires and feelings. His spiritual faculties act in the usual way, in characteristic order, his prayers and doxologies are pronounced in an altogether understandable manner, and can provoke any hearers to participation in the worship. Of course, the heart participates in this kind of prayer of the mind, but there is a definite absence of total surrender to the breath of the Spirit. Saint Paul recommends both types of prayer. He advises us not to use either one to the exclusion of the other, considering that it may at times be better to pray in tongues, and at other with the mind. When we pray in the spirit, we pray for ourselves and for God, but when we pray in the mind, we pray not only for God, and for ourselves but also for the edification of our neighbor and, therefore, for the rest of the Body.

(To be continued)


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!" - Saint John Chrysostomos


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia (Ministry),
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George