The theme of charisms has returned to current affairs, after a long period1. In fact, we see the rise of the «movement of awakening of the Spirit of larger proportions of the whole history of Christianity», so that this time «presents itself as a time of the charism, reminding us that in reality the time of the Church is always Spirit»2.
Among the charisms we see emerge today, there is one that is particularly interesting, the so-called «gift of tongues» or «glossolalia» which arouses, in our times as well as in the nascent Church, curiosity and questions.
How did this charism manifest itself in the early Christian community? What teachings does Paul offer in this regard? We will try to find the answers to these questions in chapters 12 to 14 of the First Letter to the Corinthians, which deal with charisms or spiritual gifts.
The “glossolalo” (a person who puts into practice the gift of languages) utters incomprehensible words. Paul speaks of «the language of men and of angels» (1 Cor 13, 1), that is, «an exceptional language that embraces the human and heavenly world»3, and which requires an interpretation, which is equally of divine origin.
Paul himself puts into practice this gift (see v. 18) and teaches that “glossolalia” serves for personal edification (see v. 4). As a prayer, it is a legitimate gift of the Spirit (see 12, 10).
The Pauline ban to speak in the assembly in the absence of the interpreter (1Cor 14,27) is understandable given the nature of the community meetings and the character of building up the charisms (see v. 26b). This prohibition is combined with the concession to “glossolalo”, to speak between oneself and God. Now, in the meetings of today’s charismatic groups one listens to prayer and singing in tongues, even in the absence of the respective interpretation. However, in this way we do not intend to ignore the Pauline interdiction, but the same prayer in language is recognized as «a way of the Spirit to build up the community, to manifest its presence»4, a potential sign that serves as a «call for those who go looking for the truth»5.
A not inconsiderable limitation of this charism is, as pointed out by St Paul, the possibility of mind to be unfruitful (see 1Cor 14, 14). In fact, if it is not integrated into the life of the faithful, from the sacramental life and from the relationship with the Sacred Scriptures, it risks becoming a sentimental outburst, empty of a real experience with God.
Besides being a potential sign of the presence of the Spirit and allowing us to transcend the schematism of words and concepts6, it is possible to indicate as a value of this experience, the deepening of personal prayer, of the relationship with God7. «… the Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray properly, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans» (Rom 8, 26).
Finally and above all, it is necessary to keep in mind that the most excellent gift of all, that which is the content and criterion of evaluation of the other gifts, is charity: «It is necessary that charity binds them (the other gifts) and harmonizes them, considering the unity of the body of Christ»8.
1 G. Barbaglio, S. Danich. Nuovo Dizionario di Teologia, in “Carismi” San Paolo, Milano 1988, 105.
2 R. Cantalamessa. Il canto dello Spirito. Meditazioni sul Veni Creator, Ancora, Milano 1998, 8.108.
3 R. Fabris. Prima Lettera ai Corinzi. Nuova versione, introduzione e commento. Paoline, Milano 1999, 175.
4 Cantalamessa, Il canto dello Spirito, 242.
5 Grasso, Carismi, 196.
6 Cantalamessa, Il canto dello Spirito, 242.
7 Grasso, Carismi, 196.
8 San Bernardo, in Cant. Sermo 49, II, 5, in Grasso, Carismi, 36.