I was always intrigued by the different forms of charismatic prayers. Particularly ‘the speaking in an unknow tongue’ puzzled me.
It seems, Saint Paul’s emphasis on the ‘rational’ dimension and on ‘understanding’, as the desired outcome of the process is highly enlightening. He insinuates (confirmed by his own practice) that there is a translatability between speaking in tongues and praying (and listening) with understanding. As he puts it, in the first case ‘For he that speaketh in an unknown language speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries… For if I pray in unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.’ In the second case, he ‘that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort. He that speaketh in an unknow tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.’ Then, he confirms that there is a transition from the first into the a speech of ‘understanding’. ‘I will praye with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also.’
If this transition is possible, surely, when the mysterious inner experience is turned into ‘edifying speech’, our newly emerged ‘understanding’ will preserve the experience of the mystery which has given an intelligible expression. I do believe that the presence of the two forms of prayer is thoroughly practical in the history of the church. If we slightly adjust the overtly individual focus on the ‘praying in tongues’, we find striking examples of the above synthesis.
Just as an example, John Henry Newman shows that in-depth prayer in the Spirit produces profound ‘understanding’. What we can see in him is how from ‘the prayer in spirit’, a mystical and rational anticipation of the church’s future surfaces. The mystical element in his prayer life is the prophetic anticipation of the future of his church and culture itself.
Now that he will be canonised by the Roman Catholic church, it would be worth putting his theology into our wider, Biblical context. He prayed and reflected in age of profound transition akin to today’s enormous changes. As his biographer, Meriol Trevor highlights, Newman emerged from a nation ‘profoundly disturpbed by the repercussions of the French Revolution and the birth pangs of industrialism.’ He ‘was born with the nineteenth century and died at the beginning of its last decade. He was to see the whole face of his country change, and he was one of the few who foresaw something of the century to come. Not that he as a prophet of event, but his profound insight into the conflict of ideas behind the transformation enabled him to forecast the trend things were likely to take. His was the century of evolutionary theories which shattered men’s idea of a static world, just as the astronomical theories of the sixteenth century shattered the image of a static earth, set between external poles of good and evil.’ (Meriol Trevor, Newman’s Journey, Collins, Fontana Library of Theology, 1974, p.11)
So what type of mystical and rational prayer emerged in Newman’s oeuvre? In the Pauline sense, in a changing world, his focus was the church itself. His focus was the whole of the life of the church. Seeing in context, his was a contribution to the collective body of prayer for the Church. Newman’s love for Catholicity, and linking his Church of England to the life of the Catholica makes most sense on this horizon. The individual dynamics of conversion to Roman Catholicism, and his refusal in his originating community are only the shell. The core is that mystical-prophetic concern to gain insight to the ‘future’ of the wider Christian community and share his vision of the need ‘to give the Articles (of Protestantism) a Catholic interpretation.’ ‘It is a Catholic duty that we owe both to the Catholic Church and to our own, to take our reformed Confession in the most Catholic sense.’ (Tract 90, Conclusions, p.83.)
Newman’s ‘journey of prayer’ is timing regardless of confessional boundaries. Paul’s programme on mystical prayer, and making the transition into ‘understanding’, is just as timely as it was in his age. Reality being merged with and altered by the emerging cyber realities, is a new Newmanian moment for re-thinking Catholicity and anticipate its future life. As Paul says, ‘Seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church!’ ‘Seek together’ with Newman’s heritage as an active resource for contemporary reflections on what is happening to us and our sense of the Catholick.
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..