Later this week, I am embarking on a special leg of my discernment’s journey: I will spend three months at a Benedictine monastery in northern Minnesota, live its life and breathe its air. My regular readers have already seen images of it when I spent two weeks there last autumn (see “On mountain ash and other miracles”). Now I go back. I’ve been waiting to immerse myself in a monastic life, and I’ve been thinking about waiting.
I will arrive just in time for Pentecost. It is one of my favorite stories in the New Testament—yes, I know, I have many. But Pentecost speaks to me in a special way—as a convert, as a Jew, as an immigrant, as a mystic, and as a worker of the word—on many levels. It speaks to me in tongues, such a consummate story of boundlessness.
You remember the story. The apostles had said good-bye to Jesus. After the rollercoaster ride of their years together—joy and struggle—after falling in love and surviving his loss, the disaster of crucifixion and ecstasy of resurrection, they watched him leave. Disappear out of reach. And they were alone with only his promise to sustain them: they are not abandoned. He’ll always be there. In Spirit. And he told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait. And they waited.
Pentecost was a big pilgrimage holiday, and Jews from all over the ecumene gathered in Jerusalem on the morning when it happened. I don’t know exactly how it worked, but the divine fire and passion of the Spirit of God filled their very being and burst forth and shone on their faces, dancing on their heads—like flames, like halos. I don’t know exactly what it looked like, but they must have looked weird because people thought they were drunk.
“Who do you think we are?” said Peter (or something to that effect). “It’s only nine o’clock in the morning!” And the twelve Galileans stepped forward and spoke to the crowds—and this moment, to me, is Pentecost. Because the Jews from all over the Roman empire stood in front of them there, in Jerusalem, having come from Egypt and Asia, Arabia and Rome, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Greece, and they spoke languages unrecognizable and had nothing in common with each other save this one place, and this one God, and this one liturgical calendar. But the Twelve spoke to them, and they understood. They spoke and somehow reached into the hearts of the people across every boundary of language and culture and prejudice—their fire, their message, their Spirit poured forth and sounded the innermost bells of metanoia. Conversion of the heart.
People wonder what the “speaking in tongues” factually entailed on that mythical, larger-than-life day of Christianity’s first Pentecost: Did they really speak each a different language each for a different part of the mob? Did they switch? Did they speak Aramaic but were heard by the audience in their own tongues? Did nothing happen of the kind? What kind of miracle was it?
I don’t know. I suspect—I hope, in fact—it was a miracle of the heart. On the morning of Pentecost, twelve people felt themselves filled with the fire of God and spoke. And three thousand people heard them: no matter what they heard, they really heard them.
I am not one of those who must be convinced that words have power. If I lost faith in the power of the word, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. I am a writer, after all, and a teacher, and a worker of dialogue. My life is built on and shaped by the word, in more than one language. But more than that, I am a Christian. In a way that transcends and intertwines literal meaning, metaphor, and mystery, I build my life on the belief that it is the WORD that creates, sustains, and saves the universe. And because mystery is integral to that relationship, a word doesn’t always have to be understood consciously or fully in order to have its powerful impact.
There are many words I don’t understand in many languages, but as I listen to their songs and poetry, I can feel myself aflutter, swelling and ebbing with their tides and currents. There are many words I know by heart, but every time I hear or read, I find a depth anew: the Bible, David Samoylov, Robert Pirsig, Shakespeare… This world itself is a Word of God, ever-being-said, unfolding in time, the story of the Universe blossoming toward its Creation. And the Word with a human name…
I am a Christian mystic, and on the day I fell in love with the Word Incarnate, I was filled with the fire of God by way of the twelve Galileans, and began to speak to all who would listen—began to speak in tongues. And I began to wait, with the rest of Christianity, for the story to unfold.