12 October 2007

Reflections on the Charismatic Renewal

David Palmer has posted about his experience of a charismatic service. It set me to thinking about my experience of "the Renewal".

I should preface my comments by pointing out that I was never much of a rebel: my rebellion against doing the Oxbridge scholarship exams was to fearlessly insist on doing A Levels and going to a (venerable) Redbrick University instead. Similarly, while contemporaries denied God and took to chemical substances, I took to the Charismatic Renewal. For much of the period between 1974-1979, I would be found at "Days of Renewal", arms outstretched, "speaking in tongues" and praising God.

One of the curses of middle age is looking back at one's youth and experiencing the embarrassment one should have felt at the time: the elaborate pursuit of some girl who, you realise with hindsight, was as attainable as the Koh-i-Noor, and as contemptuous of you as you were moonstruck by her; the brilliant essay one wrote as an 18 year old which, you informed your Professor, was the final answer to the subject in question; your insistence that, drunk as you were, you could still perform in front of a crowd of some hundreds.

I add to this list my belief, proclaimed to so many people, that the Charismatic Renewal was the fruit of the Holy Spirit: that we were the first generation since Apostolic times to be able to receive God's Spirit as he had always intended us to do.

I was that knowall. How I appreciate with hindsight the kindness and love of so many priests and nuns who seemed to pay me attention and to meditate on what I was telling them: not one of them ever laughed. My parents "didn't understand"; they mocked: I know now that they did understand, really understand; they understood their son, and they understood the Church.

Now I am older I understand a lot better what was really happening: somebody who was not really a rebel had to find a safe rebellion, one that wouldn't threaten anything too serious. If I was to embarrass my family, then a surfeit of religious enthusiasm (and a beard) was better than an absence of religion (with or without a beard).

I knew instinctively what I have only recently found demonstrated by phonologists: that the "gift of tongues" is rarely, if ever, a new Pentecost, and is rather an emotional reaction to what is going on.

However, I received a real gift: I learned how to praise God. I learned to praise God just for being God; to praise Him for His Creation; to stand before Him in awe at His Magnificence; to praise Him for the Greatness which, I perceived for the first time, wasn't remote, but could be experienced here and now, even if through a glass, however darkly. The absolute Wonder of God was everywhere, and was so Great that He could contain himself temporally in a host which He would allow me to receive. That gift has not left me, even if it is rarely as vivid now; but I used at the same time to go to confession far, far more frequently than now (another fruit of the Renewal), and I am left concluding that the two are connected.

I wonder if two different trends were in operation in the Charismatic Renewal in that period: on the one hand, the "ultras" of Vatican II aggressively pushed an agenda of "new, "modern", "different". On the other, lots of individuals reached out for a sense of actuosa participatio which they were being denied in their parishes: that of individual participation in Christ amongst their community. It was better than nothing: it was much, much, better than nothing.

I may be wrong: but the Charismatic Renewal carried me through a period in which I could have gone wrong in so many ways. It has nothing to say to me today, except in my memories, which, as I say, are not mellow. But I can't condemn it: not the Renewal I experienced.

I still have the beard.


Mac McLernon said...


I once went to a charismatic service. I decided it wasn't for me when, at the laying on of hands, the celebrant gave my forehead a gentle (but insistent) shove with his thumbs, as I wasn't collapsing, "slain by the spirit"!

I was acutely aware that the "catcher" assigned to me was a very frail, elderly gentleman, and I was a not insubstantial figure... he wouldn't have survived the collision!!

John said...

I enjoyed reading your confessions on your early life Tony. To some extent I had a similar experience with the Charismatics and I too learned to speak in tongues. (I still can!). The sad part for me is that so many of those who were at the forefront of the movement here, have left the Church and formed their own 'assemblies'. We even set up a Parish prayer group and Bob (yes, that was his name) took to counselling Jackie (and that was her name). We warned him that he was stepping over the line. Well, they both did. Bob is now dead. His wife divorced him and he died outside the Church. Jackie, I have not seen in years but she is outside too. Margaret Court, the tennis player, left the Church and now runs her own show here.
I think that the real trouble there is that they lose the Mass. They find the kick of a prayer-meeting more exciting than the Mass. The 'praying over' people more empowering than the reception of Jesus in Holy Communion. It is a subtle weaning away from what is our spiritual life into an emotional state which deadens the spirit as opposed to giving Life in the Spirit. They did get me to pray more, but my prayer now is not in tongues but The Legion of Mary prayers followed by the Divine Office.
As an aside, my father always had great difficulty praying the Rosary because he found it almost impossible to meditate on the mysteries. I seem to have inherited this trait from him, but I persevere anyway because Our Lady has told us to pray it daily. So, I try, but my mind wanders all over the place.
How about you?