An Open Letter to the Catholic Charismatics

                    The Catholic charismatic community deserves our appreciation for introducing many people into the life of prayer. But in the spirit of gentle inquiry we present the following questions with the hope it will lead to a dialogue that will enrich all of us.

The Catholic charismatic movement sometimes leaves the impression that what is not due to our conscious thoughts and intentions ought to be attributed to the direct action of the Holy Spirit or to the devil. We can represent this attitude as follows:

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Thus they see Gods direct action in speaking in tongues or in prophesies or in healings, or being slain the spirit, and the devil's action in various temptations and obsessions. They appear to be saying," I know that I am not the cause of this speaking in tongues, for I did not invent these words or phrases, and I feel them coming from outside of me, and so therefore, it is the Holy Spirit speaking through me." Or," I know this temptation has fallen upon me without me desiring it or encouraging it, and with a strength that seems to go beyond what human nature is capable of producing and come from some other dimension."

From the point of view of ego consciousness they are right in saying that these things come from another dimension. But there is another way to look at these matters, and we can redraw our diagram as follows:

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What this means is that there is a dimension beyond the ego which is neither the direct realm of God nor of the devil, but a natural and normal but unconscious dimension of the human soul. This unconscious has its own contents and affects, as we see every night when we dream.

Our question becomes, then, does the Catholic charismatic movement really take into account the psychological unconscious.

Let's take an example. Do we have to attribute speaking in tongues to the direct action of the Holy Spirit, even though we experience it as coming from beyond ourselves? Certainly it comes from beyond ourselves in the sense that we are not consciously inventing these words. But it is entirely possible that even a genuine grace coming from God and directed to our conversion could pass through the psychological unconscious and clothe itself in various unknown words and affects, in short, as some unknown tongue, which then bursts forth into consciousness and makes the grace that God is giving us visible in a particular tangible form.

In this case, the tongue is both a divine and human reality. It is divine inasmuch as it embodies a genuine inspiration and grace, and it is human inasmuch as the words, themselves, are born in the unconscious in order to give this grace a tangible form. If this is true, then there is no need to claim the words, themselves, are directly fashioned by the Holy Spirit, or that psychological factors never play a role in inducing someone to speak in tongues. This human-divine view of speaking in tongues would also make it easier to understand why these tongues are in no known language, and that tongue-speaking is also known outside of religious contexts. Further, it would help us understand how someone could begin speaking in tongues, and then as their life of prayer develops, no longer have any inclination to speak in tongues.

Conclusion: There appears to be a real danger that Catholic charismatics can identify their impulses, feelings, insights and images that come from beyond the confines of consciousness with the direct action of God or the devil. Then they would treat what is at least partially human as if it were divine or diabolical. A more psychologically aware attitude is needed.

Is this true?

Now it is your turn to contribute to this discussion. Send us your questions and comments:

"Actually, I didn't consider your open letter to the Charismatics to be that far off the mark.

Many Charismatics do not carefully discern where the "Spirit" leaves off and the "flesh" takes over. However, I disagree with your implied conclusion that it is the norm to "grow out of" speaking in tongues. I know some who have continued to grow spiritually for decades, and still find tongues a valuable "gift of prayer." For myself, I first prayed in tongues back in the early seventies and only set them aside when I stopped "seeking the Kingdom." When I returned to the Journey, the gift of tongues and the other gifts were still there for my aid.

I'm not a psychologist or a philosopher, so I'll skip on the Jungian stuff, other than to state that you can err in both extremes; contributing to God what is man's and to man what is God's. (Substitute Satan for God to express the conflict in reverse...)

However, in the context of today's society, which ignores the reality of both God and Satan, rejects the existence of sin or moral standards, and focuses on death and violence -- I believe it is better to err on the side of crediting God / blaming the Devil than to get lost in metaphysical relativism." Bob Van Cleef

P.S. I've just added an article on "Discernment of Spirits" that I printed in our April newsletter to the Catholic Charismatic web site at: To me, it says a lot of the same things your articles does, but from a different perspective and with a different vocabulary. Bob Van Cleef


"I couldn't have put this better. I have always had an aversion to the Charismatic movement without being able to put my reservations into rational thoughts. You put it so clearly.

One thing I would add is that charismatics are so prone to say that "God told me this" or "that" without qualifying it. For example, I would say, "I sense that God is telling me so and so," but I would leave room for other interpretations as well. I know many sincere, fine people who are charismatics, but it would not be a movement with which I could comfortably associate." Ida Bickley


"You raise a question that I have never looked at seriously, since that is not my focus. I am aware that some of the experiences of some people involved in the Charismatic Renewal may be more psychological than a grace from God. But when I examine my own experiences, I do not find them to be in that mode. I believe that they are truly spiritual experiences, gifts from God. And the basis for this would be the fruit flowing from this grace event from God. I am well aware that not everything that is said to be of God is of God. And maybe that's where the psycological unconscious comes in. This is where correct discernment is needed. But at the same time to imply that the source of the experience is psychological would deny the Word of God, the promises of Jesus, the gifts of the Spirit, and the graces given. The signs and wonders experienced in Jesus' life, the life of the early Christians, Christians throughout the centuries even to this present time are real, not because their source is the psychological unconscious but the source is the Holy Spirit." Bishop Sam Jacobs


"I really liked your definition of Christian mysticism and felt you did such a nice job and summary of it. However, when it came to the comments on the Charismatic movement, especially speaking in tongues, I felt you had little experience in that area. Your article says, "This human-divine view of speaking in tongues would also make it easier to understand why these tongues are in no known language." I'm no expert on the subject and in a sense have only been on the fringes of the movement but my understanding is that speaking or praying in tongues can be a definite language. I've heard of instances such as this: A man walks into a charismatic service, hears someone speaking in ancient Greek which he studied and he hears the words and is amazed that someone who has never learned the language could be pronouncing the words so perfectly. He is also amazed because the words seem to be directed to him and touch his heart by their message. Also in scripture on Pentecost, the apostles were speaking in tongues or rather preaching in tongues it seems, and foreigners were amazed to hear the gospel being proclaimed in their own language. This seems to be beyond something which our unconscious can manufacture which you seemed to suggest in your letter by your statement, "Do we have to attribute speaking in tongues to the direct action of the Holy Spirit, even though we experience it as coming from beyond ourselves?" It says in scripture that the apostles attributed speaking in tongues to the reception of the Holy Spirit and I see no reason why this can't be true. I don't think it is correct to say that the gift of tongues which is present in the New Testament and in present Charismatic movement today is just a product of our unconscious minds, but I believe when it is legitimately present that it is a gift of the Holy Spirit and should be valued as such.

I will have to agree with your conclusion however at the end of your article for the most part which says, "Conclusion: There appears to be a real danger that Catholic charismatics can identify their impulses, feelings, insights and images that come from beyond the confines of consciousness with the direct action of God or the devil. Then they would treat what is at least partially human as if it were divine or diabolical. A more psychologically aware attitude is needed." Even though I think there is a genuine action of the Holy Spirit in lives of Christians and particularly present in some miraculous ways in the Charismatic movement, I will have to agree with you that there is a tendency in the Charismatic movement to oversimplify and attribute things as coming from either the devil or God without seeming to realize that they may be coming from their own minds. I often for example wonder how many people who speak in tongues really have a charismatic gift of tongues and how many are just doing the best they naturally can to have the gift. However I do believe it is a gift of the Holy Spirit and that some people really have this gift. Just as I believe some people really have visions that come from God, just as others visions come from their imaginations or even perhaps the devil. St. John of the Cross addresses a similar problem when he tells us to not concentrate on visions, locutions and supernatural revelations because it  is very difficult if not impossible to tell whether they are from God, our imagination, or the devil and we can easily be misled. This seems to apply to the charismatic movement as well where all too easily every vision and locution is dubbed to come from the Holy Spirit whereas they can just as easily be coming from the mind of the person or perhaps even the devil. Also there is a tendency among some Charismatics to attribute all the things they view as bad as coming from the devil which seems to be an oversimplication to me. So I think is it correct to say like St. John that some things we might call supernatural manifestations do indeed come from God, but also some come from our own minds and others can even come from the devil. St. John cautions us to not guide our life by visions, locutions etc. but by faith. I think this is good advice." Modesto, CA



While there are stories of people speaking in languages they have not learned, it would be hard, I think, to find concrete cases where there is convincing evidence that this has really happened. Further, the unconscious can play a powerful role in uncanny events like telepathic dreams or strange feats of the intellect like human mathematical calculators, and so it cannot be immediately ruled out, even if such a case were found.

There is the example of the original Pentecost, itself, but I would hesitate to identify this Pentecostal speaking in tongues that people understood in their own languages with the phenomenon of speaking in tongues that we see in the modern Charismatic movement.

I am not saying that the modern speaking in tongues is just a psychological phenomenon, but rather, it can have both a genuine spiritual dimension and a human unconscious dimension. Thus, it can be a grace of God even if there is a natural dimension of the psyche that creates the tongue that is spoken.

Your point about John of the Cross is a good one, but it raises some further questions:

1. Would John of the Cross consider the modern speaking in tongues as a situation similar to that of visions and revelations, and therefore give the same advice to it as he does to them?

2. Would he consider it a form of what he called meditation, that is, any prayer that we could do ourselves, and thus see it as limited and coming through the human faculties and expect it to be transcended by some other form of prayer?

3. How does speaking in tongues and the rest of the Charismatic phenomena relate to what John of the Cross called infused contemplation? The Editors


John Hardon, SJ, in an article that is posted on the web called "Pentacostalism: Evaluating a Phenomenon" makes some remarks that we think are relevant to the discussion here:

"The fundamental problem it (Pentacostalism) creates is the absolute conviction of devoted Pentecostals that they have actually received a charismatic visitation of the Holy Spirit.

I am not referring to such external phenomena as the gift of tongues, but of the deeply inward certitude that a person has been the object of a preternatural infusion, with stress on the infusion of preternatural insight, i.e., in the cognitive order.

This is an astounding assertion, and the only thing unremarkable about it that so many Pentecostals are now firmly convinced they have been so enlightened...

The dilemma this raises can be easily stated:

Either the Pentecostal experience really confers preternatural insight (at least among its leaders), or the experience is quite natural, while certainly allowing for the normal operations of divine grace...

Are the so-called charismata truly charismatic? If they are, then we stand in the presence of a cosmic miracle, more stupendous in proportion - by reason of sheer numbers - than anything the Church has seen, I would say, even in apostolic times.

But if the experiences are not authentically charismatic, then, again, we stand in the presence of a growing multitude of persons who believe themselves charismatically led by the Holy Spirit. They will make drastic decisions, institute revolutionary changes, or act in a host of other ways - firmly convinced they are responding to a special divine impulse whereas in reality they are acting in response to quite ordinary, and certainly less infallible, motions of the human spirit.

At this point we could begin a completely separate analysis, namely, of the accumulating evidence that the impulses which the Pentecostal leaders consider charismatic are suspiciously very human. "

Bob Gravlin responds:

In St. Louis we have many fine charismatic groups which have done a good job of integrating such things as dream work, Jungian Psychology, and a wise understanding of the unconscious in healing ministries and a healing and deliverance ministry associated with the St. Louis Archdiocese. The temptation of a simplistic attribution of our own psychological processes to God or the devil is a real one ,however.

An equally real danger I have seen in secular society and the social sciences is the tendency to attribute all mysterious and not understood spiritual experiences to the human psyche or the subconscious. For example, genuine spiritual experiences involving God are thought of as a process of psychological projection, wish fulfillment, the universal unconscious, etc.

Equally serious is the tendency to see occult practices, such as channelling, tarot card reading, automatic writing, the ouija boards, etc., as a process of contacting the subconscious mind when, in fact people may be opening themselves up to the influence of genuinely demonic spirits and forces.

I conclude that the tendency among secularists to deny the spiritual is as serious as is the tendency of some believers to attribute almost everything to God or the devil. Balance is usually not found in extreme positions.


Another Response

I agree with much of what was said. I believe there is a human part and a divine part to speaking in tongues, because there is a human speaker involved and God's Spirit within him/her, but I think that any further human speculation about it-- without looking to the word of God --is nothing more than speculation. I believe our human speculation is worthless, because human beings are sinners and fallible. (Romans 3:23 "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God). Therefore, we cannot trust what comes from the mouth of men 100% of the time, but we can always trust God, because He is the same yesterday, today and forever.

Proverbs 3:5-6 says "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths."

We cannot possibly comprehend the things of God with our limited human intellect. (Romans 11:34--"For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor?")

But we know God's word to be true and to be the only trusted source to learn about who God is and how he operates. (2Tim. 3:16--"All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness")

Saying that today tongues is somehow different than their operation by the first Christians at the day of pentecost seems ridiculous and assumes that God changes, which is false.

I have not personally received this gift, but I have witnessed its operation many times by others. Also, I belong to a church that believes in the gifts and seeks them as God's word says to do, but expressly teaches that there are specific rules laid out for their operation in the body of Christ (the Church).

In 1 Corinthians Paul exhorts the Corinthian church to seek the gifts, and to use them properly and in order. God is not the author of chaos.

I disagree that speaking in tongues can be attributed to our subconcious, because that would in effect be saying that we somehow have a part in God's work when Phil. 2:13 says, "It is God who works in you, to will and to do for His good pleasure."

Also, in John 15:5 Jesus says, "...If a man remains in me and I in Him, he will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing."

Since Isaiah tells us that there is none righteous on this earth (in fact there never has been and never /will be, with the one exception of Jesus Christ) I think it is important to recognize God and give Him the credit when it is due, such as in Spiritual gifts. We know this is also true for our salvation, that we cannot save ourselves, it is the gift of God (Eph. 4:8-9)

The point I am trying to make is this: although we all may not have complete understanding of the gift of tongues or other charismatic practices, we do know that God has a purpose in them. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that speaking tongues in the church is to edify the Church as a whole, and translators should always be present. Praying in tongues, which I understand to be somewhat different is to edify that one person. But tongues should not be thought of as a superior level of Chrisianity, nor a proof that one is saved. Instead it is a manifestation of God that, just as at the time of Pentecost was designed to point unbelievers to the existence and power of God and to edify believers in the Holy Spirit. Also, as Paul tells us to have 2 or 3 interpreters for the gift of tongues, we know that we are still fallible, and the devil is always at work around us and is able to create counterfeits of the real thing to lead us astray. This is why we have to use the word of God and what we know is true to discern the truth and observe each nuance of God's grace with humility and careful reverence. If we were infallible and perfect as Christians, Paul would not have had to preach to them to keep them in line with their spiritual practices!

In Summary:

1. We should judge the gifts of God only through what is said in scripture.

2. We should seek the gifts of God even though His ways may be beyond our understanding because there are real blessings in them and purposes for them in the church.

3. Man is fallible, and we sometimes fail. We should keep this in mind for judging anyone who says they have gifts and always "test and approve" these displays of the gifts through the word of God.

A Response

First of all thank you for this opportunity you give us to share our ideas and convictions.

The Charismatic Movement in itself is something good happening to the Church, but like always one finds a lot of eccentrics, and I agree with your statements, for as one knows anthropologists have encountered speaking in tongues in certain African tribal cults and also in some type of Chinese shamanism.

I would like to add, and would like also the charismatics who might read this page to understand, that being part of the charismatic movement does not make a Charismatic a special member of the Church, in the sense that one feels one became better (more saintly) than others, and starts recognising as brothers and sisters in Christ only those who are members of this movement.

And please, charismatics, take care, for, when one starts believing one is having direct contact with the Spirit, or with the Triune God directly, one might fall into the temptation of disregarding the Church, and authority in the Church, a serving authority, given by Christ, so that all the people of God, without distinction, will have somebody responsible and wise (in the spiritual sense) enough to lead them.


Rev. Fr. Louis Bezzina, (Malta)

Another Response

Thanks so much for your thoughtful letter.

Several years ago I had the "Baptism in the Spirit" experience but abandoned it when I felt it hadn't really "taken", that is, the outward manifestations of the Gifts had stopped and I finally had to admit I'd been forcing them. I used to joke with friends that I was born again but it was apparently a C section since I seemed to come out all turned around. But it was not a funny experience. I felt I had been led down yet another false path. After some years I found that I hadn't been led down a false path at all , that I had been on the right path and just hadn't traveled far enough. I came to discover that the path led to silent prayer, beyond images, words and emotionalism. I have found silence to be a "neighbor" of Jung's collective unconscious; a spiritually alive place where Christ reveals Himself more fully and sweetly by the use of symbols and dreams to enlighten and purify self awareness. He also seems to use the unconscious to reveal what He is not and many of my illusions of what He Is had to die a painful death there. (and they still do) It has added a wonderful new dimension to my faith, a way to experience Christ's love in all the areas available to a human ..sometimes painful, sometimes scary but always, eventually, sweet and beautiful. FINALLY, I'm able to relax as a Christian, I feel Loved..and isn't that what it's all about? Thanks again for your letter, I have really enjoyed all the replies...PAX, Tom at

More Comments

I would like to add several comments to this fine discussion. I was present at a prayer meeting in Seattle in 1972 where a visitor recognized the tongue being spoken as an actual language he understood. Because it was one of our first prayer meetings, we took that unusual event as an indication that we were on the right track in starting this new prayer group.

A friend of mine, Richard Pomeroy, had an experience of praising in tongues while waiting for the Fremont Bridge in Seattle (Seattle has several bridges that go up to allow boats to pass through the Ship Canal, which requires cars to simply wait for 5-15 minutes depending on the number of boats). He had his window rolled down and a young boy had gotten out of the car ahead of Richard to go look at the boats. Suddenly he turned around and walked over to Richard and started speaking French to Richard. Richard had no clue what he was saying so the boy began to speak in English and asked Richard how he knew who he was. It turned out the tongues was French and was addressed directly to the boy. Richard talked with him briefly, led him in a prayer of commitment to Jesus. This was a use of tongues I have not heard of since.

Your questioning of the relationship between the human and the divine is a good one. I think there is a lot more about the human psyche that we don't understand. Because of my firm conviction that God is the author of our human psychology, spirit and body as well as the author of supernatural inteventions, I think that the dividing lines are probably pretty fuzzy in terms of being able to make sharp distinctions. This is not to say that we shouldn't try, especially because every charismatic I know has at least some experiences of mistaking their own thinking or impulses for the work of the Spirit. But of course, making some mistakes does not invalidate all

Keep up the good discussion.

Colin LaVergne,

The Editor

Dear Colin,

I am not trying to say that in principle speaking in tongues is never in an actual historical language. It is just that in the vast majority of cases I don't think it is, and it is hard to find well-documented instances where an actual language is being spoken.

Nor am I trying to leave the impression that I am denying God's action in our lives. It is just that we seem to materialize that action so readily. I have a new essay on the website along those lines called "The Lack of Psychological Awareness in the Church."

A Response

I would like to make a couple of points about the inward experience of illumination that has been raised in this discussion. I agree that it is more important than the outward manifestations of tongues etc. but even here there is a 'higher' and a 'lower' illumination. I agree essentially with the Protestant mystic A. W. Tozer that the spirit has (inward) senses by which spiritual realities are perceived, just as physical realities are perceived by the bodily senses. Tozer believed that these spiritual senses have become numb because of our sinful nature, but when a person turns to Jesus, the Holy Spirit opens them that we might 'see' spiritual realities. These spiritual realities are, basically, the truths presented in Scripture which the Spirit enables us to understand in a way beyond the capacity of the unregenerate mind.

Recently, I have become aware that there are really two sets of spiritual senses, which I will call the eyes of the mind and the eyes of the heart. The former bring illumination that is basically intellectual (intuitive, but really still 'head knowledge'). The latter, which is the 'higher' illumination, brings intuitive knowledge direct to the centre of our spiritual being. It may bypass intellectual understanding, but brings knowledge directly to the spirit. For instance, we may meditate on our lost condition apart from Jesus and even be illuminated to the fact of this, but we will not benefit while ever this remains merely 'head' knowledge. But it is when we 'see' our lost condition with the eyes of the heart that we are suddenly confronted with ourselves as God sees us and we respond with repentance nd faith. The sudden and often violent conversions of many mystics and revivalists resulted from this kind of illumination. May the charismatic movement bring it back! Blessings, David A. J. Seargent

Also, please note the following website:   This is an article about small-group meetings for bringing people closer to God and to other Christians. A few such groups exist (or have existed) in various parts of the world, but my vision is to see this as a wide movement across denominations. The series of meditations for the meetings may also be used as a private spiritual exercises or as the theme for a (one day?) retreat, although the latter has not been tried as yet. David.


Now it is your turn to contribute to this discussion. Send us your questions and comments:


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