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Speaking in tongues and praying in poetry

By Zac Koons

For two years I pleaded with God to give me the gift of tongues. Studying theology was having the effect on me that it’s had on others. While it gave me an expanded vocabulary for talking about God, I felt increasingly paralyzed by over-analysis when I tried talking to him. What is the proper way to address God again? What am I still allowed to ask for? And remind me what kinds of prayers we make fun of now? Somehow, the more words I had at my disposal, the more hamstrung I felt in the face of having to choose any. A spirit of discouragement brooded over my spiritual life.

Because I always assumed that charismatics were looney-bin Christians, it required a certain confluence of new friends and old books to convert my prejudice into the possibility that praying in tongues was a solution to my problem. And this gave me eyes to see that I had apparently long been surrounded by a mafia of undercover charismatics: professors, my librarian, our parish prayer team, a few priests, and even a bishop. With their help, I learned to plug my discouragement into the equation of Romans 8:23. I did not know how to pray as I should, and so the solution to them was obvious: the Spirit could intercede for me with groanings too deep for words. I was still (and remain) suspicious of the louder manifestations of the Spirit, but I began to see the appeal of having a prayer language for my private devotional use.

The idea that the Spirit could translate the unplumbed depths of my soul into prayer, but then still allow me to be one who prays—that sounded like exactly the balm for my wound. I could leave it up to the Spirit, then, to sort out my holy desires from my selfish ones, and to name the former to the Father in the appropriate majestic plural, or whatever. I could leave it up to the Spirit to put language around a world that was daily revealing itself to be more complex than I had ever imagined. Plus, the possibility that God and I could cooperate in such a concrete and unadulterated way, that my voice could act as the medium through which God could communicate with God — if that was a real experience that people had, I wanted to have it. I was convinced. My prayer life needed a holy ghost writer. (Forgive me.) And so I started to ask. I asked almost every day for two years, and God never answered.

So I stopped asking and mostly I forgot all about it. That was eight years ago.

Recently I’ve started to read poetry, which is, frankly, a more shocking development in my life than praying in tongues would have been. What little exposure I had to poetry in high school left me feeling like a codebreaker without a cipher. Poems were opaque with allusions to books I hadn’t read, using words that were never on any vocabulary test I had taken. Poetry bullied my brain, and so I coped by avoiding it altogether on the playgrounds of college and graduate school. When confrontation has been unavoidable, I’ve taken up the phrase “I’ve just never connected with it,” or some other flimsy word weapon, the very wielding of which, I’ve long shamefully known, already signals intellectual defeat.

But again, the making of certain friends led to the reading of certain books (how else do we change our minds about anything, after all?), and before long providence had peeled my mind open to the possibility that I was wrong. As with the many-tongued mafia, I was stunned to find cousin after coworker after colleague who had a secret relationship with poetry that I had somehow missed before. Within a few months I was even starting to memorize poems. I never thought I would be someone who memorized poetry. But it was at this stage that memories of my pleading with God for the gift of tongues, and his not delivering, came back to me. The connection between the two became especially clear one afternoon several months ago.

I was called to the hospital to visit the mother of a former parishioner’s cousin’s girlfriend (or something like that) who had just received the news that she was dying. This is a familiar moment for most clergy, one that is often as crowded with family as it is with contradictory emotions, and thus is a particularly tender though complex occasion of pastoral care, which is why I was surprised to find practically the opposite when I arrived on this day. The woman was deeply unconscious in the bed, which was normal, of course, but there was no family there at all. There wasn’t a teddy bear, card, or any sign whatsoever that anyone other than a nurse or doctor had ever crossed this threshold.

I was a little jarred, so I leaned into muscle memory and proceeded with the priestly ministry: I said a few prayers from the book and anointed her with oil. But with no one to talk to, I was done in five minutes. And leaving felt wrong. So I just stood there for a while, seized by my competing emotions: My heart broke for this woman whom I had never met and who was about to die alone. I felt anger toward her relatives who were letting it happen this way, and then sympathy in turn, knowing there might be well-founded reasons for their absence. I felt rage toward the impersonal and sanitized machinery of modern medicine, lament that this woman’s connection to our church at the end of her life was so distant, and frustration that I could hardly name a single detail of her life in this intensely personal moment. I felt paralyzed by complexity, ignorance, and grief. I had no idea what to do or say.

And then a poem I had memorized several months before popped into my head out of nowhere. It’s a poem that returns repeatedly over five stanzas to a refrain: “God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.” So I did the only thing that felt natural: I held the woman’s hand and spoke the poem like a prayer over her body. Before I was halfway through I was weeping.

Christian Wiman, the author of that poem, has said that “the great thing about poetry is not that it tells you what to feel; the great thing is that it gives you a form for feelings that were inchoate, formless, and inchoate feelings … can destroy you.”[1] His poem, having sunk into my heart’s memory, rose up at that moment to offer shape to my feelings, or at least a metaphysical container for them to be held within. I interpret my tears as my body acknowledging the release of tension caused by formless feelings in my soul.

The poem felt summoned — not by me, but by the occasion almost, by the complex intersection of this random woman’s life with mine in this anonymous, fluorescent cell of a hospital room. And in the end, I don’t know what other name to give to this summoning, or this summoner, but Holy Spirit. And I don’t know how else to understand what happened in that hospital room other than as God’s unexpected answer to my mostly forgotten prayers: I spoke in words that weren’t mine, words that I’m not sure I even completely understood, but words which nonetheless were given to me by God for the purpose of offering them back to God in prayer. The only surprise was that I spoke not in the tongues of angels, but in the tongue of a poet.


[1] “Modern Anxiety and Ancient Faith,” a talk by Christian Wiman at Laity Lodge, Oct. 18, 2014.


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