« Prev Chapter IV. Descent of the Holy… Next »



Mean, narrow, ignorant, inexperienced they were, as completely so as it was possible to be. Their simplicity of mind was extreme; their credulity had no limits. But they had one quality: they loved their Master to foolishness. The recollection of Jesus was the only moving power of their lives; it was perpetually with them, and it was clear that they lived only for him, who, during two or three years, had so strangely attached and seduced them. For souls of a secondary standard, who cannot love God directly, that is to say, discover truth, create the beautiful, do right of themselves, salvation consists in loving some one in whom there shines a reflection of the true, the beautiful, and the good. The great majority of mankind require a worship of two degrees. The multitude of worshippers desire an intermediary between it and God.

When a person has succeeded in attracting to himself, by an elevated moral bond, several other persons, when he dies, it always happens that the survivors, who, up to that time are often divided by rivalries and dissensions, beget a strong friendship the one for the other. A thousand cherished images of the past, which they regret, become to them a common treasure. There is .a manner of loving the dead, which consists in loving those with whom we have known him. We are anxious to meet one another, in order to re-call the happy times 32which are no more. A profound saying of Jesus is found then to be true to the letter: The dead one is present in the midst of those who are united again by his memory.

The affection that the disciples had the one for the other, while Jesus was alive, was thus enhanced tenfold after his death. They formed a very small and very retired society, and lived exclusively by themselves. At Jerusalem they numbered about one-hundred-and-twenty. Their piety was active, and, as yet, completely restrained by the forms of Jewish piety. The temple was then the chief place of devotion. They worked, no doubt, for a living; but at that time, manual labour in Jewish society engaged very few. Everyone had a trade, but that trade by no means hindered a man from being educated and well-bred. With us, material wants are so difficult to satisfy, that the man living by his hands is obliged to work twelve or fifteen hours a day; the man of leisure alone can follow intellectual pursuits; the acquisition of instruction is a rare and costly affair. But in those old societies (of which the East of our days gives still an idea), in those climates, where nature is so prodigal to man and so little exacting, in the life of the labourer there was plenty of leisure. A sort of common instruction puts every man au courant of the ideas of the times. Mere food and clothing satisfied their wants; a few hours of moderate labour provided these. The rest was given up to day dreaming, and to passion. Passion had attained in the minds of those people a decree of energy which is to us inconceivable. The Jews of that time appear to us to be in truth possessed, each pursuing with a blind fatality the idea with which he had been seized.

The dominant idea in the Christian community, at the moment at which we are now arrived, and when apparitions had ceased, was the coming of the Holy Spirit. People were believed to receive it in the form of a mysterious breath, which passed over the assembly. 33Mary pretended that it was the breath of Jesus himself. Every inward consolation, every bold movement, every flush of enthusiasm, every feeling of lively, and pleasant gaiety, which was experienced without knowing whence it came, was the work of the Spirit. These simple con-sciences referred, as usual, to some exterior cause the exquisite sentiments which were being created in them. It was in the assemblies, particularly, that these fantastic phenomena of illumination were produced. When all were assembled, and when they awaited in silence, inspiration from on high, a murmur, any noise whatever, was believed to be the coming of the Spirit. In the early times, it was the apparitions of Jesus which were produced in this manner. Now the turn of ideas had changed. It was the divine breath which passed over the little church, and filled it with a celestial effluvia.

These beliefs were strengthened by notions drawn from the Old Testament. The prophetic spirit is represented in the Hebrew books as a breathing which penetrates man and inspires him. In the beautiful vision of Elijah, God passes by in the form of a gentle wind, which produces a slight rustling noise. This ancient imagery had handed down to later ages beliefs analogous to those of the Spiritualists of our days. In the ascension of Isaiah, the coming of the Spirit is accompanied by a certain rustling at the doors. More often, however, people regarded this coming as another baptism, to wit, the “baptism of the Spirit,” far superior to that of John. The hallucinations of touch being very frequent among persons so nervous and so excited, the least current of air, accompanied by a shuddering in the midst of the silence, was considered as the passage of the Spirit. One conceived that he felt it; soon everybody felt it; and the enthusiasm was communicated from one to another. The correspondence of these phenomena with those which are to be found amongst the visionaries of all times is easily apprehended. They 34are produced daily, partly under the influence of the Acts of the Apostles, in the English or American sects of Quakers, Jumpers, Shakers, Irvingites; amongst the Mormons; in the camp-meetings and revivals of America; we have seen them reproduced amongst ourselves in the sect called the Spiritualists. But an immense difference ought to be made between aberrations, which are without bounds, and without a future, and the illusions which have accompanied the establishment of a new religious code for humanity.

Amongst all these “descents of the Spirit,” which appear to have been frequent enough, there was one which left a profound impression on the nascent Church. One day, when the brethren were assembled, a thunder-storm burst forth. A violent wind threw open the windows: the heavens were on fire. Thunderstorms, in these countries, are accompanied by prodigious sheets of lightning; the atmosphere is, as it were, everywhere furrowed with ridges of flame. Whether the electric fluid had penetrated the room itself, or whether a dazzling flash of lightning had suddenly illuminated the faces of all, everyone was convinced that the Spirit had entered, and that it had alighted on the head of each in the form of tongues of fire. It was a prevalent opinion in the theurgic schools of Syria, that the communication of the Spirit was produced by a divine fire, and under the form of a mysterious glare. People fancied themselves to be present at the splendours of Sinai, at a divine manifestation analogous to those of former days. The baptism of the Spirit thenceforth became also a baptism of fire. The baptism of the Spirit and of fire was opposed to, and greatly preferred to, the baptism of water, the only baptism which John had known. The baptism of fire, was only prepared on rare occasions. Thy apostles and the disciples of the first guest-chamber alone were reputed to have received it. But the idea that the Spirit had alighted on them in the form of jets of Ilene, resembling tongues of fire, gave rise to a series 35of singular ideas, which took a foremost place in the thought of the period.

The tongue of the inspired man was supposed to receive a kind of sacrament. It was pretended that many prophets, before their mission, had been stammerers; that the Son of God had passed a coal over their lips, which purified them and conferred on them the gift of eloquence. In preaching, the man was supposed not to speak of his own volition. His tongue was considered as the organ of divinity which inspired it. These tongues of fire appeared a striking symbol. People were convinced that God desired to signify in this manner that he poured out upon the apostles his most precious gifts of eloquence, and of inspiration. But they did not stop there. Jerusalem was, like the majority of the large cities of the East, a city in which many languages were spoken. The diversity of tongues was one of the difficulties which one found there in the way of propagating a universal form of faith. One of the things, moreover, which alarmed the apostles, at the commencement of a ministry destined to embrace the world, was the number of languages which was spoken there: they were asking themselves incessantly how they could learn so many tongues. “The gift of tongues” became thus a marvellous privilege. It was believed that the preaching of the Gospel would clear away the obstacle which was created by the diversity of idioms. It was imagined that, in some solemn circumstances, the auditors had heard the apostle preaching each in his own tongue: in other words, that the apostolic preaching translated itself to each of the listeners. At other times, this was understood in a somewhat different manner. To the apostles was attributed the gift of knowing, by divine inspiration, all tongues, and of speaking them at will. There was in this a liberal idea; they meant to imply that the Gospel should have no language of its own; that it should be translatable into every tongue; and that the translation should be of the came value as the original. Such was not the sentiment 36of orthodox Judaism. Hebrew was for the Jews of Jerusalem the holy tongue; no language could be compared to it. Translations of the Bible were lightly esteemed, whilst the Hebrew text was scrupulously guarded. In translations, changes and modifications were permitted. The Jews of Egypt, and the Hellenists of Palestine, practised, it is true, a more tolerant system. They employed Greek in prayer, and perused constantly Greek translations of the Bible. But the first Christian idea was even broader. According to that idea the word of God has no language of its own: it is free and unhampered by idiomatic fetters; it is delivered to all spontaneously, and needs no interpreter. The facility with which Christianity was detached from the Semetic tongue which Jesus had spoken, the liberty which it left at first each nation to create its own liturgy, and its versions of the Bible in its natural tongue, served as a sort of emancipation of tongues. It was generally admitted that the Messiah would gather into one all tongues as well as all peoples. Common usage and the promiscuity of languages were the first steps towards that great era of universal pacification.

For the rest, the gift of tongues soon underwent a considerable transformation, and resulted in more extraordinary effects. Brain excitement led to ecstacy and prophecy. In these ecstatic moments the faithful, impelled by the Spirit, uttered inarticulate and incoherent sounds, which were taken for the words of a foreign language, and which they innocently sought to interpret. At other times it was believed that the ecstatically possessed spoke new and hitherto unknown languages, or even the language of the angels. These extravagant scenes, which led to abuses, did not become habitual until a later period. Yet it is probable that from the earliest years of Christianity they were produced. The visions of the ancient prophets had often been accompanied by phenomena of nervous excitation. The dythyrambic state amongst the Greeks produced 37the same kind of occurrences; the Pythia used by preference foreign or obsolete words, which were called, as in the apostolic phenomena, glosses. Many of the passwords of primitive Christianity, which were properly bilingual, or formed by anagrams, such as Abba pater, anathema, maran-atha, were probably derived from these strange paroxysms, intermingled with sighs, stifled groans, ejaculations, prayers, and sudden transports, which were taken for prophecies. It resembled a vague music of the soul, uttered in indistinct sounds, and which the auditors sought to transform into images and determinate words, or rather as the prayers of the Spirit addressed to God, in a language known to God only, and which God knew how to interpret. No ecstatic person, in short, understood anything of what he uttered, and had not even any cognizance of it. People listened with eagerness and attributed to the incoherent utterances the thoughts which there and then occurred to them. Each referred to his own tongue and ingenuously sought to explain the unintelligible sounds by what little he actually knew of languages. In this they always more or less succeeded, the auditor filling in between the broken sentences the thoughts he had in mind.

The history of fanatical sects is fruitful in instances of the same kmd. The preachers of the Cevennes displayed similar instances of “glossolaly.” The most striking instance, however, is that of the “readers” of Sweden, about the years 1841-43. Involuntary utterances, enunciations, having no meaning to those who uttered them, and accompanied by convulsions and fainting fits, were for a long time practised daily in that little sect. The thing became perfectly contagious, and occasioned a considerable popular movement. Amongst the Irvingites the phenomenon of tongues has been produced with features which reproduce in the most striking manner the stories of the Acts and of Saint Paul. Our own century has 38witnessed illusive scenes of the same kind, which we will not recount here; for it is always unjust to compare the inseparable credulity of a great religious movement with the credulity which results from dulness of intellect.

These strange phenomena were sometimes produced out of doors. The ecstatic persons, at the very moment when they were a prey to their extravagant illuminations, had the hardihood to go out and show themselves to the multitude. They were taken for drunken persons. Although sober-minded in point of mysticism, Jesus had more than once presented in his own person the ordinary phenomena of the ecstatic state. The disciples, for two or three years, were beset with these ideas. Prophesying was frequent and considered as a gift analogous to that of tongues. Prayers, accompanied by convulsions, rhythmic modulations, mystic sighs, lyrical enthusiasm, songs with graceful attitudes, were a daily exercise. A rich vein of “canticles,” “psalms,” “hymns,” in imitation of those of the Old Testament, was thus found to be open to them. Sometimes the mouth and heart mutually accompanied one another; sometimes the heart sang alone, accompanied inwardly by grace. No language being able to render the new sensations which were produced, they indulged in an indistinct muttering, at once sublime and puerile, in which what one might call “the Christian language,” was wafted in a state of embryo. Christianity, not finding in the ancient languages an appropriate instrument for its needs, has shattered them. But whilst the new religion was forming a language suited to its use, centuries of obscure effort and, so to speak, of childish prattle, were required. The style of Saint Paul, and, in general, that of the authors of the New Testament, what is its characteristic, if it be not stifled, halting, informal, improvisation of the “glossolalist”? Language failed them. Like the prophets, they aped 39the a, a, a, of the infant. They did not know how to speak. The Greek and the Semetic tongues equally betrayed them. Hence that shocking violence which nascent Christianity inflicted on language. It might be compared to a stutterer, in whose mouth the tones being stifled, clash with and against each other, and terminate in a confused medley, but yet marvellously expressive.

All this was very far from the sentiment of Jesus; but for minds penetrated with a belief in the supernatural, these phenomena possessed great importance. The gift of tongues, in particular, was considered as an essential sign of the new religion, and as a proof of its truth. In any case, there resulted from it much fruit for edification. Many Pagans were converted in this way. Up to the third century “glossolaly” was manifested in a manner analogous to that described by St. Paul, and was considered as a perpetual miracle. Many of the sublime words of Christianity are derived from these incoherent sighs. The general effect was touching and penetrating. Their manner of offering in common their inspirations and of handing them over to the community for interpretation established in time amongst the faithful a strong bond of fraternity.

As in the case of all mvstics, the new sectaries led fasting and austere lives. Like the majority of Orientals, they ate little, which contributed to maintain them in a state of excitement. The sobriety of the Syrian, the cause of his physical weakness, keeps him in a perpetual state of fever and of nervous susceptibility. Our severe, continuous, intellectual efforts, are impossible under such a regimen. But this cerebal debility and muscular laxity, produces, apparently without cause, lively alternations of sorrow and joy, and puts the soul in constant relationship with God. That which was called “Godly sorrow” passed for a Heavenly gift. All the teachings of the Fathers concerning the life spiritual, such as John Climacus, as Basil, as Nilus, as Arsenius,—all the 40secrets of the grand art of the inward life, one of the most glorious creations of Christianity—were in germ in the peculiar state of mind which possessed, in their mouths of ecstatic expectation, those illustrious ancestors of all “The men of longings.” Their moral condition was peculiar; they lived in the supernatural. They acted only upon visions, dreams, and the most insignificant circumstances appeared to them to be admonitions from heaven. Under the name of gifts of the Holy Spirit were thus concealed the rarest and most exquisite effusions of soul, love, piety, respectful fears, objectless sighings, sudden languors, and spontaneous tenderness. All the good that is born in man, without man having any part in it, was attributed to a breathing from on high. Tears, above all, were regarded as a heavenly favour. This charming gift, the exclusive privilege of souls most good and most pure, was produced with infinite sweetness. We know what power, delicate natures, especially in women, find in the divine faculty of being able to weep much. It is to them prayer, and, assuredly, the most holy of prayers. We must come down quite to the middle ages to that piety, drenched with the tears of St. Bruno, St. Bernard and St. Francis de Assisi, to find again the chaste melancholy of those early days, when they truly sowed in tears in order that they might reap with joy. To weep became a pious act. Those who were not qualified to preach, work, speak languages, nor to perform miracles, wept. It might, indeed, be said that their souls were melted, and that they desired, in the absence of a language which would interpret their sentiments, to display themselves outwardly, by a vivid and brief expression of their whole inner being.

« Prev Chapter IV. Descent of the Holy… Next »

| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |