The Gift of Jubilation

by Terry Donahue

As the use of the charism of tongues and prophesy declined toward the end of the 4th Century, another form of vocal praise arose: Jubilation. Jubilation was a way of praying and singing without words. The word comes from the Latin jubilatio, which according to the Oxford Latin Dictionary means loud shouting, whooping, rejoicing or gladness. In Praise: A Way of Life, Paul Hinnebusch lists several places where Augustine mentions jubilation when commenting on the Psalms:

"What is jubilation? Joy that cannot be expressed in words. Yet the voice expresses what is conceived in the heart and cannot be explained in words. This is jubilation.

"To manifest his joy, the man does not use words that can be pronounced or understood, but bursts forth into sounds of exaltation without words.

"Where speech does not suffice… they break out into singing on vowel sounds, that through this means the feeling of the soul may be expressed, words failing to explain the heart’s conceptions."

Saint Augustine was clearly very fond of jubilation and encouraged people to jubilate. According to Eddie Ensley in Sounds of Wonder, many other Church Fathers also speak of jubilation, including John Cassian, St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory the Great. But what does jubilation have to do with the gift of tongues? Clearly Augustine considered them to be two different things, since he explicitly states that in his time the gift of tongues is no longer present, but jubilation is still present. It appears that Augustine and other Church Fathers restricted their meaning of the gift of tongues to the ability to speak in other human languages for the purpose of spreading of the Gospel. As a result, they would not place jubilation into that category. Augustine instead related jubilation to other scriptures, such as the expressions of joy in the Psalms and the joyful response of the Apostles to the Ascension of Jesus. Many scripture scholars now include these vocal expressions of joy as one aspect of the New Testament gift of tongues, although Augustine and others of his time did not.

But was this form of prayer just a private devotion for those prone to emotionalism and outward expression? Or was it a part of the public liturgy of the Church? Ensley makes a strong case for the latter:

Jubiliation played a very real role in group worship and prayer; for hundreds of years it was a standard part of the Mass.

The jubilation came after the singing of the alleluia, just before the Gospel during Mass… the people moved into exuberant wordless singing on vowel sounds. This jubilation could last for up to five minutes… It could also be in… portions of the graduals and offertories.

Cassiodorus, a 6th century scholar, describes this improvisational singing as follows:

The tongue of singers rejoices in it; joyfully the community repeats it. It is an ornament of the tongue of singers… like something good of which one can never have enough. It is innovated in ever-varying jubilations.

The Decline of Jubilation

The practice of jubilation in the liturgy continued from the 4th century well into the 9th century. At that time the improvisation was largely replaced by written sequences of words with a fixed melody. Due to the large influx of new Christians from the conversion of new nations and barbarian tribes, improvisation of singing became more difficult. Trained choirs were developed and much church music was written down in musical notation. As a result, jubilation ceased to be a common aspect of public liturgy, but continued as a form of private prayer. Even so, there were still occasional outbreaks of jubilation during liturgy. Here is one example in Thomas of Celano’s account of the canonization of St. Francis of Assisi:

(After the Te Deum) there was raised a clamor among the many people praising God: the earth resounded with their mighty voices, the air was filled with their jubilations… New songs were sung, and the servants of God jubilated in melody of the Spirit.

As we move from the 12th to the 16th century, we find evidence of jubilation primarily in the lives of the mystics. St. Teresa of Avila describes several accounts of jubilation, likening it to a state of spiritual drunkenness. This description is very similar to the gift of tongues:

Many words are spoken during this state, in praise of God, but, unless the Lord himself puts order to them, they have no orderly form. The understanding, at any rate, counts for nothing here; the soul would like to shout praises aloud… [The soul] utters a thousand holy follies, striving ever to please him who thus possesses it.
- The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila

In the modern day church, this long tradition of jubilation is largely forgotten and almost unknown. What caused the decline in the practice of jubilation? Eddie Ensley in his book, Sounds of Wonder (Paulist Press, 1977), suggests that the rise of nationalism, the splitting of the Church during the Reformation, and the increasing emphasis on Church structures from the Council of Trent, were all contributing factors to the decline of many traditions, including jubilation. The mystical tradition in particular was negatively influenced by a reaction to the heretical Quietist movement in the 18th century, which placed too much emphasis on special states of prayer. Jubilation appears to have decreased along with a decline in the practice of Christian mysticism.

Modern Revivals

In the last few centuries there have been several outbreaks of the gift of tongues in various Christian denominations. According to Eddie Enslay, there is evidence of tongue speaking in some of the early Quakers and the Irvingites. But the main revival of the gift of tongues occurred in the Midwest of the United States among revivalists of the Holiness movement in the 1870’s which later developed into the modern Pentecostal movement (1900 - present). In this movement speaking in tongues is the expected sign of receiving the Holy Spirit. The gift is often used spontaneously in public worship, in services that are often very free-flowing to begin with. In the 60’s, the experience of the gift of tongues became widespread in most mainline Christian denominations, in a movement known as Charismatic Renewal.

In the Catholic Church, the Charismatic Renewal (and the gift of tongues in particular) is often viewed with suspicion. Is this an authentic movement of the Holy Spirit, or just emotionalism? The response from the Catholic hierarchy has been watchful but positive. Bishops stated in 1969, "theologically the movement has legitimate reasons of existence," and in 1975, "[we] support the positive and desirable directions of the charismatic renewal." More recently, John Paul II has given strong support to the Charismatic Renewal, as the following statement indicates:

I am convinced that this movement [charismatic renewal] is a very important component of the entire renewal of the Church... I can understand all these different charisms. They are all part of the richness of the Lord. I am convinced that this movement is a sign of his action. - John Paul II

The Constitution on the Church (#13) of Vatican II, states that "the charismatic gifts… are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation." Along with any gift comes the right and the duty to use it, but it is the Church’s job to test charisms, to find out if they are authentic and to ensure that they are being used properly.

Conclusion and Applications

This brings us to the final important question: "What is the proper use of the gift of tongues in the Church, in particular in public liturgy?" Let us summarize the historical evidence presented so far. In the first centuries of the Church, we see that the charismatic gifts were a common and expected part of Christian Initiation. It is therefore likely that the gift of tongues was experienced during such liturgies. In the later 4th through 9th centuries, the practice of jubilation was widespread in liturgy, as part of improvised singing which followed the Alleluia or other fixed parts of the Mass. Although this was not equated with the gift of tongues at the time, it is virtually identical to the practice of singing in tongues in modern Charismatic Renewal. The reasons for the decline of these practices (such as the reaction to heresies of the day, the decline in mysticism and standardization of the liturgy) do not appear to prevent a revival of the practice.

Here are some practical suggestions reviving the practice of praying in tongues during public liturgy. In the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), we could offer more catechesis on the charisms of the Holy Spirit and encourage candidates to actively seek empowerment of the Holy Spirit. McDonnell and Montague believe that this would foster an openness to these gifts (including the gift of tongues) during the rites themselves. Liturgists and musicians could teach congregations the principles behind improvised singing. This can pave the way for more acceptance of spontaneous singing, singing in the Spirit, and jubilation as a part of Catholic worship. For congregations that are comfortable with the practice, spontaneous singing could become a normal part of the Mass (after the Alleluia, the Gloria, the Great Amen, or some other appropriate song in the Mass).

Although the practice of praying in tongues is new and peculiar to many Catholics, there is a significant tradition of the practice throughout the history of the Church. I must admit that I myself was very skeptical about the gift of tongues when I first encountered it. Even after I had experienced it personally and grown to appreciate the value of the gift, I was still not exactly sure what place it had in the public liturgy of the Church. After examining the historical evidence, I believe that it can and should be incorporated into the liturgy. But this will only happen if the people of God are put in contact with the rich tradition of the Church.

Terry Donahue is beginning his 3rd year as a seminarian with the Companions of the Cross in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. From 1991 to 1995, he helped to establish Rejoice! Ministries, a lay community devoted to youth evangelization, based in San Rafael, CA., and was active in the Charismatic Renewal in the Archdiocese.

Suggested readings:

McDonnell, Kilian, and Montague, George T., Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit: Evidence from the First Eight Centuries, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1991.

DeGrandis, Robert, S.S.J. The Gift of Tongues, 1983.. Available at Pauline Books, S.F., (415) 781-5180 Kilian McDonnell, OSB, ed., Open the Windows - The Popes and Charismatic Renewal, Greenlawn Press, South Bend, Indiana, 1989.

Sullivan, Francis, S.J. Charism and Charismaatic Renwal, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Books,1982.

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