Under my office there are a few rooms which are usually used for storing. When there is nothing to store, they are left empty.

Yesterday, as I was working late in my office, half an hour before midnight, I heard singing coming from downstairs. It reached me as if coming from nowhere in particular. Didn’t seem to be a song with a regular pattern, but rather something akin to a long vocalise. Was someone exercising his voice so late at night? I couldn’t tell. A phone call from a friend preparing to embark on a long trip on abroad cut short my musings. When we ended the conversation, I thought I had better go to bed. On Wednesdays I must wake up at 7 and I anticipated some reluctance on my part in achieving this goal. (My ultimate incurable flaw is that I am not an “early bird”).

As I was locking the office door, I could still hear the song. In fact, it was clearer, coming from the basement corridor and climbing the flight of stairs which leads to the end of the hallway where my office is located. This unusual composition sparked my curiosity. Not least because it did not square with my idea of a rehearsal. It lured me down the stairs, but not in the way the siren songs lured Odysseus and his companions. Nothing eerie. A serene and disinterested song, which did not seek to draw listeners, but which drew them nonetheless, precisely by being a gratuitous act.

As I went down the stairs, I noticed what I might call its irregularity (but that is a poor description). If I should use more adequate imagery, for lack of better descriptive concepts, I would compare it to a fountain; not one that stops completely at times, bursting again with new force, but one that slightly varies its continuous surge.

I stood in the dark and cold corridor listening to this unusual streaming sound, to what appeared to my untrained ear a musical improvisation. What language was that? Was it Italian? It definitely had melodious Romance sounds.

I did not need to listen for long before I realized it must have been a prayer. A kind of prayer which I have encountered also in my childhood, during my summer sojourns with my grandparents on my mother’s side. A prayer in the Spirit. It was sung in an unknown language, but it felt joyous and majestic, soaring, beautiful. I wondered about its meaning. But perhaps, if it could have been possible at all, a rendering of its meaning would have diminished its beauty. Legolas was certainly right to say that he could not translate the Elvish lament sung in memory of Gandalf. Most songs (and prayers) lose their freshness in translation.

Now, I am fully aware that my perspective on this event will be frowned upon by people who are not of Pentecostal/Charismatic persuasion. To be honest, if I were you, I’d also look at such stories with what may be a healthy dose of skepticism. On the other hand, I am quite positive that the human mind on its own would not be able to produce at will and spontaneously the kind of song which I heard. Well, a psychologist may wish to dispute that. Yet the song was not ecstatic in the strong sense of the word. The singer stopped once or twice to clear his throat. It was if he was empowered by the Spirit to sing it, not overpowered by Him.

I find it interesting (and predictable) that the phenomenon about which I am writing here has puzzled many Christian thinkers. C.S. Lewis is probably a typical example, if we consider some reflections on this topic in one of his essays (Transposition):

[…] glossolalia has often been a stumbling-block to me. It is, to be frank, an embarrassing phenomenon. St. Paul himself seems to have been rather embarrassed by it in I Corinthians and labours to turn the desire and the attention of the Church to more obviously edifying gifts. But he goes no further. He throws in almost parenthetically the statement that he himself spoke with tongues more than anyone else, and he does not question the spiritual, or supernatural, source of the phenomenon.

The difficulty I feel is this. On the one hand, glossolalia has remained an intermittent „variety of religious experience” down to the present day. Every now and then we hear that in some revivalist meeting one or more of those present has burst into a torrent of what appears to be gibberish. The thing does not seem to be edifying, and all non-Christian opinion would regard it as a kind of hysteria, an involuntary discharge of nervous excitement. A good deal even of Christian opinion would explain most instances of it in exactly the same way; and I must confess that it would be very hard to believe that in all instances of it the Holy Ghost is operating. We suspect, even if we cannot be sure, that it is usually an affair of the nerves. That is one horn of the dilemma. On the other hand, we cannot as Christians shelve the story of Pentecost or deny that there, at any rate, the speaking with tongues was miraculous. For the men spoke not gibberish but languages unknown to them though known to other people present. And the whole event of which this makes part is built into the very fabric of the birth-story of the Church. It is this very event which the risen Lord had told the Church to wait for – almost in the last words He uttered before His ascension. It looks, therefore, as if we shall have to say that the very same phenomenon which is sometimes not only natural but even pathological is at other times (or at least at one other time) the organ of the Holy Ghost. And this seems at first very surprising and very open to attack. The sceptic will certainly seize this opportunity to talk to us about Occam’ s razor, to accuse us of multiplying hypotheses. If most instances of glossolalia are covered by hysteria, is it not (he will ask) extremely probable that that explanation covers the remaining instances too?”

This difficulty (or, better said, class of difficulties) Lewis tries to ease in his essay, but I shall not go into further details. I used this quotation just to show that if speaking in tongues is already suspect in many cases, singing in tongues only makes things worse.

Nevertheless, in the song that I heard there was a calm and dignified passion. No torrent of hysteria. No compulsion. I would have listened to it for minutes on end, the way you gaze at a talented pianist’s hands improvising in a jam session. At times I would even try to follow the tune, whispering it, as it was diving and soaring in the dark corridor and further into the empty building. I don’t know how long it went on. Though reluctant, I had to leave. I went to sleep with the tune in my mind. The next morning the memory of the song was dim. I was trying to recall it, with the futile frustration of the one who feels that he is robbed of something precious and cannot oppose it.

I concede that this whole experience can be rejected by the modern skeptics as being hopelessly Romantic. But that does not bother me in the least. The song which I heard brought me Joy (in the Lewisian sense) and a sense of longing for God’s majesty. It is no wonder that Heaven, according to the Bible, is so much about singing. I am inclined to think that last night I caught a glimpse of Heaven.

P.S. Isn’t it intriguing that I feel the need to write about speaking in tongues by using English rather than my mother tongue?