Spiritual Joy

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Physical Accompaniments of “Charismatic” Experience

ONE OF THE COMMONEST RESPONSES to the experience of the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” is laughter. One Catholic testifies: “I was so joyful that all I could do was laugh as I lay on the floor” (Ranaghan, p. 28). Another Catholic: “The sense of the presence and love of God was so strong that I can remember sitting in the chapel for a half hour just laughing out of joy over the love of God” (Ranaghan, p. 64). A Protestant testifies that at his Baptism, “I started laughing… I just wanted to laugh and laugh the way you do when you feel so good you just can’t talk about it. I held my sides and laughed until I doubled over” (Sherrill, p. 113). Another Protestant: “The new tongue I was given was intermingled with waves of mirth in which every fear I had just seemed to roll away. It was a tongue of laughter” (Sherrill, p. 115). An Orthodox priest, Fr. Eusebius Stephanou, writes: “I could not conceal the broad smile on my face that any minute could have broken out into laughter – a laughter of the Holy Spirit stirring in me a refreshing release” (Logos, April, 1972, p. 4).

Many, many examples could be collected of this truly strange reaction to a “spiritual” experience, and some “charismatic” apologists have a whole philosophy of “spiritual joy” and “God’s foolishness” to explain it. But this philosophy is not in the least Christian; such a concept as the “laughter of the Holy Spirit” is unheard of in the whole history of Christian thought and experience. Here perhaps more clearly than anywhere else the “charismatic revival” reveals itself as not at all Christian in religious orientation; this experience is purely worldly and pagan, and where it cannot be explained in terms of emotional hysteria (for Fr. Eusebius, indeed, laughter provided “relief” and “release” from “an intense feeling of self-consciousness and embarrassment” and “emotional devastation”), it can only be due to some degree of “possession” by one or more of the pagan gods, which the Orthodox church calls demons. Here, for example, is a comparable “initiation” experience of a pagan Eskimo shaman: Not finding initiation, “I would sometimes fall to weeping and feel unhappy without knowing why. Then for no reason all would suddenly be changed, and I felt a great, inexplicable joy, a joy so powerful that I could not restrain it, but had to break into song, a mighty song, with room for only one word: joy, joy! And I had to use the full strength of my voice. And then in the midst of such a fit of mysterious and overwhelming delight I became a shaman…I could see and hear in a totally different way. I had gained my enlightenment…and it was not only I who could see through the darkness of life, but the same bright light also shone out of me… and all the spirits of earth and sky and sea now came to me and became my helping spirits” (Lewis, Ecstatic Religion, p. 37).

It is not surprising that unsuspecting “Christians,” having deliberately laid themselves open to a similar pagan experience, would still interpret it as a “Christian” experience; psychologically they are still Christians, although spiritually they have entered the realm of distinctly non-Christian attitudes and practices. What is the judgment of the Orthodox ascetic tradition concerning such a thing as a “laughter of the Holy Spirit”? Sts. Barsanuphius and John, the 6th-century ascetics, give the unequivocal Orthodox answer in reply to an Orthodox monk who was plagued by this problem (Answer 451): “In the fear of God there is no laughter. The Scripture says of the foolish, that they raise their voice in laughter (Sirach 21:23); and the word of the foolish is always disturbed and deprived of grace.” St. Ephraim the Syrian just as clearly teaches: “Laughter and familiarity are the beginning of a soul’s corruption. If you see these in yourself, know that you have come to the depths of evils. Do not cease to pray God that He will deliver you from this death…Laughter removes from us that blessing which is promised to those who mourn (Matt. 5:4) and destroys what has been built up. Laughter offends the Holy Spirit, gives no benefit to the soul, dishonors the body. Laughter drives out virtues, has no remembrance of death or thought of tortures” (Philokalia, Russian edition, Moscow, 1913: vol. 2, p. 448). Is it not evident how far astray ignorance of basic Christianity can lead one?

At least as common as laughter as a response to charismatic “Baptism” is its psychologically close relative, tears. These occur to individuals and, quite often, to whole groups at once (in this case quite apart from the experience of “Baptism”), spreading infectiously for no apparent reason at all (see Sherrill, pp. 109, 117). “Charismatic” writers do not find the reason for this in the “conviction of sin” that produces such results at Protestant revivals; they give no reason at all, and there seems to be none, except that this experience simply comes upon one who is exposed to the “charismatic” atmosphere. The Orthodox Fathers, as Bishop Ignatius notes, teach that tears often accompany the second form of spiritual deception. St. John of the Ladder, telling of the many different causes of tears, some good and some bad, warns: “Do not trust your fountains of tears before your soul has been perfectly purified” (Step 7:35); and of one kind of tears he states definitely: “Tears without thought are proper only to an irrational nature and not to a rational one” (7:17).

Besides laughter and tears, and often together with them, there are a number of other physical reactions to the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit,” including warmth, many kinds of trembling and contortions, and falling to the floor. All the examples given here, it should be emphasized, are those of ordinary Protestants and Catholics, and not at all those of any Pentecostal extremists, whose experiences are much more spectacular and unrestrained.

“When hands were laid on me, immediately it felt as if my whole chest were trying to rise into my head. My lips started trembling, and my brain started turning flips. Then I started grinning” (Ranaghan, p. 67). Another was “without emotion following the event, but with great warmth of body and a great ease” (Ranaghan, p. 91). Another gives this testimony: “As soon as I knelt down I began to tremble…All of a sudden I became filled with the Holy Spirit and realized that ‘God is real.’ I started laughing and crying at the same time. The next thing I knew I was prostrate before the altar and filled with the peace of Christ” (Ranaghan, p. 34). Another says: “As I knelt quietly thanking the Lord, D. lay prostrate and suddenly began to heave by the power of someone unseen. By an insight that must have been divinely inspired… I knew D. was being moved quite visibly by the Holy Spirit” (Ranaghan, p. 29). Another: “My hands (usually cold because of poor circulation) grew moist and warm. Warmth enveloped me” (Ranaghan, p. 30). Another: “I knew God was working within me. I could feel a distinct tingling in my hands, and immediately I became bathed in a hard sweat” (Ranaghan, p. 102). A member of the “Jesus Movement” says: “I feel something welling up inside me and all of a sudden I’m speaking in tongues” (Ortega, p. 49). One “charismatic” apologist emphasizes that such experiences are typical in the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit,” which “has often been marked by a subjective experience which has brought the recipient into a wonderful new sense of nearness to the Lord. This sometimes demands such an expression of worship and adoration as cannot be contained within the usual restrictions imposed by the etiquette of our Western society! At such times, some have been known to shake violently, to lift up their hands to the Lord, to raise the voice above the normal pitch, or even to fall to the floor” (Lillie, p. 17).

One does not know at what to marvel the more: at the total incongruence of such hysterical feelings and experiences with anything at all spiritual or at the incredible light-mindedness that leads such deceived people to ascribe their contortions to the “Holy Spirit,” to “divine inspiration,” to the “peace of Christ.” These are clearly people who, in the spiritual and religious realm, are not only totally inexperienced and without guidance, but are absolutely illiterate. The whole history of Orthodox Christianity does not know of any such “ecstatic” experiences produced by the Holy Spirit. It is only foolishness when some “charismatic” apologists presume to compare these childish and hysterical experiences, which are open to absolutely everyone, with the Divine revelations accorded to the greatest Saints, such as to St. Paul on the road to Damascus or to St. John the Evangelist on Patmos. Those Saints fell down before the true God (without contortions, and certainly without laughter), whereas these pseudo-Christians are merely reacting to the presence of an invading spirit, and are worshipping only themselves. The Elder Macarius of Optina wrote to a person in a similar state: “Thinking to find the love of God in consoling feelings, you are seeking not God but yourself, that is, your own consolation, while you avoid the path of sorrows, considering yourself supposedly lost without spiritual consolations” [15].

If these “charismatic” experiences are religious experiences at all, then they are pagan religious experiences; and in fact they seem to correspond exactly to the mediumistic initiation experience of spirit-possession, which is caused by “an inner force welling up inside attempting to take control” (Koch, Occult Bondage, p. 44). Of course, not all “Baptisms of the Holy Spirit” are as ecstatic as some of these experiences (although some are even more ecstatic); but this too is in accord with spiritistic practice: “When spirits find a medium friendly or well-disposed in submissiveness or passivity of mind, they enter quietly as into their own home; while, on the contrary, when the psychic is less well-disposed from some resistance, or want of passivity of mind, the spirit enters with more or less force, and this is often reflected in the contortions of the face and tremor of the medium’s members” (Blackmore, Spiritism, p. 97).

This experience of “spirit-possession,” however, should not be confused with actual demonic possession, which is the condition when an unclean spirit takes up permanent habitation in someone and produces physical and psychic disorders which do not seem to be indicated in “charismatic” sources. Mediumistic “possession” is temporary and partial, the medium consenting to be used for a particular function by the invading spirit. But the “charismatic” texts themselves make it quite clear that what is involved in these experiences – when they are genuine and not merely the product of suggestion – is not merely the development of some mediumistic ability, but actual possession by a spirit. These people would seem to be correct in calling themselves “spirit-filled” – but it is certainly not the Holy Spirit with which they are filled!

Bishop Ignatius gives several examples of such physical accompaniments of spiritual deception: one, a monk who trembled and made strange sounds, and identified these signs as the “fruits of prayer”; another, a monk whom the bishop met who as a result of his ecstatic method of prayer felt such heat in his body that he needed no warm clothing in winter, and this heat could even be felt by others. As a general principle, Bishop Ignatius writes, the second kind of spiritual deception is accompanied by “a material, passionate warmth of the blood”; “the behavior of the ascetics of Latinism, embraced by deception, has always been ecstatic, by reason of this extraordinary material, passionate warmth” – the state of such Latin “saints” as Francis of Assisi and Ignatius Loyola. This material warmth of the blood, a mark of the spiritually deceived, is to be distinguished from the spiritual warmth felt by those such as St. Seraphim of Sarov who genuinely acquired the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit is not acquired from ecstatic “charismatic” experiences, but by the long and arduous path of asceticism the “path of sorrows” of which the Elder Macarius spoke, within the Church of Christ.

8 thoughts on “Spiritual Joy

  1. Just three short years ago, I left the Protestant and very “charismatic” church to which I belonged for 17 years. I have seen a lot, but always had a hard time “entering in.”. For this I thank The Good God and His True Spirit which led me to Orthodoxy. I only wish that my former friends will one day be led into Truth.

  2. Nektarios, I too was deeply moved by the chanting of the Great Litany in the high church Episcopal service at the parish of Saint Mark in Portland, where I was a lay minister and street evangelist for awhile back in the 1980’s, before I was reunited to Holy Orthodoxy. Like you, “I did not leave the Episcopal Church like some, slamming doors & breaking dishes, but because the Holy Spirit was still leading me; & there are moments of recognition upon which we must act & not delay.” In our case, we simply were prevented from attending mass on the Sunday of the Portland Marathon by the police blockades lining the route, so I said to my wife, “Let’s see what the Greeks do for church!” We went to the Greek church that we still belong to. Entering the service, we were met by the people in such a loving way, and the impression of incredible, unselfconscious mercifulness that we sensed in the Divine Liturgy converted us. We went back the following Sunday to Saint Mark’s and told our priest that we thought we might be moving to the Orthodox Church, and got his blessing. After our second visit, I found myself already defending Orthodoxy to a fellow lay minister who criticised me for absenting myself that second Sunday. We knew it was a case for us of “When the Cloud moves, we move,” and so we began attending the Greek Church, while I finished my term for the liturgical year 1988 as the minister-in-charge of the Friday evening service. The week of Advent 1, I turned over my post to one of my godsons, and shortly my family of four sons and wife and me were chrismated into the Church. On the morning of our chrismation, did we only then find out from my wife’s mother, that their family was an Orthodox priestly family from Bukovina, and the last priest in the family being my wife’s great grandfather, Fr Theodosius, who was a missionary priest serving in the Russian Church in the Canadian prairie provinces. Fr Theodosius’ daughter, my wife’s grandmother, though herself a practicing Orthodox, raised her children, my wife’s mother, in the United Church of Canada, to give them a better chance of success as “whites”, and to lose their Eastern European immigrant identity. It amazes me what people will do to get ahead.

  3. It’s always possible to outgrow “flirtations.” I was raised in this pentecostal tradition. My childhood until University was spent in it.
    I normally don’t discuss this, but in 1952, at the age of 16, desper-ately lonely & stressed out, I attended a tent revival & was “prayed through” to this charismatic experience. I very well remember how I resisted, but the kindly old women & men wanted so much for me to just let go & enjoy what they had enjoyed. I don’t remember anything after “letting go.” They tell me I was ecstatic & so were they. I do recall the feeling of overwhelming peace & joy & it lasted two days.

    In thinking about this experience it does not escape me how my own psychological distress contributed to this, & just letting go was a very useful tool in giving me a bit of respite; but salvation does not come easily, & the way of the Cross is hard. One of the fallacies of the charismatic & evangelical tradition is the lure of an instant resolution to spiritual problems. In fact it reminds me of some other similar delusions in recent memory, i.e. the “primal scream” theory, & people who urged drugs as a path to serenity & knowing. Spiritual warfare, not chemical warfare, is the only real way to healing from the ills that beset us, & it is best waged in the company of the early strugglers of the Faith who have laid down their lives to show us the way through Holy Tradition.

    The Seed fell upon stony ground, & so I wandered away for a long time, but the true Holy Spirit did come to me to call me back. I went to an Episcopal Cathedral for reasons I did not then know; I didn’t even know what the Liturgical cycle was, although it was the first Sunday in Lent, & they came out the north aisle in procession chanting the Great Litany. I simply broke down & wept; no one more surprised by Unexpected Joy than I was; but these were not bitter tears, but tears of joy that the coals which had lain so long beneath the ashes were still alive. I travelled this road for awhile until I was strong enough for more substantial fare. I did not leave the Episcopal Church like some, slamming doors & breaking dishes, but because the Holy Spirit was still leading me; & there are moments of recognition upon which we must act & not delay. A friend suggested I visit the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in my city, & I am still “lost in wonder, love & praise.” I pray for you Romanós & for your wife.


  4. Can I just say what a relief to find an individual who really knows what theyre talking about over a internet. You actually know how to bring an problem to light and make it important. Much more folks need to read this and realize this side on the story. I cant consider youre not much more well-liked due to the fact you really have the gift.

  5. Michael, there’s nothing to say, and I didn’t write these details for sympathy, but simply as a testimony with some backup, so people know I am not just blowing steam or opining on something I know little about. I approach all people, Christian or not, with the same love and goodwill, even if they adhere to false beliefs, but I do not spare the feelings of those who push evil on others. For fear of being found guilty of the “sin against the Holy Spirit” at one time I was silent on the pentecostal/charismatic movement, and I gave them the benefit of the doubt, looking always for good among them and not trying to find the bad. That has been the attitude of the Church and the sects as well. But we have all been deceived. This phenomenon is just as satanic as Islam, just as satanic as Mormonism or any other cult that lies about the Son of God and the Holy Spirit. You can lie about the Father and the Son (as do the Muslims and Mormons), but to lie about the Holy Spirit, yes, that is serious, yet they do it with their eyes open, and they get away with it. Lord, have mercy!

  6. I actually clicked here to comment on just how timely this post is, and to thank you, Father Milovan, as I have been wondering about these external feelings recently, and only a couple of days ago asked for a patristic view on monachos.net, having blogged on something related.

    However, I am truly saddened to read your comment, Romans. I do not know what to say. I am truly sorry that your family is facing these difficulties. I can only pray.

  7. Unfortunately I have to agree with everything in this article. Though my wife is still attending the Divine Liturgy and supports our local Orthodox Church, her acceptance of charismatic teachings and practices has isolated her from, and destroyed the peace of, our family. If there is ever a class action law suit against Trinity Broadcasting Network, I would join it. Their influence on my life has been catastrophic and up till today irreversible. They may bring people all over the world into contact with a form of Christianity from which some may benefit, but to many others, they have been a poison that has driven wedges into families and caused mental illnesses that the sufferers are unwilling to get help for, because they believe they are “full of the Holy Spirit.” Myself, I am not sorrowful, because I have already lost everything, and my only prayer is that God’s will be done, and in a strange sort of way, that lets me meet each new day as if it were my first, and lets me close each day as if it were my last. Lord, have mercy.

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