The word has multiple meanings—in anatomy, geophysics—as well as figurative and literal meanings in literature. One meaning is speech—a “golden tongue,” a “diabolical tongue.” And it means language identity, as in the Greek tongue, the English tongue. And in The Acts of the Apostles: Tongues as of fire, “as of” signifying like, what we call a simile, a comparison—tongues (languages) like fire.
Today is Pentecost, the birth of the Church, when those tongues as of fire descended on the disciples while they were in prayer, and they were empowered to speak in tongues foreign to them in order to preach the Gospel to foreigners visiting Jerusalem for holy days. St Paul speaks later of the various gifts of the believers, one of which he calls “the gift of tongues.” He does not say that all believers speak in tongues; in fact, among the other gifts he cites is the ability to interpret tongues.
The Pentecostal Church is so named because its adherents speak “in tongues” as the disciples did on Pentecost. If you’ve ever attended a Pentecostal service, you know that one or more members in the midst of prayer might break out in unintelligible sounds. When several pray in tongues simultaneously, it can be quite a remarkable experience.
The Catholic Church has its own Pentecostal expression called “charismatic Catholicism.” I have a few friends at my local church whose faith experience is charismatic. There was a priest here many years ago who brought this charism to the parish. Groups like De Colores, The Road to Emmaus, and others, are expressions of charismatic Catholicism.
Mother Angelica of EWTN in one of her books talks about the charismatic experience she and her sisters had in the early years of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament. A visiting priest arrived and asked her if she wanted to “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”; she responded yes, and he laid his hands on her head. He departed and she dismissed it, but a few days after he left, she suddenly fell to the floor (this is known as “slaying” by the Holy Spirit) and began to speak in tongues, experiencing an extreme euphoria. By the laying on of hands, she shared this experience with all her sisters and the entire convent was full of joy. Later, she decided that this abundant joy was not conducive to the work she’d committed to perform and abandoned it.
Everyone who’s had what we call, rather generically, a “religious experience” has a similar description of it. It may not involve “slaying” or “tongues,” but the joy is apparently universal. And there is never any doubt about its source: “It was Christ,” “I knew it was God,” etc. There is always certainty about the divine source. I’m not sure, but I believe that this Pentecostal experience is unique to Christianity. Veni, Sancte Spiritus.