How I Loved Myself through Charismatic Worship by Andreea Nica


Andreea Nica, pentecostalismBreaking up with your first love can be an excruciating process; especially when it happens to be completely entangled with your being. God was my first love and he stayed for a long while. We had many exhilarating times together, particularly within the branch of Christianity I was raised in: Pentecostalism. I fell in love with God when I uttered his divine language at 13 years of age.

Currently, I’m writing my memoir and narrative nonfiction, Freeligious ™, for which I explore the scientific explanations of my charismatic experiences in the church, which inevitably led to a closer attachment to God. In the Pentecostal church, we were encouraged to connect with God through supernatural phenomena.

Examples include: speaking in tongues (glossolalia), healings, trances (drunk in the holy spirit), visions (hallucinations), prophetic messages (delusions), rebuking evil spirits (paranoia), and many more god-friendly activities. While some of my church peers and most outsiders found the charismatic ordeal to be phantasmical and plain ol’ crazy, I became enchanted by the initiation. The initiation process was quite simple really. As believers in Christ, we must receive the baptism of the holy spirit which usually took the form of speaking in tongues, clinically known as glossolalia.

Of course the Pentecostal church never taught us the clinical implications of our supernatural experiences. They were bestowed upon us by the Lord himself in all his glory and power, so for the most part, I didn’t question it. I chose to believe despite my sporadic hesitation periods which I rarely expressed. My first encounter with glossolalia at 13 years old was both ecstatic and terrifying. I recall one of the youth leaders whispering in my ear at an altar call session, “Go ahead; speak it out, do it.”

Not only did I feel immense pressure from the male youth leader but from God. Was I really worthy enough, at 13 years of age, to receive the baptism of the holy spirit? Did the Lord truly want me to have it? In my frenzied state, I just began to mutter the linguistic gibberish acquired from years of listening to other holy-spirit filled folks. However, as I continued in my glossolalic utterances, I began to encounter sensational currents coursing through my body that exerted a sense of empowerment I had never before experienced.

Wikimedia Commons, Worship

Wikimedia Commons, Worship

Many women in the church immersed themselves in the charismatic experiences and discovered forms of empowerment through their initiation process. The heightened mental, emotional, and physiological effects of the supernatural ordeals created community, increased self-esteem, and developed deeper connections with our believed creator. Interestingly enough, practicing glossolalia provided me with a greater awareness of my bodily movements, bringing me closer to God while leading to a deeper respect for my body and increased confidence.

I took great pleasure in actively pursuing speaking in tongues, participating in trance-like states (drunk in the holy spirit), and rebuking evil spirits when I sensed them. There was an obscure romanticism behind these spiritual occurrences that was immediately lost when I educated myself of their clinical significance during graduate school. For instance, according to many studies on the Pentecostal sect, regular practice of ecstatic spiritual rituals and worship can have potential links to forms of psychopathology– hallucinations, paranoia, schizophrenic behavior, neuroticism.

Intense religious experiences – such as mystical experience, conversion, and glossolalia “‘speaking n tongues”) have often been explained as symptoms of results of mental disorders (Religious Ideas and Psychiatric Disorders, Hallahmi and Argyle, 1977).

Recent developments in neuroscience focusing on religious experiences discovered the concept of God changes the brain, particularly when the relational concept is directly associated with ecstatic worship and rituals. In the book, How God Changes Your Brain, neuroscientists Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Waldman studies the brain patterns of active members of a Pentecostal church who speak in tongues on a regular basis. Glossolalia is typically accompanied by trance-like states such as body gyrations, meditative contemplations, and euphoria.

Interestingly, the neuroscientists found that the sample of Pentecostal members “surrendered voluntary control – and thus a significant degree of ordinary consciousness – by deliberately slowing down frontal lobe activity…which neurologically increases the emotional intensity of the experience”(How God Changes Your Brain, 2009, p. 49). Reading about the neural construction of God led me to not only fall out of love with God, but also provoked feelings of betrayal by the religious community and leaders whom prevented and discouraged alternative explanations of these spiritual phenomena.

During my detachment process, I initially felt freed from the restrictive and phantasmical practices, but to my surprise, my former sense of self-worth and empowerment was dilapidated. I experienced intense withdrawals from the ritualistic practices of my religious past, and longed for the emotional bonding experiences I once shared with God. I realized I had to redefine and rediscover my sense of worth and meaning in the world. This realization encouraged me to become acquainted and embrace my carnality, my role in the environment, and my connection to others.

While my journey was far from simple, I can’t imagine ever living a life that was entirely insular and codependent on a force I now perceive as imaginary. My identity as a woman has reached new heights through my separation from the church and charismatic rituals which so often blinded me from the ‘real world.’ Identity formation is a complex, interconnected process that takes a lifetime to disentangle, develop, and create, but for the first time in my life, I was empowered with the choice to decide what my identity could be.

My pneumatological experiences contributed to the formation of my identity, and I will continue to cherish the positive aspects gained from my experiences, but having a choice to pursue knowledge, alternative truths and experiences, and most importantly, feeling grounded, is the most fulfilling spiritual phenomenon of all.

Andreea Nica is a freelance writer, scholar, egalitarian, and yogi. She holds a M.S. from the London School of Economics and Political Science in Gender, Media, and Culture Studies. Andreea also holds a B.A. in Psychology from Northern Arizona University. Currently, she is writing her memoir on transitioning from Pentecostalism, focusing on institutional power, subjectivities, and socialization. She is the Founder of OrganiCommunications, empowering startups and social enterprises in strategic and digital communication ventures. Andreea plans on pursuing doctoral study within Sociology, focusing on Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is the author of 2 blogs: OrganiCommunications and Progressive Thinking. You can find her in Seattle, WA. with her partner and kitty, probably doing yoga.@convergingearth  @integratedcom

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Categories: Abuse of Power, Belief, Body, Christianity, Embodiment, Evangelicalism, God, God-talk, Healing, Identity Construction, Loss, Love, Power relations, Spiritual Journey, Spirituality, Women Religious, Women's Spirituality

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8 replies

  1. This is interesting.

    I wonder though: I suspect that all activity including ordinary acts of kindness and cruelty change patterns in the brain, so what does finding a relationship between certain kinds of activity and patterns in the brain actually prove?

    Would this study discount all forms of ecstatic religious experience, for example in Afro-American Christianity or in Afro-centric religions? Feelings evoked by Gregorian chant or Handel’s Messiah? If so, I wonder if we should “suspect” the conclusions of these studies too?

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    • Thank you for bringing that up Carol! I was also wondering how related this would be to the ecstatic states found in Santeria when worshippers become the Gods?

      It seems strange to me to discount the religious experience just because we have a some what scientific explanation for it. Though I hear what seems to be the writer’s need to distance herself what she experienced to better process it all. I hope it supports you in that Andreea and thank you for being so open about it!

      As I was reading this article, I keep thinking of the ecstatic states I have reached from dancing. Makes me wonder if studies have been done on what happens to the body and mind for Dervish and other ecstatic dancers. Though at the same time, I know I don’t need a scientific study to validate the positive effects of those trance like states.

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  2. All very interesting, but I don’t understand why establishing the part the brain plays in certain experiences has much to do with the existence or otherwise of God. (The same for Theory of evolution: maybe that’s how God chose to do it.)

    Shamanism was also once considered a psychopathy (‘arctic hysteria’) but the claim tells us very little about shamanism itself, only about the way a particular culture investigated shamanism.

    Of course ecstatic experience will alter the way our brain is wired. So does LSD. This (very) obvious and simple fact tells us absolutely nothing about why our brains react in that way, or why these experiences are so readily available in all cultures all over the world, or how we should interpret the nature of that experience and so on and so on.

    My brain alters when I have orgasm: knowing that doesn’t alter the orgasm.

    June

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  3. This article explained a lot for me. My whole life my Grandmother has tried, by buying books, CD’s and even DVD’s, to convince me speaking in tongues is something I should do. My brain never understood the need of having a special language. Speaking to God was easy and I felt as if he listened to me no matter what. After reading your post I understand what she gets from the experience. It is also worth noting that I have found similar experiences while worshipping the Goddess.

    Thank you for sharing!

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  4. A very provocative post. There was a time, not so long ago, when I meditated to a point of feeling god/goddess energy flowing throughout my body to the point that it even pushed away the annoying hot flashes I was getting. (Honest. And I have, to this day, never had another hot flash.) Was that bad? I don’t think so.

    Is the ecstatic trance of Hafiz wrong? Is the mind altering experience of sex wrong? oh no, not by a long shot.

    The right/wrong concept seems appropriate only within the context of its impact on children, especially teen age girls. The mind altering acts that seem ok are the ones that adults participate in. But when that experience is encouraged in children and teens, it feels like we are trying to alter their minds. And that is wrong. I don’t know a magic solution other than simply protecting our children from excessive mind boggling experiences, giving them time to grow and become compassionate beings. Then how they choose to direct that compassion is truly their choice.

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  5. You are on a difficult spiritual journey, Andreea, and I affirm you as you move ahead.

    Like the others above, I wondered about some aspects of your work that leave me with questions. I, too, wondered about some of the interpretation of the brain studies and at this point don’t understand why the data on brain activity during a researched activity implied any of the value interpretations that you stated. For instance, data that people who are drawn toward eg, glossolalia also score high on scales of mental illness and this is interpreted as causative. It could easily be that people who had experienced different mental patterns or conditions might be attracted to glossolalia, but that does not show a causative relationship.

    I also find myself questioning the context of those experiments. The community of anti-religious and skeptical scientists is vast, and individuals from that community are just as convinced of their rightness as religious people can be! I wonder how the interpretation of the glossolalia study might have varied if different or more sympathetic people had run it and come up with similar data. I wonder if you would have felt the same betrayal of your past religious community in that situation.

    I have never advocated nor experienced glossolalia, but was pastor in a church where a group of people in a prayer group did. One woman in particular, so I was told, changed from a bitter, angry person to the very loving person I came to know. She never changed back to that other personality.

    I think it is important to study these phenomena, but that we have to continue to be open to how we interpret them. Science can only say how a phenomena works. Interpretation or valuing/devaluing of that phenomena is really in another realm.

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  6. This was a very interesting and thought-provoking post. I’ve thought about it several times over the last several days. I also came across a quote I saved a long time ago from Ode magazine that I think has a lot of relevance to the follow-up comments: “And when you try to mix science and religion you get bad science and bad religion. The two are doing different things….Science can give you a diagnosis of cancer. It can even cure your disease, but it cannot touch your grief and disappointment, nor can it help you to die well.”

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