Charisma, 2015
Navine G. Khan-Dossos & Brian Dillon




Photos: Yiannis Hadjiaslanis



The word derives from the Greek charis, which means grace and gives us the verb
charein: to rejoice. (Follow a devious path through Old German and Old English,
and you will find that charein is related to the verb to yearn.) In its rigorous uses,
charisma is first of all a spiritual gift or talent; early Christians used the word to describe
the power of prophecy, the ability to heal the sick and the tendency to speak
in tongues. In time the word wandered, but not far at first: before it devolved to its
current weak sense of character or personality – so ruinously associated with mere
rhetoric, or worse: mercantile persuasion – charisma denoted a fully supernatural
power or virtue. The historical journey of the word is something like that undertaken
by ‘glamour’, which once signified a bewitching or spellbinding charm, and
now means something more superficial. You can get closer once more to the original
meanings of charisma by recalling some related terms, which are less familiar
and so less devalued: charism and charismata.
The Charismatic Renewal is a movement inside the Catholic church that draws
on early beliefs in the gifts or charismata of the Holy Spirit: healing, prophecy and
glossolalia. Charismatics aspire to a direct conference with Christ, unmediated by
liturgy. The movement began in the United States in the mid 1960s, and spread
worldwide in the decade following. While traditional Catholics sometimes deplored
the Charismatic turn away from conventional ritual, the church authorities
(Papacy included) welcomed the renovation of spirituality that the movement
brought, and did not baulk at the boost to church attendance that came with it.
Prayer took place in parish churches, in believers’ homes, and in mass meetings attended
by hundreds or thousands of the faithful. Hands were laid upon the sick in
hope of healing, instances of speaking in tongues were reported, and the horizon of
faith that surrounded these meetings was a belief in the real possibility of miracle.
For several days now I’ve been searching online for photographs of Charismatic
prayer meetings. There are plenty to be found: amateur snapshots in which congregations
raise their arms and rejoice (or is it despair?) and individuals, sometimes,
at the front or centre of the crowd, open their mouths in what might be moments
of glossolalia. An Irish press photograph from the 1980s shows a portion of the
congregation at a large meeting in Dublin – about a dozen figures, all of them
women in middle age. Almost all have their mouths open in prayer or song, a
few have got their eyes closed, and many raise at least one hand in a gesture that
is halfway between supplication and something else: a revealing or deictic movement
such as you might find arrested among a choir of Renaissance angels. All of
these women look so familiar from my childhood: with their sweaters and coats
and cardigans, their complicated hair and complicated glasses, they far too easily
compose a devout type, except that each of them – and especially a slightly older
woman with a near-ecstatic look in the foreground – is locked in her own place and
moment of expectation, waiting for certain gifts to be bestowed.
The face I’m looking for is not there – my mother’s. I know she attended more
than one of these meetings, held in the exhibition hall of the Royal Dublin Society,
on the south side of Dublin, in the 1980s. But perhaps this image derives from a
slightly later time: after she died, in fact. She had been ill for many years: first with
an intractable depression, then with an autoimmune disease that would kill her
not long after her fiftieth birthday. She had always been devout, then at some point
turned for consolation to a local Charismatic prayer group. Later she went to these
big national conferences at which, so she’d relate on her return, the sick presented
themselves for prayer and the laying-on of hands. As a child, I was terrified by my
mother’s descriptions of the vulnerable faithful lining up to be healed, hoping to be
healed. Some of them, she said, felt a great heat suffuse their bodies at the moment
they were touched by hands or voices. I am quite sure she never claimed any of
these people had actually been healed – there were no spectacular reversals – but
something had happened to them. Nor did she describe the moment she submitted
herself to this scene, the moment she was attended, surrounded, touched and
cared for in ways that even now, unbeliever, I cannot credit. Perhaps her eyes were
closed, her hands raised, maybe warmth poured through her stiff and sore body as
she waited for the miracle, the gift, the grace of charisma. This is the image I have
been trying to find, and cannot, or to picture in my mind, and cannot.

Brian Dillon, 2015

Brian Dillon’s books include The Great Explosion (Penguin, 2015), Objects in This Mirror: Essays
(Sternberg, 2014), Ruin Lust (Tate, 2014) and Sanctuary (Sternberg, 2011). He is UK editor of Cabinet
magazine, and teaches critical writing at the Royal College of Art, London. He is working on
a book about the essay as form.