UNDISCOVERED GENIUS

A commentary on the history, contexts, and meanings of the word "genius."

Monday, May 26, 2014

7 Ecstasy IV



7 Ecstasy IV

Today's presentation will be the second of three taken up entirely by a reading of and commentary on a chapter from Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill, [1911]. The chapter divides itself into descriptions of ecstasy on a continuum from the "Physical to The Psychological to the "Mystical". Last week we discussed the the "Physical" dimension; this week my presentation will examine the "Psychological" dimension, and the next week we will cover the "Mystical".

It is of interest to note that the “physical” dimension of ecstasy relates to things like the body going rigid, the subject losing literal consciousness, the body being insensitive to pain etc. With the discussion of the “psychological” dimension of ecstasy, we will be dealing much more with the so-called “MIND”. This presents something of a difficulty because we have no clear understanding of the mind’s boundaries; that is to say, we don’t clearly know where brain stuff leaves off and spiritual intelligence begins. I have long suspected that thought is, in essence, of spiritual origin, while science has spared no pains to prove that thought is totally created by the brain. As with so many paradoxes, it is probably both. 

Also remember that when we talk about "mind" stuff, we imply, automatically, the use of language, since the mind is defined and experienced by linguistic parameters. It is easily seen how the the concept of 1. "mind", pure abstraction, reality in ideational form, combined with that of  2. the "physical", may lead us to  the term "heart", you might say, "the  edge of logic softened by blood." The following quotation from 1st Corinthians speaks of the ecstatic experience as a translator of heavenly language into animal sounds, which mean nothing to the speaker without INTERPRETATION, that is to say, VERBALIZATION.

1 Corinthians 14:25
14 Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. . . .25 And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.
Thus, as we spent a lot of time last week examining the virtue of ecstatic triggers, we will today, be looking at the virtues, psychological and otherwise, consequent of the ecstatic experience.  
Let’s see what Underhill has to say:

“B.     Psychologically considered, all ecstasy is a form—the most perfect form—of the state which is technically called “complete mono-ideism,” That withdrawal of consciousness from circumference to centre, that deliberate attention to one thing, which we discussed in Recollection, is here pushed—voluntarily or involuntarily—to its logical conclusion. It is 
  1. (1) always paid for by psycho-physical disturbances; 
  2. (2) rewarded in healthy cases by an enormous  
     lucidity, 
  1. (3) a supreme intuition in regard to the one thing on which the self’s interest has been set.

Such ecstasy, then, is an exalted form of contemplation, and might be expected in appropriate subjects to develop naturally from that state." 
[Sidebar: Remember my first sermon on ecstasy treated the term in a general way, much as mentioned above, “an exalted state of contemplation. Clearly, when we speak of “religious ecstasy”, or “religious rapture”, we are referring both to something much more intense, and much more specific. In the next sentence, Underhill admits the possibility of “degrees” of ecstasy, but, as we go on, this distinction will become more and more moot.  

Back to Underhill:]
“A simple difference of degree,” says Maury, “separates ecstasy from the action of forcibly fixing an idea in the mind. Contemplation implies exercise of will, and the power of interrupting the extreme tension of the mind. In ecstasy, which is contemplation carried to its highest pitch, the will, although in the strictest sense able to provoke the state, is nevertheless unable to suspend it.”

[Sidebar: Let me remind us that my deepest personal ecstasies have been triggered by the spiritual content of music. The following paragraph by Underhill precisely summarizes my trance experiences creating and conducting music:]

“In “complete mono-ideism” then, the attention to one thing and the inattention to all else, is so entire that the subject is entranced. Consciousness has been withdrawn from those centres which receive and respond to the messages of the external world: he neither sees, feels, nor hears. The Ego dormio et cor meum vigilat (I slept, but my heart was awake) of the contemplative ceases to be a metaphor, and becomes a realistic description. It must be remembered that the whole trend of mystical education has been toward the production of this fixity of attention.”

[Sidebar: Indeed, my most permanently transforming spiritual experiences have come through music; and this has been both a peerless blessing, and, at the same time, a source of disappointment and death anxiety in a way: through music I have vividly glimpsed heavenly terrains, and felt the eyes of divine intelligence guiding me through labyrinths of material illusion to experience the energy of divine truth--spiritual reality shining on me with overpowering radiance --but in other meditative activities I have achieved only glimmers of this higher reality. As I have mentioned before, when I was much younger I experimented with astral projection and other new age activities, and I was given the response in no uncertain terms that I was not going to be ALLOWED to do that kind of thing. I thank God for music, but sometimes wish I were more adept at other modes of ego-transformation.

Of course prayers to Jesus are at the top of the list, of spiritual activities, in terms of reliability and comfort; but I still regret that my vision is so weak and so grounded in the physical—I can tentatively taste the tang of Heaven on the air, like the fragrance of distant flowers, and yet I thirst for that great draught of divine liquor that might transport me to infinity. I continue to apply my will to this scenario, but I suspect that this type of access to Heaven will continue to be denied to me in this life; some people are just destined to be limited in this way, and I rankle impatiently at my mundane shackles; I long for the freedom and comfort of death to give me my best self in its fullness, instead of this damned potentiality!

Back to Underhill:]

“Recollection and Quiet lead up to it (this fixity of attention). Contemplation cannot take place without it. All the mystics assure us that a unification of consciousness, in which all outward things are forgot, is the necessary prelude of union with the Divine; for consciousness of the Many and consciousness of the One are mutually exclusive states. Ecstasy, for the psychologist, is such a unification in its extreme form. The absorption of the self in the one idea, the one desire, is so profound—and in the case of the great mystics so impassioned—that everything else is blotted out. The tide of life is withdrawn, not only from those higher centres which are the seats of perception and of thought, but also from those lower centres which govern the physical life. The whole vitality of the subject is so concentrated on the transcendental world—or, in a morbid ecstatic, on the idea which dominates his mind—that body and brain alike are depleted of their energy in the interests of this supreme act."

[Sidebar: From this we begin to see how the “psychology” of ecstasy, is, in material terms, NO PSYCHOLOGY, or, rather, that, in ecstasy, the psyche is redefined such that it forfeits its residence in both the:

“higher centres which are the seats of perception and of thought, but also from those lower centres which govern the physical life”.

This is a fairly radical description of the psychological equipment, and, if true, deals a harsh blow to the scientific concept of the brain as the seat of consciousness. According to this declension, the ecstatic mind state resides neither in the higher mind nor in the brain. At this point one struggles to imagine what may be the precise definition of the ecstatic mind, if it exists neither in higher intelligence nor in the box of neurons we call the brain. But that’s the trick isn’t it? The cloud of unknowing refuses to be defined by any terms whatever!

Back to Underhill:]

“Since mystics have, as a rule, the extreme susceptibility to suggestions and impressions which is characteristic of artistic and creative types, it is not surprising that their ecstasies are often evoked, abruptly, by the exhibition of, or concentration upon, some loved and special symbol of the divine.

Such symbols form the rallying-points about which are gathered a whole group of ideas and intuitions. Their presence—sometimes the sudden thought of them—will be enough, in psychological language, to provoke a discharge of energy along some particular path: that is to say, to stir to life all those ideas and intuitions which belong to the self’s consciousness of the Absolute, to concentrate vitality on them, and introduce the self into that world of perception of which they are, as it were, the material keys. Hence the profound significance of symbols for some mystics: their paradoxical clinging to outward forms, whilst declaring that the spiritual and intangible alone is real."



[Sidebar: Here we get into the real psychology of the subject—psychology as a mediator between ecstasy and literal consciousness. Again, we come back to LANGUAGE. Symbolic language works by presenting metaphorical representations of spiritual truth which have the ability to trigger the ascent into ecstatic dimensions.

Now, allow me one more moment on my soap box to reiterate the point that musical symbols almost always have a divine origin; (it may be of interest to note that the first surviving liturgical drama, Ordo Virtutuum, by Hildegard de Bingen, features the character of Satan, who is the only cast member who does not sing—because there is no music in Hell); this divine origin is such that I feel secure in the thought that my obsessive contemplation on musical symbols is endorsed and blessed by Heaven.

Thank God music is from Heaven, or I might be screwed. Underhill is emphasizing the fact that an ecstatic episode may be triggered by intense concentration on just about any single thing, and, furthermore, that such intense focus, on some low-vibratory object, might trigger an ecstasy of little spiritual benefit. Knowing, as I do, that music is a language of angelic origin, I also know that I have been made stronger and wiser with every musical ecstasy from which I have descended. I have great confidence that my musical ecstasies have been of permanent positive value. I have witnessed other people in the throes of ecstatic experiences that seemed to me not to be of positive value.

I am reminded of the many Nazarene alter-calls that I had to suffer through in my youth. These scenes of weeping and wailing, sentimentality and guilt, always resonated with a distant, primitive, jungle drum beat, very entrancing, attractive but somehow repulsive at the same time. I felt myself being pulled by an animal magnetic force, grabbing at me in an unwholesome way. 

I have a scene etched in my mind of a group of kneeling supplicants, all crowded around an old oak altar, moaning over some poor repentant sinner, waving handkerchiefs in the stain-glass filtered air; I see a woman’s uplifted face, open-mouthed and tear-stained, begging Jesus to relieve this guilt-ridden guy of his burden; she turns away from the pack, to catch her breath, then squeezes in again. Suddenly I think of wild dogs closing in on a wounded deer, and I can’t watch anymore. In these traumatic scenes I felt the group (herd) concentration on a single focus, but the focus seemed to me to be pulsing with a negative image that I was unable to visualize, or articulate, but could only reject as somehow WRONG. Thus I came to associate Jesus with a lower vibration akin to voo-doo.

If only these experiences could have partaken of a modicum of open-minded intelligence, I might have discovered the true Jesus as a young man, but the intensity of the focus of these alter calls seemed more religion-driven than spirit-driven, and I felt that I was being recruited to fight in an army in whose cause I did not believe. 

As I think back, I wonder if it were not simply the PUBLIC aspect of this confession that I found so irritatingly dishonest; maybe I thought intuitively that a conversation with Jesus ought to be a private affair—that the role of the assembled congregation was not mainly to support the penitent sinner, but to pass judgment on his progress toward heaven—that they were looking for some outward sign that would prove to them that he was NOW one of them. I remember some kids, at church camp, commenting on me one time after one of the numerous times I got “saved”, saying, “I wonder if he will stop being such a jerk now.”

Thus, the religious ecstasy that I watched my grandmother enter every Sunday, of my young life, came to represent a repressive, judgmental social function, illegitimate spiritually, and kind of stupid intellectually.
Back to Underhill:]

“For the Christian mystics, the sacraments and mysteries of faith have always provided such a point d’appui (a location where troops are assembled prior to a battle); and these often play a large part in the production of their ecstasies. For St. Catherine of Siena, and also very often for her namesake of Genoa, the reception of Holy Communion was the prelude to ecstasy. Julian of Norwich and St. Francis of Assisi became entranced whilst gazing on the crucifix. We are told of Denis the Carthusian that towards the end of his life, hearing the Veni Creator or certain verses of the psalms, he was at once rapt in God and lifted up from the earth.

Of St. Catherine of Siena, her biographer says that 
“she used to communicate with such fervour that immediately afterwards she would pass into the state of ecstasy, in which for hours she would be totally unconscious. On one occasion, finding her in this condition, they (the Dominican friars) forcibly threw her out of the church at midday, and left her in the heat of the sun watched over by some of her companions till she came to her senses.” 
Another, 

“catching sight of her in the church when she was in ecstasy, came down and pricked her in many places with a needle. Catherine was not aroused in the least from her trance, but afterwards, when she came back to her senses, she felt the pain in her body and perceived that she had thus been wounded.”

It is interesting to compare with this objective description, the subjective account of ecstatic union which St. Catherine gives in her “Divine Dialogue.” Here, the deeper self of the mystic is giving in a dramatic form its own account of its inward experiences: hence we see the inward side of that outward state of entrancement, which was all that onlookers were able to perceive. As usual in the Dialogue, the intuitive perceptions of the deeper self are attributed by St. Catherine to the Divine Voice speaking in her soul.

“Oftentimes, through the perfect union which the soul has made with Me, she is raised from the earth almost as if the heavy body became light. But this does not mean that the heaviness of the body is taken away, but that the union of the soul with Me is more perfect than the union of the body with the soul; wherefore the strength of the spirit, united with Me, raises the weight of the body from the earth, leaving it as if immoveable and all pulled to pieces in the affection of the soul. Thou rememberest to have heard it said of some creatures, that were it not for My Goodness, in seeking strength for them, they would not be able to live; and I would tell thee that, in the fact that the souls of some do not leave their bodies, is to be seen a greater miracle than in the fact that some have arisen from the dead, so great is the union which they have with Me. I, therefore, sometimes for a space withdraw from the union, making the soul return to the vessel of her body . . . from which she was separated by the affection of love. From the body she did not depart, because that cannot be except in death; the bodily powers alone departed, becoming united to Me through affection of love. The memory is full of nothing but Me, the intellect, elevated, gazes upon the object of My Truth; the affection, which follows the intellect, loves and becomes united with that which the intellect sees. These powers being united and gathered together and immersed and inflamed in Me, the body loses its feeling, so that the seeing eye sees not, and the hearing ear hears not, and the tongue does not speak; except as the abundance of the heart will sometimes permit it, for the alleviation of the heart and the praise and glory of My Name. The hand does not touch and the feet walk not, because the members are bound with the sentiment of Love.”
[Sidebar: It is of interest to note the language of this quotation; the speaker mentions “Me” and “My truth” several times, as though the spirit of God were speaking in first person though the entranced saint. The visions of Hildegard are similarly expressed. Indeed, many people believe that the speeches of Jesus in which He proclaims, “I am the way the truth and the light, No one comes to the Father but by Me,” are exactly the same—that it is not JESUS speaking, but the spirit of God speaking THROUGH Jesus. Of course, it ultimately makes no difference, the voice of God is the voice of God; neither does this interpretation compromise the divine status of Jesus, it simply reinforces the idea that God may speak to Man through any medium He wishes, it is all from Him, it is all divine.

Back to Underhill:]

“A healthy ecstasy so deep as this seems to be the exclusive prerogative of the mystics: perhaps because so great a passion, so profound a concentration, can be produced by nothing smaller than their flaming love of God. But as the technique of contemplation is employed more or less consciously by all types of creative genius—by inventors and philosophers, by poets, prophets, and musicians, by all the followers of the “Triple Star,” no less than by the mystic saints—so too this apotheosis of contemplation, the ecstatic state, sometimes appears in a less violent form, acting healthily and normally, in artistic and creative personalities at a complete stage of development. It may accompany the prophetic intuitions of the seer, the lucidity of the great metaphysician, the artist’s supreme perception of beauty or truth. As the saint is “caught up to God,” so these are “caught up” to their vision: their partial apprehensions of the Absolute Life. Those joyous, expansive outgoing sensations, characteristic of the ecstatic consciousness, are theirs also. Their greatest creations are translations to us, not of something they have thought, but of something they have known, in a moment of ecstatic union with the “great life of the All.”

[Sidebar: Here, Underhill is careful to attribute to artistic visions a “partial apprehension of the Absolute”, while the supreme ecstasy is “the exclusive prerogative of the mystics”. Part of me wants to quarrel with this and ask, “Who are the mystics? Is not J.S. Bach a mystic, is not Rabindranath Tagore a mystic?”; but part of me humbly and silently acquiesces to this pronouncement, and admits that my musical visions are probably less vivid than St. Catherine’s.
This is my problem—I want a supreme ecstatic experience, but the only resource I am allowed to use to trigger it is music, which is, according to Underhill, ever-so-slightly second-rate. I read these accounts of the Heavenly Kingdom, and I say, to myself, I know what that is, I understand this; but the knowledge is like a distant memory, or an echo of what must be magnificently and presently real.

It is worth noting that many artists and musicians share a similar psychological perspective on life; they are CHANGED by their artistic activities, sometimes in a positive way, sometimes in a negative way, always in an eccentric way, and they understand each other in the same way that comrades in war share a common experience and a common understanding, unknown to the uninitiated. Therefore, it must be admitted that the artistic ecstasy is positive in the same way that religious ecstasies are positive, and the quibble over the relative magnitude of these categories of ecstasy becomes inconsequential.

Back to Underhill:]

"We begin, then, to think that the “pure mono-ideism,” which the psychologist identifies with ecstasy, though doubtless a part, is far from being the whole content of this state, True, the ecstatic is absorbed in his one idea, his one love: he is in it and with it: it fills his universe. But this unified state of consciousness does not merely pore upon something already possessed. When it only does this, it is diseased. Its true business is pure perception. It is outgoing, expansive: its goal is something beyond itself. The rearrangement of the psychic self which occurs in ecstasy is not merely concerned with the normal elements of consciousness. It is rather a temporary unification of consciousness round that centre of transcendental perception which mystics call the “apex” or the “spark of the soul.” 

[Sidebar: Notice that Underhill refers to a “rearrangement of the psychic self . . . . a temporary unification of consciousness round that centre of transcendental perception.” Notice how similar this sounds to the description of “psychological recentering” we have come to associate with the intuitive response. It sort of leads us around to the point we made in our first presentation on ecstasy, equating, relatively speaking, ecstasy with epiphany.

Back to Underhill:]
“Those deeper layers of personality which normal life keeps below the threshold are active in it (this “apex” or the “spark of the soul”): and these are fused with the surface personality by the governing passion, the transcendent love which lies at the basis of all sane ecstatic states. The result is not merely a mind concentrated on one idea nor a heart fixed on one desire, nor even a mind and a heart united in the interests of a beloved thought: but a whole being welded into one, all its faculties, neglecting their normal universe, grouped about a new centre, serving a new life, and piercing like a single flame the barriers of the sensual world. Ecstasy is the psycho-physical state which may accompany this brief synthetic act.”

Thus endeth the second section of Chapter 8 of, Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill, [1911]. I hope we have been inspired to look at the ecstasies of the saints, to find within ourselves that state of mind (or being), that is, on our own personal level, the analog to their exalted experiences.

Let us pray: Jesus thank you for the gateway to God which, regardless of our level of consciousness, is always You. Amen.





Sunday, May 18, 2014

6 Ecstasy III



6 Ecstasy III


Today's presentation will be the first of three taken up entirely by a reading of and commentary on a chapter, dealing with the subject "Ecstasy", from the book Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill, [1911]. I greatly admire Evelyn Underhill, and was glad to stumble across this chapter. You will parenthetically note her subtle disagreements with comments made by the author of the article on Ecstasy in the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia. 

You may well ask, what is my interest in this subject? Is not ecstasy a kind of magical mind state of the devil, like voo-doo? Or is it just something, a level of experiential intensity, that we "normal" people would rather not think about? Maybe we would rather leave it to the professionals, and not try it at home. But I ask you, "Are we merely to read about saints, or are we to become saints?" Although we are used to hearing of the ecstatic episodes of so many Catholic saints of early times, we may not be so aware that many of the great saints of the Bible also enjoyed ecstatic transports, and saw visions of heaven and the future. The mystical experience of ecstasy is mentioned in the Bible many times:
Numbers 24:2-4
"When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came on him and he spoke his message:
“The prophecy of Balaam son of Beor,
    the prophecy of one whose eye sees clearly,
the prophecy of one who hears the words of God,
    who sees a vision from the Almighty,
    who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened:

Ezekiel 11:24-25
"And the Spirit lifted me up and brought me in a vision by the Spirit of God to the exiles in Chaldea. So the vision that I had seen left me. Then I told the exiles all the things that the LORD had shown me."

Acts 19:6
"And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying."


[Sidebar: It is important, early on, to get in that idea of invoking the Spirit of God. It is always ultimately the Holy Spirit that enables our mobility up the continuum of spiritual states; indeed, some are born with more talant for this than others, and there are, to be sure, great spiritual geniuses. But we affirm that the Holy Spirit is available to all, for the asking, and we know the Holy Spirit bestows rich gifts. We will not mention this much more for the next three weeks, but after that, my sermon on the Holy Spirit may tie things together.

For now, a general description of ecstasy and its place in a Christian spiritual discipline is the subject under discussion. Notice how the following quotation from Corinthians mentions the confusion between mind and body that characterizes the ecstatic state:]

2 Corinthians 12:3-4
"And I know how such a man--whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows-- was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak."

Acts 10:10-16
"But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air." 

 The visions of the Bible are rich with symbolism which we have no time to explore now. Let it suffice to say that hidden knowledge is the spiritual birthright of every human being born under the sun, and much hidden knowledge has been revealed to Man through ecstasy.

The main interest in the Underhill chapter, for me, is the description of the many ways and levels of intensity at which the subject may have an ecstatic experience. The chapter divides itself into descriptions of ecstasy on a continuum from the "Physical to The Psychological to the "Mystical". Today we will just present the "Physical" dimension; my next presentation will present the "Psychological" dimension, and the last will cover the "Mystical". But, let's begin with another general definition of "ecstasy":

VIII. Ecstasy and Rapture
“Since the object of all contemplation is the production of that state of intimate communion in which the mystics declare that the self is “in God and God is in her,” it might be supposed that the orison of union represented the end of mystical activity, in so far as it is concerned with the attainment of a transitory but exalted consciousness of “oneness with the Absolute.” Nearly all the great contemplatives, however, describe as a distinct, and regard as a more advanced phase of the spiritual consciousness, the group of definitely ecstatic states in which the concentration of interest on the Transcendent is so complete, the gathering up and pouring out of life on this one point so intense, that the subject is more or less entranced, and becomes, for the time of the ecstasy, unconscious of the external world."

[Sidebar: Notice it says “unconscious of the external world”, it doesn’t say blackout, or an unremembered experience. The Catholic author from last week pooh-poohed ecstatic experiences in which the subject lost consciousness--I did too. Here Underhill clarifies the issue by stating that the subject becomes so CONSCIOUS of the "transcendent" world, that only consciousness of the "external" world that is lost.

Back to Underhill:]

“In ordinary contemplation he refused to attend to that external world: it was there, a blurred image, at the fringe of his conscious field, but he deliberately left it on one side. In ecstasy he cannot attend to it. None of its messages reach him: not even those most insistent of all messages which are translated into the terms of bodily pain.

All mystics agree in regarding such ecstasy as an exceptionally favourable state; the one in which man’s spirit is caught up to the most immediate union with the divine. The word has become a synonym for joyous exaltation, for the inebriation of the Infinite."

[Sidebar: Notice that our discussion of ecstasy has led us to the word “joy”. Some many weeks ago, the word “joy” led us to the word “sehnsucht”. Oh what a tangled web we weave when we attempt to explain the supernatural!

Back to Underhill:]

"The induced ecstasies of the Dionysian mysteries, the metaphysical raptures of the Neoplatonists, the voluntary or involuntary trance of Indian mystics and Christian saints—all these, however widely they may differ in transcendental value, agree in claiming such value, in declaring that this change in the quality of consciousness brought with it a valid and ineffable apprehension of the Real.”

[Sidebar: For discussions of what is REAL, we merely turn to C.S. Lewis. He is forever calling attention to the vague unreality of material existence compared to the vast, overwhelming reality of the spiritual domain. As we give ourselves to God and become more our true selves, we become, at the same time, more real. Thus is the veil of maya rebuked and delegitimized by spirit. Yes, we apprehend the infinite from out stable perch in the rocky cliffs of materialism, but always it is escape to the immaterial Cloud of Unknowing that is our ultimate goal.

Back to Underhill:]

“Clearly, this apprehension (of the Real) will vary in quality and content with the place of the subject in the spiritual scale. The ecstasy is merely the psycho-physical condition which accompanies it. “It is hardly a paradox to say,” says Myers, “that the evidence for ecstasy is stronger than the evidence for any other religious belief. Of all the subjective experiences of religion, ecstasy is that which has been most urgently, perhaps to the psychologist most convincingly asserted; and it is not confined to any one religion. . . . From the medicine man of the lowest savages up to St. John, St. Peter, and St. Paul, with Buddha and Mahomet on the way, we find records which, though morally and intellectually much differing, are in psychological essence the same.”

[Sidebar: There are two points in the paragraph above that deserve expansion:

The most important one is the point I have made many times already, that ecstasy is “not confined to any one religion”. People who insist on exclusive territorial rights to God, are operating under a veil of delusion which, I fear, will not be lifted until they themselves experience the true ecstasy of death.

The second point is more subtle and more difficult; it pertains to the idea of levels of spirit consciousness, which, in a way points to the possibility of levels of ecstasy. Underhill states, again:

“all these, however widely they may differ in transcendental value, agree in claiming such value, in declaring that this change in the quality of consciousness brought with it a valid and ineffable apprehension of the Real. . . ."

Clearly, this apprehension will vary in quality and content with the place of the subject in the spiritual scale.

Does this mean that there are different intensities of ecstatic experience? If so, where is the absolute dissolution of ego in the Cloud of Unknowing? Or does it mean that the spiritual devotee’s starting point (granted that we all are somewhat more or less evolved from the get-go) influences the relative acceleration of the individual’s consciousness into higher realms? (Operative term: “relative”.) In other words, does the ecstatic experience have an anomalous character from individual to individual, with us all arriving at the same place, or does the DISTANCE of the spiritual trip up or down Jacob’s Ladder turn out to be different for us all?

In a way, Underhill addresses these questions below:]

"There are three distinct aspects under which the ecstatic state may be studied: ( a ) the physical, ( b ) the psychological,    ( c ) the mystical. Many of the deplorable misunderstandings and still more deplorable mutual recriminations which surround its discussion come from the refusal of experts in one of these three branches to consider the results arrived at by the other two."

[Sidebar: as we have noticed, in the past, a lot of new age knowledge is delegitimized by the so-called “gobbledygook” language factor. What I have admired so often in Underhill is the level-headed, no-nonsense, Mary Poppins English of her writing. Here, we have a rational breakdown of three coherently distinct aspects of an experience of which distinctions are very difficult; nevertheless, as we have asserted many times, these distinctions are necessary in order to discuss in words what cannot be understood in words. Underhill divides the experience into an array along a conceptual continuum from physical to mystical, and shows how these three levels add up to a single integral experience.

Back to Underhill:]

"A.    Physically considered, ecstasy is a trance; more or less deep, more or less prolonged. The subject may slide into it gradually from a period of absorption in, or contemplation of, some idea which has filled the field of consciousness: or, it may come on suddenly, the appearance of the idea—or even some word or symbol suggesting the idea—abruptly throwing the subject into an entranced condition. This is the state which some mystical writers call Rapture. The distinction, however, is a conventional one: and the works of the mystics describe many intermediate forms.

During the trance, breathing and circulation are depressed. The body is more or less cold and rigid, remaining in the exact position which it occupied at the oncoming of the ecstasy, however difficult and unnatural this pose may be. Sometimes entrancement is so deep that there is complete anaesthesia, as in the case which I quote from the life of St. Catherine of Siena. Credible witnesses report that Bernadette, the visionary of Lourdes, held the flaming end of a candle in her hand for fifteen minutes during one of her ecstasies. She felt no pain, neither did the flesh show any marks of burning. Similar instances of ecstatic anesthesia abound in the lives of the saints, and are also characteristic of certain pathological states.

The trance includes, according to the testimony of the ecstatics, two distinct phases—( a ) the short period of lucidity and ( b ) a longer period of complete unconsciousness, which may pass into a death like catalepsy, lasting for hours; or, as once with St. Teresa, for days. “The difference between union and trance,” says Teresa, “is this: that the latter lasts longer and is more visible outwardly, because the breathing gradually diminishes, so that it becomes impossible to speak or to open the eyes. And though this very thing occurs when the soul is in union, there is more violence in a trance, for the natural warmth vanishes, I know not how, when the rapture is deep, and in all these kinds of orison there is more or less of this. When it is deep, as I was saying, the hands become cold and sometimes stiff and straight as pieces of wood; as to the body if the rapture comes on when it is standing or kneeling it remains so; and the soul is so full of the joy of that which Our Lord is setting before it, that it seems to forget to animate the body and abandons it. If the rapture lasts, the nerves are made to feel it.”

Such ecstasy as this, so far as its physical symptoms go, is not of course the peculiar privilege of the mystics. It is an abnormal bodily state, caused by a psychic state: and this causal psychic state may be healthy or unhealthy, the result of genius or disease. It is common in the little understood type of personality called “sensitive” or mediumistic: it is a well-known symptom of certain mental and nervous illnesses. A feeble mind concentrated on one idea—like a hypnotic subject gazing at one spot—easily becomes entranced; however trivial the idea which gained possession of his consciousness. Apart from its content, then, ecstasy carries no guarantee of spiritual value. It merely indicates the presence of certain abnormal psycho-physical conditions: an alteration of the normal equilibrium, a shifting of the threshold of consciousness, which leaves the body, and the whole usual “external world” outside instead of inside the conscious field, and even affects those physical functions—such as breathing—which are almost entirely automatic. Thus ecstasy, physically considered, may occur in any person in whom (1) the threshold of consciousness is exceptionally mobile and (2) there is a tendency to dwell upon one governing idea or intuition. Its worth depends entirely on the objective value of that idea or intuition.

In the hysterical patient, thanks to an unhealthy condition of the centres of consciousness, any trivial or irrational idea, any one of the odds and ends stored up in the subliminal region, may thus become fixed, dominate the mind, and produce entrancement. Such ecstasy is an illness: the emphasis is on the pathological state which makes it possible. In the mystic, the idea which fills his life is so great a one—the idea of God—that, in proportion as it is vivid, real, and intimate, it inevitably tends to monopolize the field of consciousness. Here the emphasis is on the overpowering strength of spirit, not on the feeble and unhealthy state of body or mind. This true ecstasy, says Godferneaux, is not a malady, but “the extreme form of a state which must be classed amongst the ordinary accidents of conscious life.”

[Sidebar: In the preceding paragraph, my previous objections, to the Catholic Encyclopedia’s insistence on the “exclusive” aspect of religious ecstasy, are somewhat rebuked, because, here, Underhill is affirming that not all ecstasy is necessarily spiritually blessed. Just as all astral travel out of the body is not necessarily spiritually affirming—astral travel may take us to Heaven, but there are also lower levels of astral reality peopled by lowlife scumbags and demons; it is these realms to which drug users are often transported, much to their regret and spiritual detriment. I believe the bottom line of this train of thought is that, a religious ecstasy is not truly helpful without a religious, or upwardly directed intention; ecstasy is not helpful when it comes by accident, or is generated by triggers of unwholesome origin. This is why death is such a reliably positive mind state—it only goes one way, and is attended by the angels.

Back to Underhill:]

"The mystics themselves are fully aware of the importance of this distinction (between intentional religious ecstasy and accidental undirected ecstasy). Ecstasies, no less than visions and voices, must, they declare, be subjected to unsparing criticism before they are recognized as divine: whilst some are undoubtedly “of God,” others are no less clearly “of the devil.” “The great doctors of the mystic life,” says Malaval, “teach that there are two sorts of rapture, which must be carefully distinguished. The first are produced in persons but little advanced in the Way, and still full of selfhood; either by the force of a heated imagination which vividly apprehends a sensible object, or by the artifice of the Devil. These are the raptures which St. Teresa calls, in various parts of her works, Raptures of Feminine Weakness. The other sort of Rapture is, on the contrary, the effect of pure intellectual vision in those who have a great and generous love for God. To generous souls who have utterly renounced themselves, God never fails in these raptures to communicate high things.”

All the mystics agree with Malaval in finding the test of a true ecstasy, not in its outward sign, but in its inward grace, its after-value: and here psychology would do well to follow their example. The ecstatic states, which are supreme instances of the close connection between body and soul, have bodily as well as mental results: and those results are as different and as characteristic as those observed in healthy and in morbid organic processes. If the concentration has been upon the highest centre of consciousness, the organ of spiritual perception—if a door has really been opened by which the self has escaped for an instant to the vision of That Which Is—the ecstasy will be good for life. The entrancement of disease, on the contrary is always bad for life. Its concentration being upon the lower instead of the higher levels of mentality, it depresses rather than enhances the vitality, the fervour, or the intelligence of its subject: and leaves behind it an enfeebled will, and often moral and intellectual chaos. “Ecstasies that do not produce considerable profit either to the persons themselves or others, deserve to be suspected,” says Augustine Baker, “and when any marks of their approaching are perceived, the persons ought to divert their minds some other way.” It is the difference between a healthy appetite for nourishing food and a morbid craving for garbage. The same organs of digestion are used in satisfying both: yet he would be a hardy physiologist who undertook to discredit all nutrition by a reference to its degenerate forms.”

[Sidebar: A famous guru has said, of drug-induced ecstasies, “Drugs can take you to heaven, but you can’t stay there.” Thus, once again, we are forced to acknowledge the character of the trigger, that generates the ecstasy, as a prime ingredient in the ultimate value of the ecstatic experience. An ecstasy triggered by an electrode may be accompanied by the scenery of Heaven but possibly not the quality of Heaven.

Back to Underhill:]

"Sometimes both kinds of ecstasy, the healthy and the psychopathic, are seen in the same person. Thus in the cases of St. Catherine of Genoa and St. Catherine of Siena it would seem that as their health became feebler and the nervous instability always found in persons of genius increased, their ecstasies became more frequent; but these were not healthy ecstasies, such as those which they experienced in the earlier stages of their careers, and which brought with them an access of vitality. They were the results of increasing weakness of body, not of the overpowering strength of the spirit: and there is evidence that Catherine of Genoa, that acute self-critic, was conscious of this. “Those who attended on her did not know how to distinguish one state from the other. And hence on coming to; she would sometimes say, ‘Why did you let me remain in this quietude, from which I have almost died?’”

Her earlier ecstasies, on the contrary, had in a high degree the positive character of exaltation and life-enhancement consequent upon extreme concentration on the Absolute; as well as the merely negative character of annihilation of the surface-consciousness. She came from them with renewed health and strength, as from a resting in heavenly places and a feeding on heavenly food: and side by side with this ecstatic life, fulfilled the innumerable duties of her active vocation as hospital matron and spiritual mother of a large group of disciples. “Many times,” says her legend, “she would hide herself in some secret place and there stay: and being sought she was found upon the ground, her face hidden in her hands, altogether beyond herself, in such a state of joy as is beyond thought or speech: and being called—yea, even in a loud voice—she heard not. And at other times she would go up and down. . . . as if beyond herself, drawn by the impulse of love, she did this. And certain other times she remained for the space of six hours as if dead: but hearing herself called, suddenly she got up, and answering she would at once go about all that needed to be done even the humblest things. And in thus leaving the All, she went without any grief, because she fled all selfhood (la propriet√†) as if it were the devil. And when she came forth from her hiding-place her face was rosy as it might be a cherub’s; and it seemed as if she might have said, ‘Who shall separate me from the love of God?’”

“Very often,” says St. Teresa, describing the results of such rapturous communion with Pure Love as that from which St. Catherine came joyous and rosy-faced, “he who was before sickly and full of pain comes forth healthy and even with new strength: for it is something great that is given to the soul in rapture.”

[Sidebar: One of the big disappointments of my spiritual life is that I am somehow denied access to the kind of ecstatic experiences that are the domain of the great saints. When I was much younger I experimented with astral projection and other new age activities, and I was given the response in no uncertain terms that I was not going to be ALLOWED to do that kind of thing. I have continued to reach out into the supernatural plane with my mind in various ways, and have recently paid the price with a physical malady not unlike the illnesses reported by St. Teresa and others:

“. . .health became feebler and the nervous instability always found in persons of genius increased, their ecstasies became more frequent; but these were not healthy ecstasies, such as those which they experienced in the earlier stages of their careers.”

I have a certain psychic talent which I tend to overuse, and this overuse has resulted in a physical manifestation of self-indulgence which I am dealing with both medically and psychically. I guess, at least in this regard I am one of the “called” ones, but not one of the “chosen” ones. It is a trial of humility to accept this limitation, but I know to insist would result in a Faust-like interview with Satan. Furthermore, I know that as an artist, as one who may experience ecstasy by focusing on archetypal icons, I am definitely “chosen”, so I guess that will have to be good enough.

Back to Underhill:]
(Just to keep us on track, let me remind you that Underhill is going through the three aspects of ecstasy;
“( a ) the physical,
 ( b ) the psychological,   
 ( c ) the mystical.”

All the preceding material was on the “physical" aspect; next week we will consider the “psychological aspect”.)

Also let me remind you of the point of all this: we are making a case in support of the idea of the integration of spirit and flesh. Since ecstasy is the most intense form of spiritual experience available to us, before death takes us permanently to a new level of existence, ecstasy is an appropriate point of departure for this discussion. It may not be trivial to suggest that ecstasy is like a rubber bungi cord that stretches us into the land of the dead and then springs us back. In the above excerpt, Underhill has provided us with many variant examples of the impact of ecstasy on the body, and she has indicated that the quality of the ecstasy is not random, or uniform, from person to person, but, rather, highly dependent on the quality of the event or object that triggers the ecstatic experience. Let us keep these things in mind during our meditations of the week, and let us be prepared to grasp yet another dimension of the ecstatic experience as we surge ahead into the psychological aspect of ecstasy. 

Let us pray: Jesus, we stand in awe before the structure of this vast universe which affords us so much pleasure and validation. Please send blessings down upon us to pave our way into the Divine Presence. Please be with us, You, our source, our traveling companion, and our goal. Amen.