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, . 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:
"2 When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came on him 3 and he spoke his message:
“The prophecy of Balaam son of Beor,
the prophecy of one whose eye sees clearly,
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:
who sees a vision from the Almighty,
who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened:
"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."
"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."
"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 proprietà) 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.