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, . 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. 2 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) always paid for by psycho-physical disturbances;
- (2) rewarded in healthy cases by an enormous
- (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.”
“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, . 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.