8 Ecstasy V
Today's presentation will be the third 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". In the last two weeks we discussed the the "Physical" dimension and the "Psychological" dimension; this week we will cover the "Mystical".
It would be overstating the case that we are going to look at the EFFECTS of spiritual ecstasy on the saints who experience it, and yet the highest ecstatic experience is so inexpressible, and so private, the only thing left to talk about is what we see AFTER it is over. Here are some examples of the physical effects of ecstasy, described in the Bible:
- Exodus 34:29-35
- 29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai.
- 33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. 34 But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord."
"1Six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. 2And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. 3And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.…"
The sermon next week will deal in detail with the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the ecstatic experience, but I can't resist prepping that message with the following preview from Saint Luke:
"1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
[Sidebar: So many reports of spiritual experiences include "a violent wind" in their scenarios. The sequence of wind followed by fire is not uncommon in the ecstasies of the saints. The business of tongues is not a crucial feature; in ecstasy, God reveals heavenly secrets in the language of heaven; so sometimes the ecstatic is moved to become a channel enabling the angelic voice to physically manifest; but whether the Spirit manifests outwardly or not, it cannot be denied that the INNER manifestation is abundantly glorious.]
"44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God."
In this verse, the Holy Spirit definitely affirms that it cannot touch Man except through the Son. Hence, operationally speaking, the key, to the ecstatic experience, is the inter-locking synthetic action of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
"21At that very time He rejoiced greatly in the Holy Spirit, and said, "I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight. 22"All things have been handed over to Me by My Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.”
[Sidebar: The assumption I am making here is that Father Son and Holy Ghost all meet in one exalted moment. Thus all these Bibilical reports of sequences of miraculous events are, in a sense, metaphors for the ecstatic experience.
Now, on to chapter 8, from Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill, :
"C. Therefore, whilst
on its physical side ecstasy is an entrancement,
on its mental side a complete unification of consciousness,
on its mystical side it is an exalted act of perception.
It represents the greatest possible extension of the spiritual consciousness in the direction of Pure Being: the “blind intent stretching” here receives its reward in a profound experience of Eternal Life. In this experience the departmental activities of thought and feeling the consciousness of I-hood, of space and time—all that belongs to the World of Becoming and our own place therein—are suspended. The vitality which we are accustomed to split amongst these various things, is gathered up to form a state of “pure apprehension”: a vivid intuition of—or if you like conjunction with—the Transcendent. For the time of his ecstasy the mystic is, for all practical purposes, as truly living in the supersensual world as the normal human animal is living in the sensual world. He is experiencing the highest and most joyous of those temporary and unstable states—those “passive unions”—in which his consciousness escapes the limitations of the senses, rises to freedom, and is united for an instant with the “great life of the All.”
Ecstasy, then, from the contemplative’s point of view, is the development and completion of the orison of union, and he is not always at pains to distinguish the two degrees, a fact which adds greatly to the difficulties of students. In both states—though he may, for want of better language, describe his experience in terms of sight—the Transcendent is perceived by contact, not by vision: as, enfolded in darkness with one whom we love, we obtain a knowledge far more complete than that conferred by the sharpest sight the most perfect mental analysis. In Ecstasy, the apprehension is perhaps more definitely “beatific” than in the orison of union. Such memory of his feeling-state as the ecstatic brings back with him is more often concerned with an exultant certainty—a conviction that he has known for once the Reality which hath no image, and solved the paradox of life—than with meek self-loss in that Cloud of Unknowing where the contemplative in union is content to meet his Beloved. The true note of ecstasy, however, its only valid distinction from infused contemplation, lies in entrancement; in “being ravished out of fleshly feeling,” as St. Paul caught up to the Third Heaven, not in “the lifting of mind unto God.” This, of course, is an outward distinction only, and a rough one at that, since entrancement has many degrees: but it will be found the only practical basis of classification."
[Sidebar: I am very grateful for this reference to the "Cloud of Unknowing", because it means that Underhill and I are on the same page in terms of a favorite language, and a common background. We cannot calculate our debt to that anonymous Medieval monk who coined this beautiful phrase which explains so much with so little.
Back to Underhill:]
"Probably none but those who have experienced these states know the actual difference between them. Even St. Teresa’s psychological insight fails her here, and she is obliged to fall back on the difference between voluntary and involuntary absorption in the divine: a difference, not in spiritual values, but merely in the psycho-physical constitution of those who have perceived these values.
“I wish I could explain with the help of God,” she says, “wherein union differs from rapture, or from transport, or from flight of the spirit, as they call it, or from trance, which are all one. I mean that all these are only different names for that one and the same thing, which is also called ecstasy. It is more excellent than union, the fruits of it are much greater, and its other operations more manifold, for union is uniform in the beginning, the middle, and the end, and is so also interiorly; but as raptures have ends of a much higher kind, they produce effects both within and without [ i.e. , both physical and psychical]. . . . A rapture is absolutely irresistible; whilst union, inasmuch as we are then on our own ground, may be hindered, though that resistance be painful and violent.”
From the point of view of mystical psychology, our interest in ecstasy will centre in two points.
(1) What has the mystic to tell us of the Object of his ecstatic perception?
(2) What is the nature of the peculiar consciousness which he enjoys in his trance? That is to say, what news does he bring us as to the Being of God and the powers of man?"
[Sidebar: Notice the focus on what we can learn from the mystics through anecdotal evidence; here, there is none of the New Age how-to tendency to give instruction in ecstasy, or astral projection, or psychic healing. The Catholic position, of the mystic upheld above the crowd, is still here upheld, although no mention is made of Christianity at all. This might be considered a subtle reminder that, since all of us are not chosen to have these higher psychic experiences, our faith must be that much stronger, and, as C.S. Lewis would have it, much more persuaded by rational thought. Here we see through a glass darkly, and yet our faith IS significantly bolstered by the reports of saints who have actually gone to heaven and come back.
On with Underhill:]
"It may be said generally that on both these points he bears out, amplifies, and expresses under formulae of greater splendour, with an accent of greater conviction, the general testimony of the contemplatives. In fact, we must never forget that an ecstatic is really nothing else than a contemplative of a special kind, with a special psycho-physical make-up. Moreover, we have seen that it is not always easy to determine the exact point at which entrancement takes place, and deep contemplation assumes the ecstatic form. The classification, like all classifications of mental states, is an arbitrary one. Whilst the extreme cases present no difficulty, there are others less complete, which form a graduated series between the deeps of the “Quiet” and the heights of “Rapture.” We shall never know, for instance, whether the ecstasies of Plotinus and of Pascal involved true bodily entrancement, or only a deep absorption of the “unitive” kind. So, too, the language of many Christian mystics when speaking of their “raptures” is so vague and metaphorical that it leaves us in great doubt as to whether they mean by Rapture the abrupt suspension of normal consciousness, or merely a sudden and agreeable elevation of soul.
“Ravishing,” says Rolle, “as it is showed, in two ways is to be understood. One manner, forsooth, in which a man is ravished out of fleshly feeling; so that for the time of his ravishing plainly he feels nought in flesh, nor what is done of his flesh, and yet he is not dead but quick, for yet the soul to the body gives life. And on this manner saints sometime are ravished, to their profit and other men’s learning; as Paul ravished to the third heaven. And on this manner sinners also in vision sometime are ravished, that they may see joys of saints and pains of damned for their correction.
And many other as we read of. Another manner of ravishing there is, that is lifting of mind into God by contemplation. And this manner of ravishing is in all that are perfect lovers of God, and in none of them but that love God. And as well this is called a ravishing as the other; for with a violence it is done, and as it were against nature.”
[Sidebar: Once again, the saints are upheld as examples:
"And on this manner saints sometime are ravished, to their profit and other men’s learning; as Paul ravished to the third heaven."
One wonders what this learning consists of, and what is its overriding virtue?
Back to Underhill:]
"It is, however, very confusing to the anxious inquirer when—as too often—“lifting of mind by contemplation” is “as well called a ravishing as the other,” and ecstasy is used as a synonym for gladness of heart. Here, so far as is possible, these words will be confined to their strict meaning, and not applied generally to the description of all the outgoing and expansive states of the transcendental consciousness.
What does the mystic claim that he attains in this abnormal condition—this irresistible trance? The price that he pays is heavy, involving much psycho-physical wear and tear. He declares that his rapture or ecstasy includes a moment—often a very short, and always an indescribable moment—in which he enjoys a supreme knowledge of or participation in Divine Reality. He tells us under various metaphors that he then attains Pure Being, his Source, his Origin, his Beloved: “is engulphed in the very thing for which he longs, which is God.”
“Oh, wonder of wonders,” cries Eckhart, “when I think of the union the soul has with God! He makes the enraptured soul to flee out of herself, for she is no more satisfied with anything that can be named. The spring of Divine Love flows out of the soul and draws her out of herself into the unnamed Being, into her first source, which is God alone.”
This momentary attainment of the Source, the Origin, is the theme of all descriptions of mystic ecstasy. In Rulman Merswin’s “Book of the Nine Rocks,” that brief and overwhelming rapture is the end of the pilgrim’s long trials and ascents.
“The vision of the Infinite lasted only for a moment: when he came to himself he felt inundated with life and joy. He asked, ‘Where have I been?’ and he was answered, ‘In the upper school of the Holy Spirit. There you were surrounded by the dazzling pages of the Book of Divine Wisdom. Your soul plunged therein with delight, and the Divine Master of the school has filled her with an exuberant love by which even your physical nature has been transfigured.’”
Another Friend of God, Ellina von Crevelsheim, who was of so abnormal a psychic constitution that her absorption in the Divine Love caused her to remain dumb for seven years, was “touched by the Hand of God” at the end of that period, and fell into a five-days’ ecstasy, in which “pure truth” was revealed to her, and she was lifted up to an immediate experience of the Absolute. There she “saw the interior of the Father’s heart,” and was “bound with chains of love, enveloped in light, and filled with peace and joy.”
[Sidebar: This next point discusses the question of consciousness during ecstasy. We have mentioned this paradoxical state of consciousness before, particularly in regard to its pertinence to trance mediums; trance mediums usually are unconscious while they perform superhuman feats, or channel communications from supernatural beings. We have suggested that this type of trance is essentially different from an ecstatic trance. Perhaps the question is not so much, "Is the ecstatic conscious?" as it is, "What is the nature of the ecstatic consciousness?"
Back to Underhill:]
"In this transcendent act of union, the mystic sometimes says that he is “conscious of nothing.” But it is clear that this expression is figurative, for otherwise he would not have known that there had been an act of union: were his individuality abolished, it could not have been aware of its attainment of God. What he appears to mean is that consciousness so changes its form as to be no longer recognizable or describable in human speech. In the paradoxical language of Richard of St. Victor,
“In a wondrous fashion remembering we do not remember, seeing we do not see, understanding we not understand, penetrating we do not penetrate.”
In this indescribable but most actual state, the whole self, exalted and at white heat, is unified and poured out in one vivid act of impassioned perception, which leaves no room for reflection or self-observation. That aloof “somewhat” in us which watches all our actions, splits our consciousness, has been submerged. The mystic is attending exclusively to Eternity, not to his own perception of Eternity. That he can only consider when the ecstasy itself is at an end.
“All things I then forgot,
My cheek on Him Who for my coming came,
My cheek on Him Who for my coming came,
All ceased, and I was not,
Leaving my cares and shame
Among the lilies, and forgetting them.”
Leaving my cares and shame
Among the lilies, and forgetting them.”
[Sidebar: As I have hinted above, a lot of New Age material treats of spirituality without direct reference to Jesus, or Christianity per se. Some, like Edgar Cayce or Rudolf Steiner, definitely do. In any case, although some mystics prefer not to put a name on the Incomprehensible, the "Him" in the poem above, "Him Who for my coming came", is clearly Jesus, by any name--it can be No-One else.
Back to Uunderhill:]
"This is that perfect unity of consciousness, that utter concentration on an experience of love, which excludes all conceptual and analytic acts. Hence, when the mystic says that his faculties were suspended, that he “knew all and knew nought,” he really means that he was so concentrated on the Absolute that he ceased to consider his separate existence: so merged in it that he could not perceive it as an object of thought, as the bird cannot see the air which supports it, nor the fish the ocean in which it swims. He really “knows all” but “thinks” nought: “perceives all,” but “conceives nought.”
The ecstatic consciousness is not self-conscious: it is intuitive not discursive. Under the sway of a great passion, possessed by a great Idea, it has become “a single state of enormous intensity.” In this state, it transcends our ordinary processes of knowledge, and plunges deep into the Heart of Reality. A fusion, which is the anticipation of the unitive life, takes place: and the ecstatic returns from this brief foretaste of freedom saying, “I know, as having known, the meaning of Existence; the sane centre of the universe—at once the wonder and the assurance of the soul.”
“This utter transformation of the soul in God,” says St. Teresa, describing the same experience in the official language of theology, “continues only for an instant: yet while it continues no faculty of the soul is aware of it, or knows what is passing there. Nor can it be understood while we are living on the earth; at least God will not have us understand it, because we must be incapable of understanding it. I know is by experience. ”
The utterances of those who know by experience are here of more worth than all the statements of psychology, which are concerned of necessity with the “outward signs” of this “inward and spiritual grace.” To these we must go if we would obtain some hint of that which ecstasy may mean to the ecstatic.
[Sidebar: And upon these utterances we found our faith.
This next section emphasizes self-forgetfulness, and how the ecstatic self takes on qualities of the divine.
Back to Underhill:]
“When the soul, forgetting itself, dwells in that radiant darkness,” says Suso, “it loses all its faculties and all its qualities, as St. Bernard has said. And this, more or less completely, according to whether the soul—whether in the body or out of the body—is more or less united to God. This forgetfulness of self is, in a measure, a transformation in God; who then becomes, in a certain manner, all things for the soul, as Scripture saith. In this rapture the soul disappears, but not yet entirely. It acquires, it is true, certain qualities of divinity, but does not naturally become divine. . . . To speak in the common language, the soul is rapt, by the divine power of resplendent Being, above its natural faculties, into the nakedness of the Nothing.”
Here Suso is trying to describe his rapturous attainment of God in the negative terms of Dionysian theology. It is probable that much of the language of that theology originated, not in the abstract philosophizings, but in the actual ecstatic experience, of the Neoplatonists, who—Christian and Pagan alike—believed in, and sometimes deliberately induced, this condition as the supreme method of attaining the One. The whole Christian doctrine of ecstasy, on its metaphysical side, really descends from that great practical transcendentalist Plotinus: who is known to have been an ecstatic, and has left in his Sixth Ennead a description of the mystical trance obviously based upon his own experiences.
“Then,” he says, “the soul neither sees, nor distinguishes by seeing, nor imagines that there are two things; but becomes as it were another thing, ceases to be itself and belong to itself. It belongs to God and is one with Him, like two concentric circles: concurring they are One; but when they separate, they are two. . . . Since in this conjunction with Deity there were not two things, but the perceiver was one with the thing perceived, if a man could preserve the memory of what he was when he mingled with the Divine, he would have within himself an image of God. . . . For then nothing stirred within him, neither anger, nor desire, nor even reason, nor a certain intellectual perception nor, in short, was he himself moved, if we may assert this; but being in an ecstasy, tranquil and alone with God, he enjoyed an unbreakable calm.”
Ecstasy, says Plotinus in another part of the same treatise, is
“another mode of seeing, a simplification and abandonment of oneself, a desire of contact, rest, and a striving after union.”
All the phases of the contemplative experience seem to be summed up in this phrase.
[Sidebar: At this point, I though it important to insert some material on Plotinus taken from Wikipedia:
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Plotinus (/plɒˈtaɪnəs/; Greek: Πλωτῖνος; c. 204/5 – 270) was a major philosopher of the ancient world. In his philosophy there are three principles: the One, the Intellect, and the Soul. His teacher was Ammonius Saccas and he is of the Platonic tradition. Historians of the 19th century invented the term Neoplatonism and applied it to him and his philosophy which was influential in Late Antiquity. Much of the biographical information about Plotinus comes from Porphyry's preface to his edition of Plotinus' Enneads. His metaphysical writings have inspired centuries of Pagan, Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Gnostic metaphysicians and mystics.
Plotinus taught that there is a supreme, totally transcendent "One", containing no division, multiplicity or distinction; beyond all categories of being and non-being. His "One" "cannot be any existing thing", nor is it merely the sum of all things [compare the Stoic doctrine of disbelief in non-material existence], but "is prior to all existents". Plotinus identified his "One" with the concept of 'Good' and the principle of 'Beauty'.
His "One" concept encompassed thinker and object (of thought alike dyad). Even the self-contemplating intelligence (the noesis of the nous) must contain duality. "Once you have uttered 'The Good,' add no further thought: by any addition, and in proportion to that addition, you introduce a deficiency." Plotinus denies sentience, self-awareness or any other action (ergon) to the One. Rather, if we insist on describing it further, we must call the One a sheer Dynamis or potentiality without which nothing could exist. As Plotinus explains in both places and elsewhere, it is impossible for the One to be Being or a self-aware Creator God. Plotinus compared the One to "light", the Divine Nous (first will towards Good) to the "Sun", and lastly the Soul to the "Moon" whose light is merely a "derivative conglomeration of light from the 'Sun'". The first light could exist without any celestial body.
The One, being beyond all attributes including being and non-being, is the source of the world—but not through any act of creation, willful or otherwise, since activity cannot be ascribed to the unchangeable, immutable One. Plotinus argues instead that the multiple cannot exist without the simple. The "less perfect" must, of necessity, "emanate", or issue forth, from the "perfect" or "more perfect". Thus, all of "creation" emanates from the One in succeeding stages of lesser and lesser perfection. These stages are not temporally isolated, but occur throughout time as a constant process. . . .
The One is not just an intellectual conception but something that can be experienced, an experience where one goes beyond all multiplicity. Plotinus writes, "We ought not even to say that he will see, but he will be that which he sees, if indeed it is possible any longer to distinguish between seer and seen, and not boldly to affirm that the two are one."
It has been said by some critics that the ecstasy of Plotinus was different in kind from the ecstasy of the Christian saints: that it was a philosophic rhapsody, something like Plato’s “saving madness,” which is also regarded on somewhat insufficient evidence as being an affair of the head and entirely unconnected with the heart. At first sight the arid metaphysical language in which Plotinus tries to tell his love, offers some ground for this view. Nevertheless the ecstasy itself is a practical matter; and has its root, not in reason, but in a deep-seated passion for the Absolute which is far nearer to the mystic’s love of God than to any intellectual curiosity, however sublime. The few passages in which it is mentioned tell us what his mystical genius drove him to do: and not what his philosophical mind encouraged him to think or say."
[Sidebar: We have often mentioned the delusive nature of verbal thinking and its detrimental influence on religion. The distinction made here between the "philosophical mind" and the "mystical genius" is significant. Among other things, it means that Jesus, the mediator between God and Man, is available as a Nameless Power to hearts that strive for knowledge of Him.
Back to Underhill:]
"At once when we come to these passages we notice a rise of temperature, an alteration of values. Plotinus the ecstatic is sure whatever Plotinus the metaphysician may think, that the union with God is a union of hearts: that “by love He may be gotten and holden, but by thought never.” He, no less than the mediaeval contemplatives, is convinced—to quote his own words—that the Vision is only for the desirous; for him who has that “loving passion” which “causes the lover to rest in the object of his love.” The simile of marriage, of conjunction as the soul’s highest bliss, which we are sometimes told that we owe in part to the unfortunate popularity of the Song of Songs, in part to the sexual aberrations of celibate saints, is found in the work of this hardheaded Pagan philosopher: who was as celebrated for his practical kindness and robust common sense as for his transcendent intuitions of the One.
The greatest of the Pagan ecstatics then, when speaking from experience, anticipates the Christian contemplatives. His words, too, when compared with theirs, show how delicate are the shades which distinguish ecstasy such as this from the highest forms of orison. “Tranquil and alone with God”—mingled for an instant of time “like two concentric circles” with the Divine Life,” “perceiver and perceived made one”—this is as near as the subtle intellect of Alexandria can come to the reality of that experience in which the impassioned mono-ideism of great spiritual genius conquers the rebellious senses, and becomes, if only for a moment, operative on the highest levels accessible to the human soul. Self-mergence, then—that state of transcendence in which, the barriers of selfhood abolished, we “receive the communication of Life and of Beatitude, in which all things are consummated and all things are renewed” —is the secret of ecstasy, as it was the secret of contemplation. On their spiritual side the two states cannot, save for convenience of description, be divided. Where contemplation becomes expansive, out-going, self-giving, and receives a definite fruition of the Absolute in return, its content is already ecstatic. Whether its outward form shall be so depends on the body of the mystic, not on his soul.
"If the act of the mind, being kidnapped in God,
Itself cannot think or say.
In the middle of the sea, yes, in the abyss,
He can not get out;
Itself can not think or say,
Has formed itself in other dress.
All I hear his well-noting
Contemplating the beauty which has no color."
Thus sang Jacopone da Todi of the ecstatic soul: and here the descriptive powers of one who was both a poet and a mystic bring life and light to the dry theories of psychology.
He continues—and here, in perhaps the finest of all poetic descriptions of ecstasy, he seems to echo at one point Plotinus, at another Richard of St. Victor: at once to veil and reveal the utmost secrets of the mystic life:—
"Open are the doors of age
In possession of all that God hears;
This not to see, to possesses not,
Believe this, taste without knowing.
But which has lost itself all without measure,
Possesses, off shore, that other mixture --
Well without abundance."
"This ineffable “awareness,” en dio stando rapito , (in God being kidnapped) this union with the Imageless Good, is not the only—though it is the purest—form taken by ecstatic apprehension. Many of the visions and voices described in a previous chapter were experienced in the entranced or ecstatic state; generally when the first violence of the rapture was passed. St. Francis and St. Catherine of Siena both received the stigmata in ecstasy: almost all the entrancements of Suso and many of those of St. Teresa and Angela of Foligno, entailed symbolic vision, rather than pure perception of the Absolute. More and more, then, we are forced to the opinion that ecstasy, in so far as it is not a synonym for joyous and expansive contemplation, is really the name of the outward condition rather than of any one kind of inward experience.
In all the cases which we have been considering—and they are characteristic of a large group—the onset of ecstasy has been seen as a gradual, though always involuntary process. Generally it has been the culminating point of a period of contemplation. The self, absorbed in the orison of quiet or of union, or some analogous concentration on its transcendental interests, has passed over the limit of these states; and slid into a still ecstatic trance, with its outward characteristics of rigid limbs, cold, and depressed respiration."
[Sidebar: We have here, again, the question of the self-generated ecstasy, versus something that may only be described as "Grace". We touched on this in one of our previous discussions when we mentioned the significance of the so-called ecstatic "trigger". Ecstasy as a triggered response, as opposed to ecstasy as a completely involuntary process, are slightly contradictory ideas. However, so as not to quibble, let us simply be reminded that there are certain things along the spiritual path that we are REQUIRED TO DO, and there are certain things that are always DONE TO US. Grace is the totally undeserved gift of Divine Love, which is bestowed, not according to our designs, but God's. My conversion trauma was not something I would ever have thought to inflict upon myself, (neither, I'm sure, was Saul's on the road to Damascus); but Jesus chose a specific time and place to reveal His Truth, Power, and Love to me, and, thank God, I have been operating off of His timetable ever since.
I think the bottom line for the layman must be this: find a discipline, to get close to God, that is as much as you can handle, and leave the rest to "Grace". I hope this is enough.
Back to Underhill:]
"The ecstasy, however, instead of developing naturally from a state of intense absorption in the Divine Vision, may seize the subject abruptly and irresistibly, when in his normal state of consciousness. This is strictly what ascetic writers mean by Rapture. We have seen that the essence of the mystic life consists in the remaking of personality: its entrance into a conscious relation with the Absolute.
This process is accompanied in the mystic by the development of an art expressive of his peculiar genius: the art of contemplation. His practice of this art, like the practice of poetry, music, or any other form of creation, may follow normal lines, at first amenable to the control of his will, and always dependent on his own deliberate attention to the supreme Object of his quest; that is to say, on his orison. His mystic states, however they may end, will owe their beginning to some voluntary act upon his part: a deliberate response to the invitation of God, a turning from the visible to the invisible world.
Sometimes, however, his genius for the transcendent becomes too strong for the other elements of character, and manifests itself in psychic disturbances—abrupt and ungovernable invasions from the subliminal region—which make its exercise parallel to the “fine frenzy” of the prophet, the composer, or the poet. Such is Rapture: a violent and uncontrollable expression of genius for the Absolute, which temporarily disorganizes and may permanently injure the nervous system of the self. Often, but not necessarily, Rapture—like its poetic equivalent—yields results of great splendour and value for life. But it is an accident, not an implicit of mystical experience: an indication of disharmony between the subject’s psychophysical make-up and his transcendental powers."
[Sidebar: Sadly, I have known several people (including myself) whose spiritual evolutions have been accompanied by debilitating physical traumas. Perhaps this is why such emphasis is placed, among the Hindus, on a guru, whose function is to guide the devotee gently through the formative levels of spiritual growth. Clearly, everything that walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, is not a duck; spiritual awakening can bring with it severe penalties. We Christians must rely, firsthand, on Jesus for advice and counsel. The Shepherd does not spare the rod, but we may be sure that His guidance will keep us on the right path. Thank you, Jesus!
Back to Underhill:]
"Rapture, then, may accompany the whole development of selves of an appropriate type. We have seen that it is a common incident in mystical conversion. The violent uprush of subliminal intuitions by which such conversion is marked disorganizes the normal consciousness, overpowers the will and the senses, and entails a more or less complete entrancement. This was certainly the case with Suso and Rulman Merswin, and perhaps with Pascal: whose “Certitude, Peace, Joy” sums up the exalted intuition of Perfection and Reality—the conviction of a final and unforgettable knowledge—which is characteristic of all ecstatic perception.
In her Spiritual Relations, St. Teresa speaks in some detail of the different phases or forms of expression of these violent ecstatic states: trance, which in her system means that which we have called ecstasy, and transport, or “flight of the spirit,” which is the equivalent of rapture.
“The difference between trance and transport,” she says, “is this. In a trance the soul gradually dies to outward things, losing the senses and living unto God. But a transport comes on by one sole act of His Majesty, wrought in the innermost part of the soul with such swiftness that it is as if the higher part thereof were carried away, and the soul were leaving the body.”
Rapture, says St. Teresa in another place, “comes in general as a shock, quick and sharp, before you can collect your thoughts, or help yourself in any way; and you see and feel it as a cloud, or a strong eagle rising upwards and carrying you away on its wings. I repeat it: you feel and see yourself carried away, you know not whither.” This carrying-away sensation may even assume the concrete form which is known as levitation: when the upward and outward sensations so dominate the conscious field that the subject is convinced that she is raised bodily from the ground.
“It seemed to me, when I tried to make some resistance, as if a great force beneath my feet lifted me up. I know of nothing with which to compare it; but it was much more violent than the other spiritual visitations, and I was therefore as one ground to pieces . . . And further, I confess that it threw me into a great fear, very great indeed at first; for when I saw my body thus lifted up from the earth, how could I help it? Though the spirit draws it upwards after itself, and that with great sweetness if unresisted, the senses are not lost; at least I was so much myself as to be able to see that I was being lifted up .”
So Rulman Merswin said that in the rapture which accompanied his conversion, he was carried round the garden with his feet off the ground: and St. Catherine of Siena, in a passage which I have already quoted, speaks of the strength of the spirit, which raises the body from the earth.
The subjective nature of this feeling of levitation is practically acknowledged by St. Teresa when she says, “When the rapture was over, my body seemed frequently to be buoyant, as if all weight had departed from it; so much so, that now and then I scarcely knew that my feet touched the ground. But during the rapture the body is very often as it were dead, perfectly powerless. It continues in the position it was in when the rapture came upon it—if sitting, sitting.” Obviously here the outward conditions of physical immobility coexisted with the subjective sensation of being “lifted Up.”
The self’s consciousness when in the condition of rapture may vary from the complete possession of her faculties claimed by St. Teresa to a complete entrancement. However abrupt the oncoming of the transport, it does not follow that the mystic instantly loses his surface-consciousness. “There remains the power of seeing and hearing; but it is as if the things heard and seen were at a great distance far away.” They have retreated, that is to say, to the fringe of the conscious field, but may still remain just within it. Though the senses may not be entirely entranced, however, it seems that the power of movement is always lost. As in ecstasy, breathing and circulation are much diminished.
“By the command of the Bridegroom when He intends ravishing the soul,” says St. Teresa, “the doors of the mansions and even those of the keep and of the whole castle are closed; for He takes away the power of speech, and although occasionally the other faculties are retained rather longer, no word can be uttered. Sometimes the person is at once deprived of all the senses, the hands and body becoming as cold as if the soul had fled; occasionally no breathing can be detected. This condition lasts but a short while, I mean in the same degree, for when this profound suspension diminishes the body seems to come to itself and gain strength to return again to this death which gives more vigorous life to the soul.”
[Sidebar: Only one phrase of the preceding paragraph inspires comment:
". . .return again to this death which gives more vigorous life to the soul.”
Here we are presented with another affirmation that spiritual practice ought to include some kind of discipline which has a beneficial impact on the soul. The idea of ecstasy as a death implies that the ecstatic state is more real than the physical state; and that, furthermore, the return from this glorious death enriches the soul at both the mundane and the spiritual levels.
Back to Underhill:]
"This spiritual storm, then, in St. Teresa’s opinion, enhances the vitality of those who experience it: makes them “more living than before.” It initiates them into “heavenly secrets,” and if it does not do this it is no “true rapture,” but a “physical weakness such as women are prone to owing to their delicacy of constitution.” Its sharpness and violence, however, leave considerable mental disorder behind:
“This supreme state of ecstasy never lasts long, but although it ceases, it leaves the will so inebriated, and the mind so transported out of itself that for a day, or sometimes for several days, such a person is incapable of attending to anything but what excites the will to the love of God; although wide awake enough to this, she seems asleep as regards all earthly matters.”
But when equilibrium is re-established, the true effects of this violent and beatific intuition of the Absolute begin to invade the normal life. The self which has thus been caught up to awareness of new levels of Reality, is stimulated to fresh activity by the strength of its impressions. It now desires an eternal union with that which it has known; with which for a brief moment it seemed to be merged. The peculiar talent of the mystic—power of apprehending Reality which his contemplations have ordered and developed, and his ecstasies express—here reacts upon his life-process, his slow journey from the Many to the One. His nostalgia has been increased by a glimpse of the homeland. His intuitive apprehension of the Absolute, which assumes in ecstasy its most positive form, spurs him on towards that permanent union with the Divine which is his goal. “Such great graces,” says St. Teresa, “leave the soul avid of total possession of that Divine Bridegroom who has conferred them.”
[Sidebar: Notice the use of the word "Grace". All the saints must have wondered, "Why me?"
Back to Underhill:]
"Hence the ecstatic states do not merely lift the self to an abnormal degree of knowledge: they enrich her life, contribute to the remaking of her consciousness, develop and uphold the “strong and stormy love which drives her home.” They give her the clearest vision she can have of that transcendent standard to which she must conform: entail her sharpest consciousness of the inflow of that Life on which her little striving life depends. Little wonder, then, that—though the violence of the onset may often try his body to the full—the mystic comes forth from a “good ecstasy” as Pascal from the experience of the Fire, humbled yet exultant, marvellously strengthened; and ready, not for any passive enjoyments, but rather for the struggles and hardships of the Way, the deliberate pain and sacrifice of love.
In the third Degree of Ardent Love, says Richard of St. Victor, love paralyses action. Union (copula) is the symbol of this state: ecstasy is its expression. The desirous soul, he says finely, no longer thirsts for God but into God. The pull of its desire draws it into the Infinite Sea. The mind is borne away into the abyss of Divine Light; and, wholly forgetful of exterior things, knows not even itself, but passes utterly into its God. In this state, all earthly desire is absorbed in the heavenly glory. “Whilst the mind is separated from itself, and whilst it is borne away into the secret place of the divine mystery and is surrounded on all sides by the fire of divine love, it is inwardly penetrated and inflamed by this fire, and utterly puts off itself and puts on a divine love: and being conformed to that Beauty which it has beheld, it passes utterly into that other glory.”
Thus does the state of ecstasy contribute to the business of deification; of the remaking of the soul’s substance in conformity with the Goodness, Truth, and Beauty which is God, “Being conformed to that Beauty which it has beheld, it passes utterly into that other glory”; into the flaming heart of Reality, the deep but dazzling darkness of its home."
Thus concludes the reading of Chapter 8 of Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill, . I hope this has been of interest. This review of the ecstasies of the saints has been inspiring to me, from a discipline point of view; plus, just a few weeks of contemplating ecstasy has brought me higher into the spiritual realms whose altitude I have always sought to attain.
Let us pray: Jesus, thank you for all the paths you have given us to find God. You are like the father who wrote to his estranged son, "Come back to me as far as you can, and I will come the rest of they way." Thank you Jesus. Amen.