A reader named Kevin wrote and asked me:
What’s your view on the phenomenon of spiritual ecstasy? I used to think, before I experienced it, that it was a surge of positive emotion, rather like joy. Experienced in the body. Actually, in my experience spiritual ecstasy takes place in silence, in stillness, and in the spirit rather than the body. It is an internal experience. Do you have a view?
That’s a great question, and I’m afraid I can only speak from my own admittedly limited experience, as well as my sense of what some of the great mystics had to say.
And the first thing I would say: it’s a mystery.
What I mean by this: so much of what we might call mystical and spiritual phenomena simply cannot be put into words… which is to say, how can we ever truly know if your “ecstasy” is even remotely like what I call “ecstasy”?!
Evelyn Underhill has this to say:
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. 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. Clearly, this apprehension 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. — Mysticism, pp. 358-359
She goes on to suggest that, physically speaking, ecstasy is the same thing as a trance.
What is Ecstasy?
So what is it? A surge of positive feelings? A deep internal experience of silence and stillness? Being caught up in Divine Union? A trance? Or even an out-of-body experience? (the word comes from the Greek ekstasis, from an Indo-European which literally means “to stand out” — as in out-from-the-body. That brings to mind another Latin phrase that medieval monks used to bandy about: excessus mentis, or literally “exceeding the mind” — the idea of a mystical ecstasy involving a higher consciousness that takes a person beyond him- or herself.
For me, my prayer tends to be very grounded — no out-of-body experiences, no sense of my mind somehow going beyond itself. That’s not to say that I don’t have moments of deep peace, indescribable joy, and awe-inspiring encounters with silence — or with Silence, with Love, with the Mystery. But as I get older, my prayer seems to be more — well, grounded. I don’t know if that’s because I’m maturing in my spiritual life, or if I’m just some sort of contemplative slacker. Others can be the judge of that.
For what it’s worth, Kevin, I really like what you describe: “in my experience spiritual ecstasy takes place in silence, in stillness, and in the spirit rather than the body.” I’m not quite sure what you mean by “in the spirit rather than the body” — but again, it seems that my encounters with the Mystery simply take a different form. I think one of the biggest mistakes any contemplative can make is to start comparing his or her experiences to those reported by others. Either we’ll think we have a “better” experience which is a manifestation of pride, or else we’re at risk of deciding others have something better, and then we fall into envy. Either way, it’s a trap.
So what’s the bottom line? I’m reminded of Dory, the absent-minded fish in Pixar’s Finding Nemo. She would sing a little song to remind herself to persevere in the hunt for little lost Nemo: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming…” she would sing to herself. And for us, our song ought to be, “Just keep praying, just keep praying, just keep praying!” When moments of ecstasy, or rapture, or excessus mentis, or whatever come, well, enjoy them, and don’t get too attached to them. They are, as the Zen master Charl0tte Joko Beck once said, “Nothing special.” After all, no less a mystical authority than St. John of the Cross suggested that we should basically ignore any extraordinary mystical or spiritual experiences that happen during prayer. “One should disbelieve anything coming in a supernatural way and believe only the teaching of Christ,” he states bluntly in his masterpiece, The Ascent of Mount Carmel.
Keep praying. Keep finding joy in the silence. And allow whatever feelings or experiences that come and go, to just come and go. The key to all this isn’t having cool experiences, anyway. It’s all about love. We are called to become Love. That’s where this road is taking us.