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Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill, [1911], at

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. 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. p. 359 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. “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.”  732

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.

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.  733 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 p. 360 of burning. Similar instances of ecstatic anesthesia abound in the lives of the saints, and are also characteristic of certain pathological states.  734

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.”  735

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 p. 361 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.  736 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.”  737

The mystics themselves are fully aware of the importance of this distinction. 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.”  738

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 p. 362 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.  739 “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.”  740 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.

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?’”  741 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. . . . p. 363 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.  742 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?’”  743 “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.”  744

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 lucidity, 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. “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.”  745

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 of the contemplative ceases to be a metaphor, and becomes a realistic description. It must be remembered that the whole trend p. 364 of mystical education has been toward the production of this fixity of attention. Recollection and Quiet lead up to it. 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.

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.

For the Christian mystics, the sacraments and mysteries of faith have always provided such a point d’appui; 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  746 and St. Francis of Assissi  747 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.  748 p. 365

Of St. Catherine of Siena, her biographer says that “she used to communicate with such fervour that immediately afterwards she would pass into the state of ecstasy, in which for hours she would be totally unconscious. On one occasion, finding her in this condition, they (the Dominican friars) forcibly threw her out of the church at midday, and left her in the heat of the sun watched over by some of her companions till she came to her senses.” Another, “catching sight of her in the church when she was in ecstasy, came down and pricked her in many places with a needle. Catherine was not aroused in the least from her trance, but afterwards, when she came back to her senses, she felt the pain in her body and perceived that she had thus been wounded.”  749

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 p. 366 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.”  750

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.”

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.” Those deeper layers of personality which normal life keeps below the threshold are active in it: 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 p. 367 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.

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.  751 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 p. 368 entrancement; in “being ravished out of fleshly feeling,” as St. Paul caught up to the Third Heaven,  752 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.

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.”  753

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?

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 p. 369 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.  754 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.”  755

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.”  756 “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 p. 370 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.”  757

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.  758 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.’”  759 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.”  760

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.”  761 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 p. 371 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,
All ceased, and I was not,
Leaving my cares and shame
Among the lilies, and forgetting them.” 762

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.”  763 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.”  764 “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. ”  765 Theutterances 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.

“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 p. 372 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.”  766

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.”  767 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.

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 p. 373 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. 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.”  768 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”  769 —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. p. 374

“Se l’ atto della mente
è tutto consopito,
en Dio stando rapito,
ch’ en sé non se retrova.
. . . .
En mezo de sto mare
essendo sì abissato,
giá non ce trova lato
onde ne possa uscire,
De sé non può pensare
né dir como è formato,
però che, trasformato,
altro sí ha vestire.
Tutto lo suo sentire
en ben sí va notando,
belleza contemplando
la qual non ha colore.” 770

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:—

“Aperte son le porte
facta ha conjunzione,
et e in possessione
de tutto quel de Dio.
Sente que non sentio,
que non cognove vede,
possede que non crede,
gusta senza sapere.
Però ch’ ha sé perduto
tutto senza misura,
possede quel’ altura
de summa smesuranza.
Perché non ha tenuto
en sé altra mistura,
quel ben senza figura
recere en abondanza.” 771 p. 375

This ineffable “awareness,” en dio stando rapito , 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.

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 p. 376 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.

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.”  772

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.”  773 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 p. 377 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 .”  774

So Rulman Merswin said that in the rapture which accompanied his conversion, he was carried round the garden with his feet off the ground:  775 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.  776

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.”  777

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.”  778 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 p. 378 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.”  779

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.”  780

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.”  781

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 p. 379 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.”  782

Thus does the state of ecstasy contribute to the business of deification; of the remaking of the soul’s susbtance 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.

p. 380



“Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death,” vol. ii. p. 260.


Vide infra, p. 365.


An interesting modern case is reported in the Lancet, 18 March, 1911.


Relaccion, viii. 8.


St. Thomas proves ecstasies to be inevitable on just this psychological ground. “The higher our mind is raised to the contemplation of spiritual things,” he says, “the more it is abstracted from sensible things. But the final term to which contemplation can possibly arrive is the divine substance. Therefore the mind that sees the divine substance must be totally divorced from the bodily senses, either by death or by some rapture” (“Sultana contra Gentiles,” I. iii. cap. xlvii., Rickaby’s translation).


“Sur la Psychologie du Mysticisme” (Revue Philosophique, February, 1902).


Malaval, “La Pratique de la Vraye Théologie Mystique,” vol. i. p. 89.


Pierre Janet (“The Major Symptoms of Hysteria,” p. 316) says that a lowering of the mental level in an invariable symptom or “stigma” of hysteria.


“Holy Wisdom,” Treatise iii. § iv. cap. iii.


Von Hügel, “The Mystical Element of Religion,” vol. i. p. 206 .


This power of detecting and hearing the call of duty, though she was deaf to everything else, is evidently related to the peculiarity noticed by Ribot; who says that an ecstatic hears no sounds, save, in some cases, the voice of one specific person, which is always able to penetrate the trance. (“Les Maladies de la Volonté,” p. 125.)


Vita e Dottrina, cap. v.


Vida, cap. xx. § 29.


A. Maury, “Le Sommeil et les Rèves,” p. 235.


“Revelations of Divine Love,” cap. iii.


Vide supra, p. 181.


D. A. Mougel, “Denys le Chartreux,” p. 32.


E. Gardner, “St. Catherine of Siena,” p. 50.


Dialogo, cap. lxxix.


In the case of Dante, for instance, we do not know whether his absorption in the Eternal light did or did not entail the condition of trance.


2 Cor. xii. 1-6.


Vida, cap. xx. §§ 1 and 3.


Compare Dante, Letter to Can Grande, sect. 28, where he adduces this fact of “the ravishing of sinners for their correction,” in support of his claim that the “Divine Comedy” is the fruit of experience, and that he had indeed “navigated the great Sea of Being” of which he writes.


Richard Rolle, “The Fire of Love,” bk. ii. cap. vii.


Dante, loc. cit.


Eckhart, “On the Steps of the Soul” (Pfeiffer, p. 153).


Compare Par. xxxiii. 85 ( vide supra , p. 135).


Jundt, “Rulman Merswin,” p. 27. Note that this was a “good ecstasy,” involving healthful effects for life.


Jundt, “Les Amis de Dieu,” p. 39. Given also by Rufus Jones, “Studies in Mystical Religion,” p. 271.


“Benjamin Major.”


St. John of the Cross, “En una Noche Escura.”


Ribot, “Psychologie de l’Attention,” cap. iii.


B. P. Blood. See William James, “A Pluralistic Mystic,” in the Hibbert Journal, July, 1910 .


Vida, cap. xx. § 24.


Leben, cap. vl.


Ennead vi. 9


Op. cit., loc. cit.


Ruysbroeck, “De Calculo,” cap. xii.


“The activity of the mind is lulled to rest: rapt in God, It can no longer find itself. . . . Being so deeply engulphed in that ocean, now it can find no place to issue therefrom. Of itself it cannot think, nor can it say what it is like: because transformed, it hath another vesture. All its perceptions have gone forth to gaze upon the Good, and contemplate that Beauty which has no likeness” (Lauda xci.).


“The doors are flung wide: conjoined to God, it possesses all that is in Him. It feels that which it felt not: sees that which it knew not, possesses that which it believed not, tastes, though it savours not. Because it is wholly lost to itself, it possesses that height of Unmeasured Perfection. Because it has not retained in itself the mixture of any other thing, it has received in abundance that Imageless Good” ( op. cit .).


Relaccion viii. 8 and 10.


Vida, cap. xx. § 3.


St. Teresa, op. cit., loc. cit., §§ 7 and 9.


Supra , p. 186.


Dialogo, cap. lxxix.


Vida, cap, xx. § 23. At the same time in the present state of our knowledge and in view of numerous attested cases of levitation, it is impossible to dogmatise on this subject. The supernaturalist view is given in its extreme form by Farges, “Mystical Phenomena,” pp. 536 seq.


Teresa, loc. cit.


St. Teresa, “El Castillo Interior,” Moradas Sextas, cap. iv.


Op. cit., loc. cit .


St. Teresa, op. cit., cap. vi.


“De Quatuor Gradibus Violentae Charitatis” (paraphrase).

Next: IX. The Dark Night of the Soul