"All that the soul knows when it is left to itself is nothing in comparison with the knowledge that is given it during ecstasy. When the soul is raised aloft, illumined by the presence of God, when God and it are lost in each other, it apprehends and possesses with joy good things which it cannot describe. The soul swims in joy and knowledge." (Angela da Foligno, mystic, quoted by Father A. Poulain in The Graces of Interior Prayer )
Many students of spirituality describe the ecstatic experience as the mystic state parexcellence. Mystics from all traditions agree in regarding ecstasy as a wonderful state—the one in which the human spirit is swept up and into an immediate union with the divine. As Evelyn Underhill points out in her Mysticism (1961), the word has become synonymous with joyous exaltation: "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 of consciousness brought with it a valid and ineffable apprehension of the Real."
Ecstasy differs from meditation—one of the stages that may precede it—both in character and development. In all the lengthy preliminary training of the mystical consciousness, a constant exertion of the will is required. But when at last the new and long-desired experiences come to the mystic "like a flash" into the psyche, he or she knows that there is nothing more to do than to accept that which has been given.
Fredric W. H. Myers (1843–1901) observed 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," Myers said. "From the medicine man…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."
Evelyn Underhill states that ecstasy "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 consciousness of 'I-hood,' of space and time…all that beings 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 the Transcendent."
Underhill goes on to explain that in the perfect unity of consciousness that comes in a state of ecstasy, the mystic is so concentrated on the Absolute that his or her faculties are suspended and he or she ceases to think of himself or herself as separate from the "All That Is." The mystic becomes so immersed in the Absolute that "as the bird cannot see the air which supports it, nor the fish the ocean in which it swims, [the mystic] knows all, but think naught, perceives all, but conceives naught."
In addition to the passive nature of the ecstasy, another characteristic of its content is its relative unity and the narrowness of its conscious field. To a large extent, the outside world is shut out, and the five senses are completely closed to external stimuli. Every other thought, feeling, or emotion is pushed out of the mind but the idea of God and the emotions of joy and love. These fill the mind to the exclusion of nearly everything else, and are themselves blended into a single whole. The mystic does not believe God to be present; he or she feels God united with his or her soul, so that this intense awareness and its strong emotional accompaniment leave no room in his or her consciousness for anything else.
A story is told that St. Ignatius (1491–1556) was seated at the side of a road, looking at the stream that crossed it, absorbed in contemplation, when the eyes of his soul were opened and inundated with light. He was able to distinguish nothing with his five senses, but he comprehended marvelously a great number of truths pertaining to the faith or to the human sciences. The new concepts and ideas were so numerous and the light so bright that St. Ignatius seemed to enter into a new world. The amount of this new knowledge was so great that, according to Ignatius, all that he had learned in his life up to his 62nd year, whether supernatural or through laborious study, could not be compared to what he had learned at this one ecstatic experience.
The knowledge that one receives while in a state of ecstasy is immediate and leaves the percipient with a complete sense of the noetic, an inner knowing and awareness that what was shown to him or her in the ecstatic vision is the way things truly are. The knowledge received in such a state often has very little to do with conceptual or representative knowledge about things. To the mystic, true reality does not lie in such knowledge. Only in an immediate experience, a visionary ecstatic experience, which stands for itself alone, can one find true reality—and most certainly of all, there alone can one find the ultimate reality with God.
St. Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), the esteemed Spanish Carmelite nun, mystic, and writer, referred in her last great work, the Interior Castle (1577), to four degrees of the mystic union with God:
Perhaps the most dramatic characteristic of the ecstatic experience is the occasional phenomenon of visions, often of Christ, Mary, various saints, or angels. Since so many of these visionary encounters are compatible with the ecstatic's religious beliefs, certain researchers maintain that the visions of the mystics are determined in content by their spiritual orientation and are set in motion by the imagination working in dreamlike fashion upon the mass of theological material which fills the mind. Some researchers also find it likely that the vision, much like a normal dream, originates from some sensational stimulus which the imagination proceeds to interpret and elaborate.
Mystic ecstasy, to the percipient of the experience, reveals a genuine truth. He or she is brought face-to-face with ultimate reality that is experienced with emotions and intuition. A transcendence of the self is achieved. The mystic returns from the experience with the certainty of having been somewhere else where a revelation of some remarkable truth was given, a truth such as reality is unitary and divine; even ordinary human experiences are phenomenal; the soul, which is the key to reality, may rise to oneness with God; that God's presence may be found everywhere hidden in the midst of daily life.
In her Ecstasy: A Study of Some Secular and Religious Experiences (1961), Marghanita Laski lists five principal manifestations of the ecstatic mystical experience:
Laski states that ecstatic experiences can never be satisfactorily explained if it is suggested that ecstasies are "…only this or only that—only a phenomenon of repressed sexuality or only a concomitant of some or other morbid condition." In her examination of the recipients' convictions of the value of the ecstatic experience, she came to believe that such manifestations must be "treated as important outside religious contexts, as having important effects on people's mental and physical well-being, on their aesthetic preferences, their creativity, their beliefs and philosophies, and on their conduct.…" To ignore or to deny the importance of ecstatic experiences, Laski contends, is "to leave to the irrational the interpretation of what many people believe to be of supreme value."
Bach, Marcus. The Inner Ecstasy. New York, Cleveland: World Publishing, 1969.
James, William. Varieties of Religious Experience. Garden City, N.Y.: Masterworks Program, 1971.
Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy. New York: Galaxy Books, 1958.
Suzuki, D. T. Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist. New York: Perennial, 1971.
Tart, Charles T. Altered States of Consciousness. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1969.
Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. New York: Dutton, 1961.