Chapter 15

S ince 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

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. “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.”

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 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 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 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

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. . . . 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 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]

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 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

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 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 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 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 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 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

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 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 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.

“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]

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

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.

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 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
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 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 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.

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

[733] Vide infra, p. 365.

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

[735] Relaccion, viii. 8.

[736] 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).

[737] “Sur la Psychologie du Mysticisme” (Revue Philosophique, February,

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

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

[740] “Holy Wisdom,” Treatise iii. § iv. cap. iii.

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

[742] 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.)

[743] Vita e Dottrina, cap. v.

[744] Vida, cap. xx. § 29.

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

[746] “Revelations of Divine Love,” cap. iii.

[747] Vide supra, p. 181.

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

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

[750] Dialogo, cap. lxxix.

[751] 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

[752] 2 Cor. xii. 1-6.

[753] Vida, cap. xx. §§ 1 and 3.

[754] 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.

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

[756] Dante, loc. cit.

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

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

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

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

[761] “Benjamin Major.”

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

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

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

[765] Vida, cap. xx. § 24.

[766] Leben, cap. vl.

[767] Ennead vi. 9

[768] Op. cit., loc. cit.

[769] Ruysbroeck, “De Calculo,” cap. xii.

[770] “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.).

[771] “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 .).

[772] Relaccion viii. 8 and 10.

[773] Vida, cap. xx. § 3.

[774] St. Teresa, op. cit., loc. cit., §§ 7 and 9.

[775] Supra , p. 186.

[776] Dialogo, cap. lxxix.

[777] 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.

[778] Teresa, loc. cit.

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

[780] Op. cit., loc. cit .

[781] St. Teresa, op. cit., cap. vi.

[782] “De Quatuor Gradibus Violentae Charitatis” (paraphrase).