Ecstasy (In Christian Mysticism)

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A concomitant but temporary mystical phenomenon that normally accompanies the prayer of ecstatic union and disappears when the soul enters upon the transforming union. As an external phenomenon it consists in a gentle and progressive swooning that terminates in the total alienation of the senses. The ecstatic person does not hear or see anything and the face is usually radiant, as if the individual has been transported to a scene of great beauty and joy.

A trance or swoon could conceivably be caused by diabolical influence. More common, presumably, is the state of absorption and rapture induced by natural psychological causes and not necessarily associated with religious experience. These conditions are sometimes called ecstasy by reason of the similarity of the external phenomena. This article, however, is concerned only with truly supernatural ecstasy, which always presupposes the elevation of the soul to intimate union with God and its consequent detachment from the sensible world. It admits of two forms: prophetic ecstasy and mystical ecstasy. Prophetic ecstasy is a charism, or gratia gratis data, and is therefore not within the normal or concomitant phenomena of the mystical state. It may be given even to one in the state of mortal sin, for it is given by God as an illumination of the intellect so that the individual may transmit a message to others. The ecstasy occurs only as a means of binding the other faculties lest they disturb or misinterpret the message given by God.

Mystical ecstasy, on the other hand, is a truly concomitant phenomenon of the mystical state, and especially of the higher grades of infused contemplation; it therefore enters into the normal activity of mystical prayer, but only for a time. The essential note of mystical ecstasy is the elevation of the soul to God, the soul's awareness of its union with God, and the resulting alienation of the internal and external senses in the ecstatic trance. The cause of mystical ecstasy is the Holy Spirit, working through His gifts, and especially through the gifts of wisdom and understanding. The ecstasy occurs because of the weakness of the body and its powers to withstand the divine illumination of infused contemplation, but as the body is purified and strengthened, ecstasy no longer occurs.

St. Thomas Aquinas distinguished three degrees of ecstasy: suspension of the external senses alone; suspension of both the external and internal senses; direct contemplation of the divine essence (ST 2a2ae, 175. 3 ad 1). Mystical ecstasy may be gentle and delightful, or it may be violent and painful. The delightful ecstasy is called simple ecstasy; the painful and violent ecstasy is called seizure, flight of the spirit, or rapture (see St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, Sixth Mansions, ch. 5; St. John of the Cross, Dark Night, 2.12).

Bibliography: m. de goedt, et al., s.v. "Extase dans le mystique chrétienne," Dictionnaire de Spiritualité (Paris 1961) 4:20722171. a. farges, Mystical Phenomena Compared with Their Human and Diabolical Counterfeits, tr. s. p. jacques (London 1926). j. marÉchal, Studies in the Psychology of the Mystics, tr. a. thorold (London 1927). b. mcginn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism, 5 v. (New York 1991). a. poulain, The Graces of Interior Prayer, tr. l. l. yorke smith (St. Louis 1950). e. scholl, "Going Beyond Oneself: Excessus mentis and raptus," Cistercian Studies 31 (1996) 273286. teresa of avila, The Book of Her Life, tr. k. kavanaugh and o. rodriguez, 2d ed. (Washington, D.C. 1987), ch. 1821; The Interior Castle, tr. k. kavanaugh and o. rodriguez (Washington, D.C.1979). e. underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness (Cleveland 1955).

[j. aumann]