As I post this, the Eastern Church begins Holy Week while the Western Church celebrates the 5th Sunday of Easter. The impact of this juxtaposition is worth noting: the Cross always leads us to Resurrection, but we can only approach the Glory by way of the Cross.
I will offer just a few words here on the Sayings of the Fathers regarding ecstasy. I apologize for the lapse between posts – I am pulled in many directions and delight in each.
An interesting question is raised by the Fathers: when one is caught up in rapture or ecstasy, how can one leave one’s senses? Does the soul leave the body – or just the mind? Is the body in a state between sleep and death – or is the body actually dead until the soul returns? It is posited that there may be two types of ecstasies, one where the mind alone leaves and one where the soul is fully released from the body. St. Paul’s experience is quoted, as the apostle apparently did not know whether he was in his body or not when caught up to the third heaven (2 Corinthians, 12: 2).
- Human understanding of sleep, death and altered states of consciousness is quite different now than when the Fathers wrote. Do you think having the knowledge we have would have changed how they tried to describe the experience of ecstasy?
- Mysticism and states of “trance” exist in many religions throughout history. Do you think that the ecstasy of the Christian believer is something beyond these others? Why or why not?
St. Seraphim of Sarov lived in 18th century Russia and is renowned in the Eastern Church. He lived a deeply ascetic life as a monk and elder, was a wonder-worker and experienced many visions. He writes, “…wholly absorbed in contemplation of the uncreated beauty, he forgets all things of sense. He does not even wish to see himself, but desires to hide himself in the heart of the earth, if only he may not be deprived of that true food – God.”
- Undoubtedly St. Seraphim is writing as one who has contemplated “the eternal Light”. How does this seem to have affected his relationship to himself and his senses?
- As one far less holy, what might I learn as I reflect on his words?
St. John of Dalyatha also attempts to offer us a glimpse into his experience of ecstasy, lamenting as he does so that he cannot describe it. He writes of “being united with the Spirit of the Son” to the point of “knowing within himself that he is God’s son”. He thus is able to speak to his Father with intimacy, “not like one who prays but like one who receives prayer”.
- In this description of union, St. John almost seems to lose himself in identifying with Christ. How do you find yourself reacting to this description?
Once again, many blessings to all. Let us pray together during these holy days and share, whether in words or silence.