Chapter 3: Beyond Prayer, Ecstasy, pp. 71-77

Dear people of prayer, we are now invited into a chapter entitled,, “Beyond Prayer”. What could be beyond prayer?

Of ourselves, we cannot know. But Fr. Matta reminds us with a beautiful quote from the first letter to the Corinthians: “…No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.”

So let us pray, opening our hearts to the Spirit, that we might have the courage to follow Christ the Lord, wherever He takes us.

 +++

Fr. Matta begins this chapter by teaching us about “ecstasy” or, more properly “ἔκστασις”, as it appears in Biblical Greek. Original linguistic meanings included bafflement or bewilderment which, oddly to our modern ear, became translated to “dismay” in one of the Psalms. There are also roots in the word that suggest being outside of oneself or out of conscious awareness, as in a rapture or trance.

However, especially relevant to us, as followers of the risen Christ, are the New Testament usages where “ἔκστασις” is translated as “amazement”. “Amazement” at the empty tomb, at the angels saying He is alive; amazement when the well-known beggar, lame from birth, is made whole by the apostles at the Beautiful Gate.

  1. When you read the title of this section, “Ecstasy”, what associations did you have to the word? Did Fr. Matta’s exposition alter how you relate to the word? If so, how?
  2. If there are any Greek-speakers among us, your comments would be particularly welcome here. Is “ἔκστασις” a word that appears in modern conversational Greek or only in ancient texts? If it is conversational, has its meaning shifted over time as “ecstasy” has in English?

Next, our author tells us of the relationship between the inner quietude so emphasized in the last chapter and this ecstasy. Understood as rapture or trance, ecstasy implies a willingness to receive whatever God reveals. Indeed, the person loses control of self/mind/senses in order to be completely connected with God. “It is the Holy Spirit who takes over the lead at these moments. Man’s freedom is thus swallowed up in that of the Spirit.” It was thus that the prophet’s of the Old Testament received messages from God.

  1. Most if not all of us dwell in a culture where we value being in control. Does this loss of control sound frightening, exciting (or both, or neither) to you?
  2. If you have not experienced this yourself, does it seem real to you? Does it seem like something possible for you personally? Why or why not?

When we turn the page (to page 74), Fr. Matta offers us some interesting reflections on this very point. He tells us that, with the Incarnation and the promised outpouring of the Spirit upon all, this grace is offered to everyone. Yet, he tells us, the purpose is no longer to reveal new aspects of the faith, but to increase knowledge and strengthen love ties between man and God on a personal level. Because God’s nature cannot be perceived on the level that our minds and senses operate, when God so manifests Himself to a person, they must be silenced for a time, lest they “interfere with or falsify the reality of God, who transcends them”. Fr. Matta tells us once again that such manifestations by God do not occur because of any worthiness on our part, nor are they reserved for those advanced in the spiritual life. “What is needed is only deep love from the heart, mind and soul…”

  1. Within some movements or denominations in Christianity, reported experiences of “ecstasy” are sometimes common and public. Is this the same thing – the same Spirit who spoke through the prophets, the same “amazement” of the disciples at the tomb? Of course, it is not our job to judge others, but the question is more directed to how we discern such matters, in an effort to avoid following false teachings.

Fr. Matta draws this section to a close with a few words on how spiritual writers view ecstasy as signifying a “process of evolution” and “a mystical ascent of the human nature toward a better state”. He gives us a brief discussion on ecstasy as “involuntary”, a reward for forsaking the world (per St. Dionysius) and another path whereby some souls contemplate the face of Christ with their senses intact, an experience perhaps of less power than ecstasy but “more attached to the life of prayer”. 

  1. I found these last few paragraphs a bit difficult as they seemed loosely drawn together. That we are created for God is not a new idea in Fr. Matta’s writings. However, the “evolution” concept associated with ecstasy would seem to contradict his earlier assertion that the experience of it is not necessarily tied to spiritual advancement. Does anyone else see this more clearly?
  2. Fr. Matta’s brief remarks on the “involuntary” nature and the other path did not (for me) include sufficient elaboration to offer helpful insight. If any readers know more or understand better, please comment for the benefit of us all.

Let us continue to reflect and pray together, with the Spirit teaching us whatever we need to learn about the great gifts God gives to those who love Him…

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4 thoughts on “Chapter 3: Beyond Prayer, Ecstasy, pp. 71-77

  1. Here is a thought that puzzles me: “…they [the mind and the senses] must be silenced for a time, lest they ‘interfere with or falsify the reality of God, who transcends them’ “.

    I understand this to refer to a kind of non-verbal prayer, which is also non-physical (as in kneeling, bowing, crossing, using incense, candles, icons, holy cards, music). It cannot be induced, right? Cannot be practiced. Cannot be part of a prayer routine.

    Or does “must be silenced” refer to our own actions rather than God’s? I know that mantras (from Buddhism) and even repetitious litanies, stylized chants, the saying of the rosary or the Jesus prayer, performing prostrations–these have been said to function sometimes as mind-emptying practices even though many also have a higher purpose. It has been my experience, however, that few of these succeed in silencing the mind; instead thoughts race around while the words ramble on, the candles flicker, or the images lose their luster.

    Singing, on the other hand, does focus the mind, and often elicits emotions; certain sung prayers or dramatized poems seem to be closer to “true prayer”–if there could be such a thing arising from my own efforts–because they are totslky aborbing. Physical activities seem to have a similar effect (i.e., serving mass, lighting candles, walking in procession, composing prayer-poems, or even copying out those of others) in the sense that the mind is not trying to pray directly but is engaged in doing prayer-like things.

    But I’m thinking tht none of these are the kind of silent “prayer” that Fr Matta is addressing. So the puzzle remains: why read or think about a state that is “beyond prayer” since it is a pure gift, which probably shouldn’t be asked for (because then it wouldn’t be a gift; or maybe we would be deceiving ourselves to think that we were worthy)
    .

  2. Thanks for this question, Al, which is a good one. I do not claim to know the answers to all such matters but I will try to go back through Fr. Matta’s writing and share my understanding.

    I believe that the “silencing” that Fr. Matta is discussing here is different than the “quietude” he encouraged us to work toward in the last chapter when he wrote of meditation and voluntary contemplation. The latter are active efforts that we make to be aware and ready for our divine Guest (or more properly, to enable ourselves to discover Him already within us).

    In this “beyond prayer” chapter, I believe Fr. Matta is describing the experience of being silenced. For the most part, it is not something we do – and I agree, we should not ask for it. Our role is to be ready – to be ready through our love for Him to accept His revelations and manifestations. The words he uses to describe it – ecstasy, amazement, trance, rapture – I’m sure cannot adequately describe the indescribable.

    Had I been at the empty tomb and seen angels telling me He was alive, would I have been struck dumb with amazement? I can only imagine. If I were now to go into a trance in which God manifested Himself to me, I should be glad to have my mind and senses silenced by the Holy Spirit – for fear that I might be imagining it or falling prey to a trick of the enemy.

    Why should we read of this? I can think of a couple of reasons. One is that a person might experience this and not otherwise know what had happened to him/her. Since one is not worthy or necessarily spiritually advanced when such things occur, it stands to reason that the recipient of such a manifestation might be confused about what happened – and might also have difficulty finding someone to explain it, if only a very few are educated about such matters. Also, I suspect that Fr. Matta is trying to tell us that such experiences may indeed be given to us, even though in this modern age we don’t expect them – just as most of us don’t expect to witness miraculous healings in our lifetimes – but perhaps we should.

  3. Good points, especially the one about having a wise (holy) person to talk to. Maybe there are more of them around than I thought.

    Also, your last four words, “but perhaps we should,” got through to me.

  4. “…about having a wise (holy) person to talk to. Maybe there are more of them around than I thought.”

    Indeed. You could be one of them yourself. I’m not saying that to compliment you (or not compliment you) but to note that none of us are holy unless God makes us so – and He can make all of us holy. Similarly, wisdom comes from the Holy Spirit at work in us – and the Spirit is given to us all.

    Those whom we recognize as wise and holy are, like us, sinners who struggle. They know it, even if we do not. God can make use of any of us to spread His holiness, wisdom and love – and He especially makes use of the weak.

    Glory be to Him!

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