Man is an “intermediate being”, said Plato, “between the mortal and the immortal”i. This obscure expression can be understood in several senses.
Man is constantly on the move. He goes up and down. He ascends towards ideas he doesn’t quite understand, and he descends towards the matter he has forgotten and which reminds him of her. Systole and diastole of the soul. Breathing of the body, inhalation, exhalation of the spirit.
The ancients had formed words that can help to understand these opposite movements. The Greek word ἒκστασις (extasis), means « coming out of oneself ». In « ecstasy », the spirit « comes out » of the body, it is caught in a movement that carries it away. Ecstasy has nothing to do with what is called « contemplation », which is immobile, stable, and which Aristotle called θεωρία (theoria).
The meaning of the word θεωρία as « contemplation, consideration » is rather late, since it only appears with Plato and Aristotle. Later, in Hellenistic Greek, the word took on the meaning of « theory, speculation », as opposed to « practice ».
But originally, θεωρία meant « sending delegates to a religious festival, religious embassy, being a theorist ». The « theorist » was the person going on a trip to consult the oracle, or to attend a religious ceremony. A « theory » was a religious delegation going to a holy place.
Ecstasy is an exit from the body. The theoria is a journey out of the homeland, to visit the oracle of Delphi. These words therefore have one thing in common, that of a certain movement towards the divine.
They are images of the possible movement of the soul, vertically or horizontally, as ascent or approach. Unlike the theoria, which denotes a journey of the body in the literal sense, ecstasy takes the form of a thought in movement outside the body, traversed by lightning and dazzle, always aware of its weakness, its powerlessness, in an experience which is beyond it, and which it knows it has little chance of really grasping, little means of fixing it in order to share it on its return.
The word ecstasy is the minimal trace of a kind of experience that is difficult to understand for those who have not lived it. It is not simply a matter of « ascending » to higher or even divine realities. When the soul moves into these generally inaccessible regions, she encounters phenomena that are absolutely dissimilar to anything she has ever observed on earth, in her usual life. She runs an infinitely fast race, in pursuit of something that is always ahead of her, and which draws her further and further away, into an ever-changing elsewhere, and which projects her to an infinite distance of what she has ever experienced.
Human life cannot know the end of this incredible race. The soul, which is given the experience of ecstasy, understands by experience the possibility of such a search. She will always remain marked by her ‘election’, by the gift given to her of a striking flight towards a reality that is forever elusive.
It is interesting to question the texts that report ecstasies that have had the effect of changing the course of history, and to analyze their differences.
In his comments on the experience of ecstasyii, Philo considers that Moses, despite the fame and the power of his visioniii, did not have access to the full understanding of the divine powers.
Philo then sought in the vision of Jeremiah, with more success, the traces of a greater penetration of these powers.
Moving forward in these fields is a random and delicate undertaking. The texts are difficult, they resist interpretation.
“This is how the word of God was addressed to Jeremiah”iv.
This is a restrained way of giving an account of what was, one might think, originally an ecstasy. Reading these lines, one can guess at its hold.
“Dominated by your power, I lived in isolation.”v
Other prophets expressed the marks of their ecstasy in other metaphors. Ezekiel says that « the hand of God came »vi upon him, or that the spirit « prevailed ».vii
When ecstasy is at its height, the hand of God weighs more than usual:
“And the spirit lifted me up and carried me away, and I went away sorrowful in the exaltation of my spirit, and the hand of the Lord weighed heavily on me.”viii
The definition of ‘ecstasy’ according to the National Center for Textual and Lexical Resource (CNRTL) is as follows:
“A particular state in which a person, as if transported out of himself, is removed from the modalities of the sensible world by discovering through a kind of illumination certain revelations of the intelligible world, or by participating in the experience of an identification, of a union with a transcendent, essential reality.”
This definition speaks of enlightenment, identification or union with transcendental realities. But what do these words really cover?
According to other testimonies, ecstasy, of mystical essence, seems infinitely more dynamic, more transforming. It draws its principle and its energy from the intuition of the divine infinite and from participation in its movement.
Ecstasy is more a race than a stasis, more a dazzle than an illumination.
Bergson, the philosopher of movement, paradoxically gives a rather static, ‘arrested’ image of ecstasy: “The soul ceases to turn on herself (…). She stops, as if she were listening to a voice calling out to her. (…) Then comes an immensity of joy, an ecstasy in which she is absorbed or a rapture which she undergoes: God is there, and it is in her. No more mystery. Problems fade away, obscurities dissipate; it is an illumination.”ix
It is not known whether Bergson knows from real personal experience what he is talking about.
One only has to pay attention to the testimonies of Blaise Pascal or S. John of the Cross, to guess that ecstasy cannot be so luminously static. Taken to such an elevation, ecstasy has a fiery power that carries away all certainty, all security, and even all illumination.
Ecstasy dazzles like a primal dive into the center of Light. And the worlds, all the worlds, are then only like tiny quantum hairs emanating from a divine Black Hole.
It is difficult to explain in audible words, in palpable images, the infinite rapture of the soul, when she is given to see her own, eternal, birth.
iiPhilo. De Monarch. I, 5-7
iiiEx 33, 18-23
ix H. Bergson, Deux sources, 1932, p. 243.