Ecstasy. —Supernatural ecstasy may be defined as a state which, while it lasts, includes two elements: the one, interior and invisible, when the mind rivets its attention on a religious subject; the other, corporeal and visible, when the activity of the senses is suspended, so that not only are external sensations incapable of influencing the soul, but considerable difficulty is experienced in awakening such sensations, and this whether the ecstatic himself desires to do so, or others attempt to quicken the organs into action. That quite a large number of the saints have been granted ecstasies is attested by hagiology; and nowadays even free-thinkers are slow to deny historical facts that rest on so solid a basis. They no longer endeavor, as did their predecessors of the eighteenth century, to explain them away as grounded on fraud; several, indeed, abandoning the pathological theory, current in the nineteenth century, have advocated the psychological explanation, though they exaggerate its force.
FALSE VIEWS ON THE QUESTION OF ECSTASY.—The first three errors here mentioned are psychological in nature; they fail to estimate at its proper value the content of ecstasy; the other false theories spoken of identify this state with certain morbid physical or psychological conditions.
(I) Certain infidel philosophers maintain that during an ecstasy there is a lessening of intellectual power, that at a certain stage there is an utter loss of the ego, an annihilation of the faculties. This is the theory of Murisier and of Leuba. The arguments for this view are based upon an exaggerated interpretation of certain phrases used by the mystics. Their accounts, however (those, for instance, of Blessed Angela of Foligno), give the lie to such an explanation. The mystics state clearly that they experience, not only the fullness, but the superabundance of intelligence, an increase of activity of the highest faculties. Now, in a science that is based on observation, as is mysticism, we are not justified in brushing aside the numerous and consistent testimonies of those who have tested the facts, and putting in their place the creations of the imagination.
(2) The theory of unconsciousness distorts the facts so unscrupulously that some writers have preferred a theory less crude, i.e. the emotional explanation. The ecstatic, it is admitted, is not buried in a heavy sleep; rather, he experiences violent emotions, in consequence of which he loses the use of the senses; and as there is nothing new to occupy his attention, it follows that his mind is taken up by some trifling thought, so trifling, indeed, that these writers deem it unworthy of their notice. This theory clashes less with historical data than does the first, since it does not wholly eliminate the activity of the ecstatic; but it denies half the facts emphatically urged by the mystical writers.
(3) It has been said that ecstasy is perhaps a phenomenon wholly natural, such as might well be occasioned by a strong concentration of the mind on a religious subject. But if we are not to rest satisfied with arbitrary conjectures, we must show that similar facts have been observed in spheres of thought other than purely religious. The ancients attributed natural ecstasies to three or four sages, such as Archimedes and Socrates, but, as the present writer has proved elsewhere, these stories are founded either on inconclusive arguments or upon false interpretation of the facts (Des graeces d’oraison, c. xxxi).
(4) The rigid condition of the ecstatic’s body has given rise to a fourth error. Ecstasy, we are told, is but another form of lethargy or catalepsy. The loss of consciousness, however, that accompanies these latter states points to a marked difference.
(5) In view of this, some have sought to identify ecstasy with the hypnotic state. Physically, there are usually some points of contrast. Ecstasy is always accompanied by noble attitudes of the body, whereas in hospitals one often marks motions of the body that are convulsive or repelling; barring, of course, any counter-command of the hypnotist. The chief difference, though, is to be found in the soul. The intellectual faculties, in the case of the saints, became keener. The sick in our hospitals, on the contrary, experience during their trances a lessening of their intelligences, while the gain is only a slight representation in the imagination. A single idea, let it be ever so trivial, e.g. that of a flower, or a bird, is strong enough to fasten upon it their profound and undivided attention. This is what is meant by the narrowing of the field of consciousness; and this is precisely the starting point of all theories that have been advanced to explain hypnotic ecstasy. Moreover, the hallucination noticed in the case of these patients consists always of representations of the imagination. They are visual, auricular, or tactual; consequently they differ widely from the purely intellectual perceptions which the saints usually enjoy. It is no longer possible, then, to start with the extremely simple hypothesis that the two kinds of phenomena are one and the same.
A comparison of the effects that follow these states will bring out more clearly the essential difference between the two. (a) The neuropath, after an hypnotic trance, is dull, lifeless, and depressed. (b) His will is extremely weak. In this abnormal weakness is to be sought the reason why the subject can no longer resist suggestion. These poor creatures, distraught, listless, and helpless, pass their days in idle dreams. (c) The level of their morality is frequently almost as low as that of their intelligence. From a threefold point of view, then, there is a contrast between their case and that of the saints who have been granted ecstasies. (a) The latter possess strong intellects, conceiving projects lofty and difficult in the execution; in proof of this assertion we might appeal to the history of the founders of religious orders. (b) Their will-power is second to none in energy; so strong, indeed, as to enable them to break through all opposition, especially that which arises from their own nature. (c) Lastly, the saints keep before them a moral ideal of a lofty character, the need of self-forgetfulness if they would give themselves to the glory of God and the temporal and spiritual welfare of their fellow-men. The hysterical subject of hypnotism, on the contrary, combines in himself none of these noble qualities.
(6) An attempt has been made to rank ecstasy with somnambulism, with which have also been classed, but with greater reason, the trances of spirit mediums. The case which most approaches, on the surface, the ecstasy of the saints is that of Helen Smith, of Geneva, whom Professor Flournoy studied carefully during the closing years of the nineteenth century. During the crises of spontaneous somnambulism she described her visions in word or in writing. At one time she saw the inhabitants of the planet Mars, at another she dwelt among the Arabs or the Hindus of the fourteenth century. In 1904 she had crises lasting a quarter of an hour, during which she painted in oil pictures of Christ and the Madonna, though she was quite unconscious of what she was doing. The ecstasies of the saints were, it was thought, of exactly the same nature. There are, however, some striking differences: (a) From the moral viewpoint the visions of the saints produce a remarkable change in their manner of life, and lead them to the exercise of the most difficult virtues. Helen experiences nothing of the kind. She is a good woman, that is all. (b) Unlike the saints, she remembers nothing of what she has seen. (c) While the vision lasts, the faculties at play are not the same. In the case of the saints, the activity of the imagination is arrested during the culminating periods, and throughout always holds a subsidiary place, while the intellect undergoes a marvellous expansion. In the case of Helen, the imagination alone was at work, and its objects were of the most commonplace character. Not a single elevated thought; simply descriptions of houses, animals, or plants—nothing but a mere copy of what we see on earth. Such descriptions serve only as stories to amuse children.
(7) A seventh theory would identify ecstasy with the wild reveries and disordered fancies occasioned by the use of alcohol, ether, chloroform, opium, morphine, or nitrous oxide. In the first place, the physical condition is quite different. No one, for instance, would mistake the exalted attitude of an ecstatic for that of a man under the influence of narcotics. Secondly, the mental perceptions are not the same in character. For if the slave of the drugs we have mentioned above does not lose all consciousness, if he still retains any ideas, they consist of extravagant, incoherent images, whereas the ideas and thoughts of the mystic are throughout coherent and elevated. Finally, the victims of alcohol and of opium, on recovering from their debauch, remain in a state of sottishness. Thought and action are simultaneously lessened; the moral and the social life have equally suffered. The use of narcotics has never enabled a man to lead a purer life or to better himself and others; experience points to the contrary.
These, then, are the false views that have been entertained on the question of ecstasy. Nor should it be a matter of surprise that free-thinkers should have ventured on these explanations. It is but the conclusion that follows logically from the principles with which they start, i.e., there is no such thing as the supernatural. They must, then, at any cost, seek the causes in natural phenomena. (See Contemplation.)