The above image is taken from the Santa Maria Della Vittoria in Rome. The sculpture is a masterpiece image representing the religious ecstasy of the 16th Century Catholic Saint St Teresa of Avila (canonised 1622). By all accounts St Teresa was a master of the spiritual arts, and had frequent mystical experiences during her life as a cloistered nun.
The sculpture in question was created by the Renaissance master sculptor Bernini, who was famous already with other magnificent works, for example in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. With “the Ecstasy” it he was seeking to evoke the experience described by Teresa in her autobiography:
“I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God.”
But are these experiences real, or imagined? If real, then how common are they? Can ordinary folk like us experience their burning passion and surging ecstasy? Read on to find out more…
Mysticism and Christian Contemplation
First, a definition. Britannica defines Mysticism as “the practice of religious ecstasies”. I prefer the alternate definition of “the direct apprehension of a divine reality”.
True mystic states are those experiences where one feels as if they have been “partakers in the Divine nature” as the Bible puts it. Often called visions, rapture, oneness or experiences of deepest inner peace, these experiences are among the most sublime, rarest experience that the human person can be subject to.
How are these states achieved?
Typically, most practitioners reach these states as a result of what is called today altered states of consciousness, through practices such as meditation, fasting and penance. In the Christian tradition meditation (stilling the mind) is generally called contemplation.
So how did contemplation get started in Christianity? Well, you could say that Jesus was the first contemplative. The Gospels tell us of how Jesus used to “go into the desert to pray alone”.
In the New Testament epistles St Paul advises us to “pray unceasingly”. Elsewhere in the Bible it says to “Be Still and know I am God.”
The contemplative tradition evolved during the Apostolic era of the church up until the Desert Fathers in the 4th Century, who took it to the next level. Up until then, the word prayer was used as a way of describing interaction with God.
After the Desert tradition, the word contemplation emerged. The Desert Fathers felt that the word prayer had become overused and diluted, so invented this second word to describe their encounter with God.
The Middle Ages
Into the medieval era the contemplative tradition carried on, but existed mainly in the monastic world of the Rule of St Benedict. Many mystics were persecuted by the Church, for example, Meister Eckhart, who exhibited unusual ideas that caught the attention of church authorities.
Many of the Medieval Catholic mystic names will probably be unknown to you unless you were familiar with the genre and their writings.
St Hildegaard of Bingen was a notable female mystic who was known for her extravagant visions and raptures of Christ and his church. Its worth noting that in the Middle Ages, one of the only progressive avenues of life outside the home or convent was to become a visionary.
Other medieval mystics include John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, John Ruysbroeck, plus many Quakers, who always had a silent/mystical bent to their practice.
With the Advent of the Reformation in the 16th Century, the contemplative tradition struggled on in the West. Always kept alive in the Eastern Orthodox Church, mystics and silent prayer merchants could only look to Orthodoxy and parts of Catholicism to keep their tradition alive.
Today, there is almost no tradition of contemplation in the Protestant sect. Martin Luther was no fan of silent prayer!
I have experienced a few mystical experiences – experiences of the divine during contemplation/meditation. I have been meditating for about 15 years, and have found these experiences to be few and far between, and pretty rare, yet greatly uplifting and sustaining for my practice and life.
One aspect of the mystical experience that I would agree with is William James’ description of mystical experiences as “ineffable”. This basically means “impossible to communicate with words”.
This is my experience – what you experience in deep meditation is pure stillness, a peace that goes beyond words. What you experience beyond there, can only be described in metaphors.
I will leave the last word to Australian psychologist Dorothy Rowe, who, despite claiming to be an atheist, has a particularly spiritual bent to her work:
“We all know that beyond and within ourselves and our mundane world lies a reality which is awesome, mysterious, and unknowable except in those rare moments when it reveals itself to us.”
[Dorothy Rowe – “Depression – The Way Out of your Prison”]
This post is written by blogger and spiritual seeker Kevin Morley. Kevin runs a meditation and spirituality blog called www.satorimind.co.uk. He is still looking for the ultimate meditation experience.