Monday, July 18, 2005

Further thoughts on ecstasy--the non-drug version

In a comment on my post Extraordinary Moments in Ordinary Time, Jo asked me to expand a bit on my mystical experience. My first stab wasn’t as clear as it should have been. So, I hope that I can be a bit more direct. (My apologies for the delay. The haloscan counter wasn’t registering the comment properly, and I didn’t guess that Jo had commented here until she posted a link to my post on her own blog.)

First I’m going to muck around a bit with the order of her questions in the hope that this will allow be to be a bit clearer. First

Why is it different than just reaching a moment of clarity?


I can only say that this particular religious experience wasn’t a moment of clarity. I tend to think of “clarity” as being a concept related to a process of ratiocination, as intimately tied up with thinking. My Chaucer moment wasn’t about thinking at all; it was an ecstatic experience. By ecstatic I do not mean “joyful,” although the experience is one that I treasure. By describing it as a moment of ecstasy I am calling attention to the way that the moment was ec stasis, outside of where I had been set both physically and temporally. In other words it was outside of space and time and so intense that it was beyond rational thought. Second,

Why should a spiritual experience be so sensory?


I’m a little bit uncomfortable with the use of the word “should” here. I don’t want to suggest that a spiritual experience needs to be sensory in order to be authentic. I think that moments of clarity, i.e. moments of clear thinking, are perfectly valid spiritual experiences. In fact, if I were on a diocesan discernment committee, I might find someone with a history of thinking good thoughts over many years more temperamentally suited to the ordained ministry and an altogether healthier person. As I said above my experience was an extra-rational, ecstatic one, but I firmly believe that there are many varieties of religious experience and that there is plenty of room for non-sensory, rational experiences under any decent definition of the term. I’m not even sure that I would describe my experience as sensory. I think it would be truer to say that I was outside of my senses, though not crazy, which point brings me back to Jo’s original follow-up question:

Can you tell us more about what you saw, and what you think about the visual aspect of spiritual experience?


I don’t know that I saw anything. There was no great vision. What struck me was how profoundly unvisual the experience was. I didn’t see anything in particular except, perhaps, some swirls in the dirty window. It wasn’t brought on by the beauty of the built environment. I wasn’t in a great cathedral or in a tiny chapel. I was in a dining hall, and I was staring at the tiniest, least impressive window in the place. I think the most remarkable part of the whole thing was how little it had to do with sensory input. The room wasn’t particularly loud or uncharacteristically quiet that evening. There weren’t any special odors; there was just the greasiness that always hung in the air. This wasn’t brought on by any smells or bells. And indeed, I wish sometimes that it had been, because I value the physical environment—the built, the natural and the human landscaped. I celebrate visual culture, and I want to promote the role of beauty in ours, but that’s not what my moment of fire was about. I felt simply-for an instant-that time had stopped and had no meaning.

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