An article in Newsweek states that scientists have long known that epileptics often feel spiritual ecstasy during seizures.(November l7,l997) It further identifies the region of this ecstasy as the limbic region of the brain, home of emotions , religious feelings and some seizures. We also know that those under the influence of drugs claim similar ecstasy, not to mention the flora and fauna of pathological events that also claim such ecstasy. How can we separate the two, the true religious ecstasy from the induced one; the true mystical experience from the pathological? And more to the point, is there any true description of mystical ecstasy we can understand as a human event, namely, capable of being captured by our own experience?

Pathologies leave only claims and clinical records. Mystics, on the other hand, leave us epistemologies. The mystic's experience can be retraced and is possibly repeatable by others, and to a certain extent it can be taught.

Few mystics have made a career of describing their ecstasies, and orthodox religions have been even less candid in accepting them as the legitimate parcel of their religion, but rather of the idiosyncrasy of the saint in question. In Christianity, for example, there is no comparison in emphasis between the Transfiguration of Christ, His ecstasy, and the Crucifixion. Nor is it in Paul, the so called Apostle, where the ecstasy that converted him from persecuting Jews into a leading Christian as he was felled from the horse is considered less important than his Letters. We find similar examples in Hinduism and Buddhism where experience, mystical experience, is promoted and encouraged. Yet the literature on ecstasy is very skimpy. All we are told is that, yes, there are ecstasies. Even Tantra, at least in written texts, is shy in describing ecstasy, and this is the tradition that focuses on the epistemology of an experience of THAT, that is not-I, without an agent but only a witness, and eternity is fashioned on the model of the state of the lover just before the point of reaching orgasm.

Individual mystic writers, like those of the Upanishads, or more modern mystics like those of sixteenth Century Christian Europe, or Hindu writers like Ramakrishna in the nineteenth century are more explicit and daring. And modern neurobiology is on their side. Through laboratory experimentation we have been able to establish ( Pearce, l992, Pert,l997) not only the discovery of the structures of emotion in the limbic system, but also their connection to the frontal lobes and the heart, as the mystics already intuitively and experientially established millennia ago.

From the Rig Veda:

"The sages, searching in their own hearts with wisdom
Found in Non-Existence the kin of Existence." (l0.129)
"The whole world is set in your substance,
within the cave of the heart, within the ocean, within your life-span." ( 4.58).

The Katha Upanishad:

"Realizing, through the exercises of the yoga of the higher
Self, that primal God, difficult to be seen, deeply hidden,

resides in the cave of the heart.


Hiding in the deep, the wise man
leaves behind both joy and sorrow." (Valli Its., 12)

"When all the desires lodged in one's heart are set free,
Then a mortal becomes immortal"

"When all the knots of the heart are cut off here on earth,

Then a mortal becomes immortal!"

"There are a hundred and one channels in the heart,

One of these passes up to the crown of the head,

Going up by it, one goes to immortality.

The others scatter in various directions!"

"The measure of a thumb is the size of the inner soul,

for ever seated in the heart of creatures." ( Valli 6th,12-l7)

From the Philokalia:

"Whenever the soul, paying no attention to external things, is concentrated in contemplation, then a kind of flame surrounds it, as fire surrounds iron, and makes it wholly incandescent. The soul remains the same, but can no longer be touched, just as red-hot iron cannot be touched by the hand." ( Ilias the Presbyter, vol.3, Part II, para. l05)

From the Gathas:

"What you have disclosed through Inner Fire,
What you have promised through Asha,

the Divine Law for the discerning Soul,

O Mazda, to us clearly explain
let the words come from your mouth
to help us transform all living men." ( Yasna 31-3)


From the Bhagavad Gita:

"I am seated in the hearts of all
From me are memory, wisdom and their loss." (l5-l5)
"Undivided, yet standing as if divided among beings,
as the destroyer and producer of beings,
(I am) Light of lights, beyond darkness,
(I am) knowledge, what is to be known,
and the goal of knowledge..
I am seated in the heart of all." ( l3-l7)

It is in the Bhagavad Gita where we witness the first personal account of an ecstasy by a human, as Arjuna is taken up by the power of ecstasy:

"If in the heavens
the light of a thousand suns

would rise together,

It would be like the light of that Self." (ll-l2)

"I behold in your body, Oh God, all the gods,

and also crowds of different beings…

and all the sages, and celestial serpents." (ll-l5)

"I behold you, O Lord and Form of all,
with many arms and stomachs, mouths and eyes,

and see no end, middle or beginning to You, O Lord." (ll-l6)

"The moon and sun as your eyes,
your mouth a glowing fire,

burning this universe with your radiance." (ll-l9)

"Having seen your great Form, with many mouths
And eyes, O Strong-Armed,

With many arms and thighs and feet,

With many bellies and terrible tusks,

The worlds tremble and so do I." (ll-23)

"You lick and devour with flaming mouths
Entire worlds from every side,

Your light-rays scorch with radiance entire universes," (ll-30)

"Just as moths with great speed
Enter the flaming fire and perish there,

So also these creatures enter your mouths

To meet destruction." ( ll-29).

"Tell me who You are …" (ll-31)


A modern Hindu, Ramakrishna in l856, a young priest of only twenty years, outside Calcutta in a Temple of Kali writes his version of this experience in modern terms:

"There was an unbearable pain in my heart because I couldn't get a vision of Mother (Kali)… In my agony I said to myself:

"What's the use of living this life?" Suddenly my eyes fell on the sword that hangs in the Temple. I decided to end my life with it… Like a madman I ran to it and seized it. And then – I had a marvelous vision of the Mother, and fell down unconscious…It was as if houses, doors, temples and everything else vanished altogether; as if there was nothing anywhere! And what I saw was an infinite shoreless sea of light; a sea that was consciousness…shining waves, one after another, coming towards me… raging and storming upon me with great speed. Very soon they were upon me; they made me sink down into unknown depths. I panted and struggled and lost consciousness." ( Isherwood, l965).

With the irruption in the West of Sufi poetry and mysticism through the Sufis in Andalusia, Spain, there is a more personal approach to mystical experience and a closer narrative of its path. Prayer is now accompanied by"illuminism," "dejamiento," (abandonment) "quietism," inner prayer, recollection, practiced, not in churches but "conventicles" that drove the Inquisition crazy and caused it to sharpen its weapons against the new fashions. But the Inquisition left for us, as model of receptacles of divine love, some examples that it canonized and even named doctors of the Church. The most notable are Rumi and ibn 'Arabi in Islam, Ignatius de Loyola, Juan de la Cruz and Teresa of Avila in Christianity, not withstanding the fact that Juan de la Cruz had Moorish roots and Teresa was a first generation Jewish convert, a fact that has come to light only about seventy years ago.


" Take one step

away from yourself–

behold!–the Path!" ( Abu Sa' id Ibn-l-Khayr).

"The minute I heard my first love story
started looking for you

Not knowing how blind I was.

Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.

They are in each other all along" (Rumi)

"Oh Lord, nourish me,
not with love

but with the desire for love." (Ibn 'Arabi)


"True ecstasy is the conjunction of light
with light, when the soul of man meets the divine Light." ('Abdu'-Qadir Al-Gilani.)

"Love has come and it flows like blood
beneath my skin through my veins.

It has emptied me of my self

and filled me with the Beloved,

The Beloved has penetrated every cell of my body,

Of myself there remains only a name,

everything else is Him." (Rumi)


Ignatius de Loyola, soldier, sinner, founder of the Jesuits, Saint, came to the spiritual life late in life and it all started with an ecstasy by the river Cardoner, as he writes in his Diary of a Pilgrim:

"The road ran next to the river. As he went along occupied with his devotions, he sat down for a while with his face towards the river, that there ran deep. As he sat, the eyes of his understanding began to open; not that he saw a vision, but he came to know many things, matters spiritual and those pertaining to faith and learning. This took place with such great clarity that everything appeared to him to be something new. And it happened to enlighten his understanding in such a manner that he thought of himself as if he were another man and that he had an intellect different from the one he had before… He experienced a great clarity in his understanding; so much so that in the whole course of his life, through sixty two years, even if he put together all of the many gifts he had had from God and all of the many things he knew and added them all together, he does not think they would amount to as much as he had received on that one single occasion." (Powers of Imagining, l986.)



There are no more memorable lines in poetry than those of the most famous poem of San Juan de la Cruz, The Dark Night:




On a dark night,

anxious, by love inflamed,

-O joyous chance–

I left not seen or discovered,

my house at last completely quiet.

In the darkness, with light,

by the secret ladder, disguised,

-O joyous chance-

I left in the darkness, covered,

my house at last complete quiet.


On that joyous night,

in secret, seen by no one,

nor with anything in sight,

I had no other light or mark,

than the one burning in my heart.

This light guided me

more directly than the midday sun,

where waiting for me

was the One I knew so well, my delight,

in a place with no one in sight.

O night, O guide!

O night more loving than the dawn!

O night that joined

lover with Beloved,

Beloved in the lover transformed!

Upon my flowering breasts,

that I had saved for him alone,

there he slept,

while I caressed his hair,

and the cedars' breeze gave us air.

As I spread his tresses,

the fresh wind from the turret,

wounds me in the neck as it presses

with its serene hand,

suspending all my senses with its caresses.

I lose myself, and remain

with my face on the Beloved inclined;

all has come to rest,

I abandon all my cares,

there, among the lilies, to die.

East or West, male or female, no other writing on ecstasy is more personal, more didactic than that of Teresa de Avila. For this writer of the sixteenth century prayer of contemplation ends or begins in the fourth degree of prayer, prayer of rapture and union where the whole complex of self-body-world is affected. Joy is of great intensity, the soul and the body are drained of powers (Life,l8,l) The spirit rises higher than ordinary and joins with love; the detachment from creatures is deeper and more subtle, but these instances last a very short time (Life, l8,l2). The whole body complex ceases to live by itself and lives as if sensitized by someone else (Life, l8,l4). The spiritual raptures of Teresa, as described by herself overcome the body too: "The natural body heat fails the body, the body gradually grows cold, and there is no remedy to avoid this." (Life,20,3) " For in the pain that is experienced in these impulses, the body feels it along with the soul, and both seem to have a share in it… The (soul) desires only to die in this solitude." (Life,9) This suffering and this death, however, bear along with it great happiness, or as Teresa says it: "It is arduous, delightful martyrdom." (Life, 20, ll)

We are left however with the one last question, what is an ecstasy?

What happens in it? She will tell us in the most daring and sensuous terms:


" I saw close to me an angel in bodily form… not very large, but small; very beautiful, his face a flame, he must have been one of the highest angels…In his hand I saw a golden dart, long, the tip red with fire. This dart entered my heart many times and reached my insides; in drawing out the dart it seemed he was taking my insides with it; he left me all inflamed in great love for God. The pain was so deep that it made me moan; and it was so excessive the sweetness this unbearable pain plunged me into, that there was no way for me to stop, nor was the soul satisfied with any less than God himself. "( Life,29,l3)

A further testimony of the transformation of the body through the ecstasy of these mystics is the fact that in some of them their bodies did not decompose after death, as in the cases of Teresa de Avila and Juan de la Cruz. But the most universal testimony we are all able to see is the testimony of the communities they left behind, and the testimony of their own body of writing that affects us spiritually and, in more than one case, to the point of ecstasy.





(of works cited only)


  • Comfort, Alex I and That: Notes on the Biology of Religion. Crown Publishers. N.Y. 1979.

    de Nicolas, Antonio T. Meditations through the Rg Veda. Nicolas-Hays,

  • Maine. 1976.

    The Bhagavad Gita. Nicolas-Hays, Maine, l994

    Powers of Imagining: Ignatius de Loyola. SUNY Press, Albany N.Y. 1986

    St. John of the Cross: Alchemist of the Soul. Samuel Weiser,

  • Maine, 1995.

    Isherwood,Christopher.Ramakrishna and his Disciples. Simon and Shuster, N.Y. 1965

  • Lincoln, Victoria Teresa: A Woman. A Biography of Teresa of Avila. Eds. with Introductions by Elias Rivers and Antonio T. de Nicolas. SUNY, Press, Albany N.Y. 1984.


    Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee. Ed. Traveling the Path of Love. S sayings of Sufi Masters. The Golden Sufi Center. Inverness, Cal. 1995

    Pearce, Joseph Chilton Evolution's End. Harper Collins. San Francisco 1992.

    Pert, Candace B. Molecules of Emotion: Why you feel the way you feel.

  • Scribner, N.Y. 1997.

    Henning, M.. Trans. The Hymns of Zarathustra. Charles E. Tuttle Company Inc,Boston,1992

    Nikodimos and Makarios, Compilers. Trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware, The Philokalia, Vol. III,

  • Faber and Faber, London, 1986

    Hume, Robert Ernest, trans. The Thirteen Principal UPANISHADS, OxfordUniversity Press, London,







There is no more famous representation in art of an ecstasy than the marble statue by Bernini of St. Teresa de Avila's at the altar in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.Here the artist represents the rapture of Teresa in her vision of the angel entering her heart with a flaming dart.

We have tried to capture this moment and the steps that lead to it in Teresa's life with a poem that briefly evokes, using her own words, as we saw earlier in her Life, the ascent and the ecstasy of a woman that increases the measure of her experience as the experience enlarges this measure.






Remembering Teresa de Avila


I measured my life

in thimbles of love

squeezing from memory

Sunday preachers

as I moved their images

about in my mind

at those times

when I was praying

to You.

Love of men

in a woman's measure.

You taught me later

to measure it in cups,

as You came to me

in portions of


quieting my soul
like a still pond
with memories of

as I turned my soul
face up like a mirror.

Love of the world
in a woman's measure.

Finally You came upon me
to stop all measure
in the form of an angel
the body of a man
the face like a flame
carrying in your hand
a dart of gold
the tip burning red,
and You caressed
my heart with it
penetrated inside
would not let go
till my body
grew red with the fire
penetrating my heart…
The pain was so deep,
so soft,
it made me groan,
I heard myself moan
for the pain not to stop
but plunge me deeper
into that bottomless sea
where at last I could feel
the exact measure
of my woman's desires
for You.

Desire of the world,
love for men,
love of God
at last joined
within a woman's measure.

From Of Angels and Women, Mostly. Paragon House, New York 1991. And 2000


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