Ecstasy is an amazing study. And we studied the ever-loving $#!+ out of it in high school and in college, let us tell you. But we’re not talking about MDMA here. This entry will be devoted to religious ecstasy, the type of which changes one as a person, as a soul, and causes a paradigm shift incapable of being put into words. It is very firmly one (or all) of the Mysteries referred to within the modern Western Mystery Tradition and it is certainly not limited to something as new and early in its evolution as Wicca. Religious ecstasy is as old as religion itself, older than the written word, and so a true study of it will take one back to the formation of the earliest alphabets and records of human religion.
Let’s define the word ecstasy, shall we? Google, the arbiter of all things modern, gives two definitions, one simple, and one more in-depth. The simple one says “an overwhelming feeling of great happiness or joyful excitement.” True. Put plain and simple, it’s the kind of happiness that overwhelms you. We tend to understand it more as the second definition provided: “an emotional or religious frenzy or trancelike state, originally one involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.” This is where we get at the concept of religious ecstasy. It takes one outside of oneself, outside of one’s normal perception, bestowing upon the one experiencing it a sense of a greater meaning or understanding, however fleeting the experience may be.
Being of European descent, we shall describe in the third person our first experiences with the very concept of religious ecstasy as coming from Christianity. Since we are Wiccan and therefore love all things involving the Renaissance Faire, we quickly turn toward medieval Christian mysticism to grasp concepts of religious ecstasy from a time when the new religion from the east was transforming itself after syncretizing with the old beliefs of the west. So let us wax philosophical on a not-so-brief detour through medieval Christianity to highlight a few examples of certain mystics’ descriptions of their own ecstatic experiences, shall we?
Bernard of Clairvaux was a 12th century French abbot, Cistercian monk and Doctor of the Church. Many modern neo-pagan jokes about him could be made regarding absinthe, cis-gendered Cistercians (what a cissy!) and a few other things upon reading his Wikipedia page, but let’s cut to the chase. He viewed the relationship between the divine Word (Jesus/God) and the individual soul as a spiritual marriage between the heavenly Bridegroom (Jesus/God) and the human bride. That’s right, in 12th century French Christianity, this man made sure that everyone, regardless of gender, had the right to be a spiritual bridezilla (TLC reality show to follow). The fun part is that it was a good thing which emphasized a sacramental humaneness, with love as its focus, which shaped Christian piety, spirituality and mysticism from his day until ours. This emphasis on love as a central theme of the unity with the divine that causes a sense of spiritual ecstasy is a theme that repeats itself almost indefinitely within Christendom, the prevailing European model of religion for millenia.
Mechtild of Magdeburg, a 13th century Beguine (a sort of prototype for nuns) and Christian mystic left us with writings full of the courtly love of her time. She depicted love as Christ, positioning it as the end-all-be-all with a revulsion of the body so that the mind and soul could fly to meet God. She had out of body experiences leading to religious ecstasy and union with the divine. She depicted a melding of love and suffering as a mechanism for union with Jesus and melting into God.
Richard Rolle, a 14th century mystic, was heralded as one of the great English mystics of the Middle Ages. He wrote a work called The Fire of Love, in which he describes his divine encounters by dividing the nature of the experience into three unique stages. The first, he described as the sensation of spiritual fire, a glowing presence accompanied by the feeling of physical warmth in his chest. The second was marked by an overwhelming sense of peace and joy, a taste of sweetness in his soul. Finally, Rolle explains how in the third stage, the glorious song of angels resounds, signifying his union with God’s divine love.
The theme runs rampant through western mystical experience: God is Love. The mystical experience of union with God, the religious ecstasy that has been the hallmark of Saints and ascetics for time imemorial is time and again being conflated with and described as love, from almost every angle and in every way. Love is sublime. Love is divine. So what does the experience of mystical union with the divine, of religious ecstasy within Wicca, have to do with love, if anything? What is the role of love within modern day Wicca?
Take a look at any random version of the Charge of the Goddess, a fundamental piece of publicly available popular Wiccan literature heavily adapted from Lelands Aradia: Gospel of the Witches and Aleister Crowley’s writings.
“And ye shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that ye be really free, ye shall be naked in your rites; and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in Her praise.“
Wicca teaches that love is something that praises the Goddess of the witches, and that doing so is a sign of freedom. Religious ecstasy has almost always been described as a liberating experience, one which lifts the mystic up and out of his/her human experience, elevating him/her to the level of the Divine so that some part of it may be shared through the experience. it is the ultimate experience of freedom from this mortal coil, the result of which is an embodiment of Godhead, unity with the divine.
“For Hers is the ecstasy of the spirit, and Hers also is joy on earth; for Her law is love unto all beings.“
The cult teaches quite clearly that the ‘ecstasy of the spirit’ belongs to a Goddess who’s ‘law is love unto all beings.’ In love, the state and the act, we can and should find our connection with the Lady of the Moon, who is the Queen of all witcheries. In love, we should seek awareness of Her and of our connection to Her.
‘Nor does She demand sacrifice, for behold, She is the mother of all living, and Her love is poured out upon the earth.‘
This simple statement rejects the heretofore held necessity within the prevailing Christian paradigm for suffering as a requirement for unity with the Divine. It replaces this concept with the veneration of the Mother, and specifically a mother’s love, which is posited as being freely given and available to all upon the Earth. But where to find it? Where to even begin to look?
“Before Her face, beloved of gods and men, let thine innermost divine self be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite. Let Her worship be within the heart that rejoiceth; for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are Her rituals.“
The Charge continues to assert the common understanding that to behold the face of the Divine is to be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite, a fittingly Wiccan description for religious ecstasy. The blatant accessibility of this Goddess is made manifest in the declaration that not just the inner-court and oathbound rites of the brotherhood of the Wiccae constitue all of Her rituals, but *all* acts of love and pleasure provide access to Her and to Her Mysteries. When we seek for the Goddess we should look to find her, in accord with her own Charge, not outside of our own individual experience, in unreachable temples and covens that venerate her in secret, but within ourselves and our own experiences of love. When we recognize that She exists within us and within the very feeling and state of love, then do we find true liberation and union with the divine.
“And thou who thinkest to seek Her, know thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not unless thou knowest the mystery; that if that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, then thou wilt never find it without thee. For behold, She has been with thee from the beginning; and She is that which is attained at the end of desire.“