The Ecstasy of Knowing God

assumpConsciousness is something of a constant in our lives (even when we sleep there is a level of consciousness). We do not think about it very often – since it is simply our awareness of the world outside (as well as the world inside). It is not what we are a

ware of – it is the awareness itself. Our attention is usually focused on the object of our awareness rather than the process. But the process reveals a great deal.

One striking aspect of consciousness is its ecstatic nature (it “goes out of itself”). It is an intentional reaching outside of the self towards what we perceive (and beyond). Consciousness is not merely passive, simply receiving information with no processing. Were that the case we would only be aware of jumbled colors and sensations. But, barring some illness or distress, we see things, not just colors. I am told by my artist friends that this constant resolution of sight into objects often interferes with the artistic pro

cess – for the artist must primarily see color, shape and such things without immediately translating them into meaningful objects.
But this going out of ourselves towards what we see and experience is a form of communion, a reaching towards (and even beyond) our experience. What we see, within our consciousness is not simply the facts before us – we see meaning and relationship whether resolved into understanding or not.

Sometimes this resolution is distorted. I have recently been reading a book my wife suggested, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The medical case from which the book takes its title is one in which a brain tumor distorts a man’s perception. Leaving the doctor’s examination room he reached for his hat – but was in fact trying to put his wife’s head on his own instead! But even though his interpretation was distorted – it was still present. The ecstatic drive to render meaning was incorrect but not absent.

That same drive reaches beyond what we perceive. It stretches beyond the horizon of the universe itself seeking to comprehend everything before it, even comprehension itself.

This deep inherent part of our nature is also manifest in the motion of our lives. Our nature is never quite at rest. It extends itself. Though we disagree about the destination, every life is in motion. Some despair of the journey, but the journey does not cease.

St. Paul speaks of this ecstasy of comprehension: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (1Co 13:12 NKJ). And also:

…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phi 3:10-14 NKJ).

“To lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me….to know as I am known.” The reciprocity of communion in these verses goes to the heart of consciousness itself. The believer recognizes that consciousness is reciprocal – what we seek to know already knows us. David Bentley Hart offers this observation:

The mind has some sort of awareness— some “fore-grasp”— of truth, one that apprises it constantly of the incompleteness of what it already understands, or of the contingency of what it believes. And what the mind seeks in attempting to discover the truth is a kind of delight, a kind of fulfillment that can supersede the momentary disappointments or frustrations that the search for truth brings. (The Experience of God, p. 247). 

This ecstatic search bears witness to a fundamental human instinct – there is something transcendent that can be known, something greater, beyond what we see that makes perception and interpretation possible. The smallest resolution (“this is a tree, this is a cloud”) is already an act of faith: I can comprehend.

And the smallest act of comprehension is an acknowledgement of God (no matter how it is denied), the Comprehension in whom we live and move and have our being.

 

Comments

  1. Spyridon says

    Father,

    Thanks so much for your words of insight and the research you go through to write your articles. I read them often while at work and they give me much to chew on …

    Blessed Fast,
    Spyridon

  2. mary benton says

    Fr. Stephen,

    I may need to re-read this article to grasp it better. However, I am confused by your usage of the word “ecstatic” – doesn’t mesh with common usage or dictionary definitions that I am familiar with.

    Could you explain more why you chose this word and what meaning you are suggesting for it? Thank you.

  3. says

    Wonder if the poems, such as from St Symeon the New Theologian, fill in the gap, such as the one here:

    As soon as your mind has experienced
    what the scripture says:
    “How gracious is the Lord,”
    it will be so touched with that delight
    that it will no longer want to leave the place of the heart.
    It will echo the words of the apostle Peter:
    “How good it is to be here.”

    There are many other poems such as this online. Blessings.

  4. fatherstephen says

    John,
    The Church is in Alaska (which is so close you can see Russia from S. Palin’s house).

  5. fatherstephen says

    Mary Benton,
    “Ecstatic,” particularly in classical theology, refers to a “standing outside.” It is the capacity of a being to extend themselves outside of their own normative bounds – to reach out. It is only in later writers (and now in common usage) that ecstatic has come to have an emotional meaning.

  6. fatherstephen says

    Davidp,
    Poetry is essential. I was pushing my own boundaries in this last article.

  7. Michael Bauman says

    It is odd to me that the emotional meaning of ecstatic is wholly opposed, it seems, to the original meaning. When I think of ecstatic I think of someone caught up in oneself, reveling in feelings that only they can know.

  8. Robert Bennett says

    If God is at least wholly consciousness is it likely that the prophetic dreaming in the bible is a tie to this consciousness? It seems like St. Joseph does everything due to a dream. Accepting the virgin birth, going to Egypt, coming back to Egypt etc etc.

  9. fatherstephen says

    Robert,
    I would not speculate in that direction. The tendency to view God as something like a “pool of consciousness” into which we dip with dreams, etc., would remove the personal nature of God.

  10. fatherstephen says

    Agnikan, Where? depends on Whose? God is everywhere present and filling all things. Mine is clearly in my body/is my body.

  11. MichaelPatrick says

    Agnikan,

    Where is consciousness?

    Good question. It is a mystery many have tried to resolve – with little success. D.B. Hart’s book discusses the key difficulties and why some of those attempts failed.

  12. MichaelPatrick says

    Father, thanks for answering Agnikan.

    I missed the point, i.e. the locus of consciousness. “What” is consciousness? remains a mystery to science.

  13. Robert Bennett says

    So could we say God is wholly consciousness and wholly personal? Sort of mind, logos and breath? Thank you very much for even entertaining my questions.

  14. fatherstephen says

    Robert, generally the Tradition avoids describing God in terms other than Father, Son and Holy Spirit (though St. Augustine plays with this a bit). The problem is trying to avoid saying that God is one of something else, like a consciousness. Rather God is One of One Only. That I have a consciousness that I might see or understand as somehow analogous to God is different. I can know as I am known.

  15. Michael Bauman says

    I’m still having trouble grasping the use of ecstatic here. It appears to come from the Greek word ‘unstable’.

    Is it about being taken out of oneself by God or is it something else entirely?

  16. mary benton says

    Regarding “location” of consciousness…

    Mine is clearly in my body/is my body.

    Of course, this is how we experience it. But taken too concretely, this might imply that we are extraordinarily limited by design. (I’m not suggesting that that is what you are saying, Fr. Stephen, but that your words could be taken that way.)

    I am again reminded of Eban Alexander’s near death experience. As a neurosurgeon, he had always assumed that consciousness was located in the brain – until his brain was shut down and he experienced enhanced consciousness of a God he had not really believed in before.

    I also think of some of the saintly Orthodox elders I have been reading of who know or see things outside the realm of their bodily senses.

    Although our consciousness has an individual quality about it, currently tethered to our individual physical bodies, it seems also that we are made so as to not be independent of the Divine consciousness – even if in unbelief, we think we are. We are also not designed to be independent of one another’s consciousness, it seems.

    I am currently reading Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives (Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica). Much to consider there. (But please correct me if I am not understanding correctly.)

  17. fatherstephen says

    Mary,
    I am being careful to insist that indeed we are located in our bodies/are our bodies. This is not limiting, it is the incarnate truth.

    That I might be aware of something “apart” from my body (such as so-called “out of the body” experiences), the body remains a clear focus of attention – they don’t come back to some other body, or get a new body, etc.

    The Orthodox faith teaches that the separation of soul and body is tragic and not natural – and that God sustains the soul in such a situation, but that the resurrection of the body – and its eternal embodiment is what is normal.

    This is important to affirm.

  18. Michael Bauman says

    The topology of who we are as human beings as taught in the Orthodox Church is beyond anything else I have ever experienced or seen prior, but as Father says, the body is always a part. Those experiences that seem to go beyond the body are, IMO, an extension of our body not separate from it as our body is more than just the physical manifestation as we are more than our rational and emotional selves.

  19. Robert Bennett says

    There is a growing notion that consciousness follows the rules of quantum mechanics. One of the notions is that consciousness is non local or can be in two places at the same time. I am not even a novice at this stuff but do think science will push man back to God and partially through knowledge about consciousness. It is refreshing to see parts of the church address this. My guess is the fathers of the church already know all about this but think about it in a different way.

  20. Dino says

    Michael,
    ecstasis (ἔκστασις) literally means ‘outside (ἔκ), ‘standing’ ‘ (στάσις) in Greek. However, the word ‘ecstasy’ is occasionally shunned recently (last sixty or so years), due to its distorted variants, which many people mistake it for…
    It is (in its ascetically understanding) very closely related to what is often termed ‘theoria’ (or visionary prayer) and is the accepted state for those who encounter God’s Light. It is more movement towards, rather than ‘standing still’, just like ‘dying’ is truly living in “crucifixial language”.
    What St Gregory Palamas says somewhere about that state of glorification/theosis is beautiful: the God-seers are “prophets of the New Testament” as they foresee the eschata, – ie: Christ coming in His glory is encountered now.
    Even at the first, still tiny steps, of delving deep into the central core of our hearts in watchful awareness of Him, there seems to be a certain kind of ‘ecstatic’ pursuit involved, even if we are delving “inside” rather than “outside”. In other words this ecstatic pursuit of God is a struggle to go deeper and deeper in Him Who is found inside of us… This inverted language, (paradox) is reminiscent of a very peculiar word that the Fathers have sporadically used about God. They called Him our “distraction” (!), firmly admitting, both our hopeless compulsion to (competing) ‘outside’ distractions (which we must overcome), as well as the need to forget ourselves (and our dispersion ‘outside’) in order to remember God (“inside”).
    I could be wrong, but this ecstatic progression seems to work the opposite direction to what we might at first think. As if the universe has man for its center (man’s body), the body has the heart, and the heart has the Holy Trinity (John 14-23).

    The sense of awareness and constant watchfulness (‘nepsis’) which seems to be the necessary companion in all stages of the spiritual journey is highlighted beautifully here.
    Saint Gregory the Theologian in his eulogy on St Basil the Great, mentions Jacob’s “ladder” at one point (as a the symbol of the struggle to go deeper and deeper into the mysteries of God – that we “may know Him and the power of His resurrection” as St Paul says) and remarks, in passing, that there exists “a birth that comes about through being defeated”… This was also a favourite expression of Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra (a modern day hesychast who has explained a great deal on these things) and it seems to be saying the same thing that St Ignatius of Antioch poetically references many times in his epistles to the Romans and the Smyrneans when revealing his burning desire to die as a martyr as a yearning to “finally be born into life”.

  21. Michael Bauman says

    Thank you Dino, that helps. There is a place in the heart that is very narrow (or looks to be) that can only be approached through prayer, fasting and other ascetical endeavors, but mostly by repentance. That is the point where we commune with God and He with us (or so I have been taught). However, that point is, perhaps, the narrow gate which opens up once someone is through it into a wholly different reality but one in which we are still in our bodies (perhaps).

    Does that sound right?

    Even seeing such a land from a far place through a great haze is amazing.

    Robert, science, IMO, will not lead where you hope it will unless it releases its essentially naturalist/materialist foundation. I do not think that will come easily.

    Off to Pre-sanctified by the grace of God.

  22. Dino says

    Perhaps you will likely come to know through partaking of the Pre-sanctified gifts that “narrow gate which opens up once someone is through it into a wholly different reality but one in which we are still in our bodies”.
    God bless you.

  23. mary benton says

    Fr. Stephen,

    I very much appreciate your explanation. Yet, if I might ask for a bit more clarification…

    I am puzzled that you say the separation of body and soul is not “natural”, because in nature, we see that every created body (human, animal, plant) deteriorates and dies and its consciousness/life leaves it – at least in the manner that we typically use the terms body and consciousness/life.

    Are you saying that God created human beings to not experience this separation and the fact that we do is the tragedy? In other words, if not for the fall, our created “nature” was to never experience bodily death? If so, that confuses me, as these physical bodies certainly do not appear to have been designed to be eternal.

    I am also thinking of C. S. Lewis’ hrossa (Out of the Silent Planet) and how they were “unbodied” at the end of their life spans, despite never having fallen. I realize that C. S. Lewis isn’t considered one of the church fathers :-) but his insights are profound.

    This is not to in any way argue against the resurrection of the body – though we must acknowledge that we cannot really conceptualize what that will involve (as discussed in other threads). Because we only have knowledge of bodies that have defects and die, the resurrected body would have to be quite different – while still perhaps being much the same.

    None of this is intended to be argumentative – I do not know enough to argue. However, I have always been rather comfortable with the notion that my body (as I know it) is but a temporary container for my soul. And that God has something far better in store than anything I can imagine.

  24. fatherstephen says

    Mary Benton,
    The “temporary container” would be very common in our culture – but is – at best – a Platonist view of the body. Nevertheless, I think it is probably the dominant view in the modern world, even among most Christians.

    But the doctrine of the body/soul is that we did not fall from immortality, per se, but we were certainly created for it – it is not “unnatural” or contrary to our nature. But immortality (of the soul or of the body) is sheerly the work of grace.

    It is most common among the fathers to think of us as, in St. Paul’s words, “being clothed with immortality”

    For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. (1Co 15:53-54 KJV)

    This same imagery is there in Baptism, in which we are “clothed” with our baptismal garment. It is immortality. It is the righteousness of Christ. It is incorruption, etc.

    Adam and Eve were “naked and not ashamed.” Commonly in the fathers this is seen to mean that they were “clothed” with light (divinity). After the fall, God gives them “garments of skin” (dead animal stuff). It covers us, but is, by comparison, a garment of death and not a garment of light and life.

    We see glimpses of what lies ahead in the stories of transfigured saints (St. Seraphim of Sarov), and, of course, the incorrupt bodies of many saints. None of this is the perfect, complete example of what shall be – but partakes in it.

    I am my body. When I die (my soul is separated from the body), my body is still my body – thus it is still me (it’s certainly not somebody else). It does not cease to be me. My soul is still me (“the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God” it says in Wisdom). The tragedy is that I’m not what I’m supposed to be. My soul is not my identity, my true self. It’s my soul. My soul/body is my true self. We’re not angels (“ministering spirits”). We’re bodies. We were bodies, if you will, to start with. Fashioned from the dirt. Then breathed in and became a living soul. But God did not put a soul in me – He breathed and I became. It’s a very different thing.

    It is for this reason that Orthodoxy opposes cremation of the body (it seems disrespectful to Orthodox sensibilities). The modern attitude is that the shell is empty, throw away the shell. Thus Orthodoxy continues to oppose this practice as anti-body.

    It’s strange in many ways, how incredibly humanistic Orthodoxy is – particularly towards what it really means to be human. Modernity thinks it invented humanism, when in fact, it is anti-human again and again.

    Hope that’s helpful.

  25. mary benton says

    Fr. Stephen,

    Very helpful – thank you for such a lengthy and thoughtful reply.

    Though it may be true for some, I don’t think that my perspective was so much influenced by modern “throw away” mentality as it was a (false) dichotomy between body and soul. I am not saying that this was necessarily taught to me as such in my RC background. However, the concept of “mortifying” the body (i.e. discipline to free one from the domination of the passions), when taught to me as a child, seemed to suggest that the body was the “bad” part of me and the soul was the “good” part of me. I don’t think I was alone in perceiving it this way.

    After experiencing oneself in this dichotomous fashion, it is not a far leap to think of the body as a burden that some day I might hope to be relieved of. Add some physical pain and suffering and it seems even more true – or desirable. Let go of the “bad” part of me to free up the “good” part of me to an existence imagined to be purely spiritual. (I don’t know that I ever believed this quite as extremely as I’m expressing it here but not far from it.)

    I no long hold such a dichotomous view of body/soul. On the other hand, to me the body of a deceased person (“grandma”) no longer seems like “grandma” to me. And I personally feel no desire to try to prevent my body’s decay and return to the earth when I die, though I believe it should be treated with respect as God’s gift.

    In addition, I have worked with people who have been traumatized by viewing human remains (terribly distorted by injury, decay, etc.) and have sometimes used an image of body as the “old clothing” of the person, no longer needed – purposely trying to separate that view of the body from the sacredness of the person. I add this because some death experiences are, as I’m sure you know, horrific and it can be overwhelming to survivors to think of that body as still being their loved one.

    Forgive me for rambling on so – I allow myself to do so in hopes that my thoughts may help someone else.

  26. Albert says

    Yes, your thoughts do help, Mary. And your questions too. They have been my questions in the past, and often surface to surprise me even as I think I have grown beyond them. And I very much appreciate your answers, Father Stephen.

    Regarding the damage done to the body, whether by violence or by sickness and aging, I have experienced revulsion too. When my sister-in-law died, after years of battling cancer, I could hardly bare to look at her in the bed, so emaciated and shrunken was she from only a few weeks previously. Same with my mother-in-law who is in hospice now. How could these strong, lively women change in appearance so much?

    The only thing I can think of to mitigate that feeling (aside from our faith–as if we could put it aside!) is wonder at both the fragility of physical life and its amazing durability, the complexity of its systems and the ease with which they can be disrupted or violated. Wonder, in this context, might not be just intellectual; it could become an emotional counterpart to revulsion, though it would require some distance from the initial shock of looking at a broken or withered body.

    Of course, looking through the eyes of faith doesn’t lessen the shock either, but it provides the perspective which helps keep that shock from turning into hedonism or despair.
    .

  27. Dino says

    This is extremely helpful, to the point, and worth a good study-over again Father.
    Mary, I often think of the mangled and terribly distorted bodies of the martyrs, but then I remember that it is not their semblance to their known previous appearance in the flesh that makes them dear to us as relics (a bone here, a crushed skull there, some blood in a container etc), but the fact that God’s grace has permeated both their soul and body. Even the matter that has been in contact with their body (think of Christ’s physical Cross relics) is sanctified.
    Even muslims have such a view for some reason while the humanist West has long abandoned it.
    The saints sometimes speak of a type of mould/matrix of that sanctified and graced body that accompanies the soul that has been separated from it after death, and which will one day be used, (many years after the complete decomposition of the fleshly body) for the resurrected body.
    Christianity is indeed so far from platonism in these matters that it is more of a holy materialism.

  28. Michael Bauman says

    The Incarnation re-sanctified everything, or at least made it possible. That is the foundation of the sacramental life we are called to live. Jesus on Mt. Tabor: “…as he prayed, He was changed…”

    “….everywhere present and fillest all things…”

    The list goes on and on.

    Like a layer cake you can’t really separate one layer and say that that’s the ‘real’ cake.

    and Dino Pre-Sanctified Liturgy was all that and more. A bit like what we are as human beings too, I think. The visible body and the unseen but quite real and vibrant life that enlivens it both are essential and make it a whole.

    Best of all we had two monks and our bishop there to celebrate the Liturgy and break bread in a pot-luck afterwards. The Body of the Church was fully represented.

  29. Ann K says

    Father Stephen, I don’t quite get your crack about Sarah Palin. Surely you’re aware that that comment about seeing Russia originated in a skit on Saturday Night Live, and that her predictions about what would happen in Russia/Crimea/Ukraine were remarkably prescient–when the current administration was caught completely off guard. Regardless, how is this relevant to the notion of ecstasy?

  30. fatherstephen says

    Ann,
    It was humor – the line has more or less passed into general (even non-political) humor viz. Alaska and Russia. Sorry if it gave offense. I like Palin – voted for her back in ’08. I disagree with the take on Russia as our enemy, however, and find the current atmosphere in Congress and the administration viz. Russia very alarming. There has been a steady beating of the drums for a good while trying to create animosity between the US and Russia. They are no longer communist and should be potential partners in many respects. We have spurned those opportunities in favor of a different agenda that is quite worrisome. The current Euro-US alliance is something very different than its days in the Cold War. It is becoming increasingly hostile to people of faith and traditional values.

    I usually do not write about my political opinions on the blog. Sorry if my humor caught you off guard. I think Palin would have found my remark funny. She has a great sense of humor.

  31. Michael Bauman says

    How easily the ecstasy is disturbed, a mere whiff of wind or the slightest of thoughts. Nepsis indeed.

    Several years ago when some genuinely upsetting things were going on in the Church at about this time of the year (early in Lent), my bishop gave me a direction: “Hold your peace.” Not meaning to be silent, but rather “Hold onto your peace”.

    I have tried to be obedient to that direction ever since, not very successfully, but the effort is there in combination with the theme of this web-site: Glory to God For All Things. It has been quite fruitful.

    In this world with the constant harassment to both a state of fear and a state of offense, it is a difficult discipline to follow.

    It is hard to offend me personally because I know that I am either guilty of or capable of any sin imaginable so those who look at me askance are probably right. It is more difficult for me not to take offense at wrongs (or perceived wrongs) done to those I love and care about. Umbrage is never far away.

    Ah, may the good Lord save me from umbrage and forgive my sins.

    Thank you Father for all you do.

  32. says

    I have been saying for some time that Russia, China, and India should be our allies. I imagine Putin is using Orthodoxy for political gain. I think he wants to be the next Tsar and restore the empire, but he should still be our ally, not our enemy. We need to trade, not fight.