Raptures and Ecstasy

posted in: Prayer and Virtue | 0
The Transverberation of St. Teresa by Bernini (Wikimedia Commons). In the late fifth mansions, union begins to overpower the body.

In the advanced stages of Teresa of Avila’s fifth mansions, the effects of infused contemplation overflow to the body. The soul experiences what are known as raptures and ecstasies. let’s look at both these phenomena more closely.

Not locutions or visions

First we should distinguish between raptures and ecstasies and what some authors call “extraordinary favors.” Raptures and ecstasies occur as union with God in prayer becomes so strong that it overpowers the body. They are thus normal for people in the late fifth and sixth mansion. Extraordinary favors are just that–they are gifts given to particular individuals as God chooses.

Locutions and visions are the two main types of extraordinary favors God grants. Teresa of Avila heard God’s voice and saw various types of visions as she progressed towards him. But not everyone does. St. Therese of Lisieux is famous for the lack of extraordinary phenomena in her life. She reached the heights of holiness without them. God led her by a darker way.

God can give locutions and visions to anyone he chooses, at any point in the spiritual life. They don’t indicate that a person is holy, nor do they of themselves make a person holy.

Raptures and ecstasies, on the other hand, are actually the prayer of union manifesting itself physically.

What is rapture like?

In rapture–which is synonymous with ecstasy for St. Teresa–the spiritual world becomes more real to the soul than the physical world. In this, the soul is advancing towards truth. The spiritual world is more real than the physical. The spiritual world has existed for eternity in God. The physical world is his creation. We normally see the world inside-out, as though the world of the senses is the real world. Saints see the truth.

God unites it [the soul] with Himself, in a way which none can understand save it and He, and even the soul itself does not understand this in such a way as to be able to speak of it afterwards, though it is not deprived of its interior senses; for it is not like one who suffers a swoon or a paroxysm so that it can understand nothing either within itself or without. The position, in this case, as I understand it, is that the soul has never before been so fully awake to the things of God or had such light or such knowledge of His Majesty. This may seem impossible; because, if the faculties are so completely absorbed that we might describe them as dead, and the senses are so as well, how can the soul be said to understand this secret? I cannot say, nor perhaps can any creature, but only the Creator Himself. (Interior Castle 6.4)

Teresa says that the soul in this state often sees vision (though the visions themselves are not the rapture).  Sometimes she sees these with the imagination, sometimes with the intellect. She says further:

For when He means to enrapture this soul, it loses its power of breathing, with the result that, although its other senses sometimes remain active a little longer, it cannot possibly speak. At other times it loses all its powers at once, and the hands and the body grow so cold that the body seems no longer to have a soul — sometimes it even seems doubtful if there is any breath in the body. This lasts only for a short time (I mean, only for a short period at any one time) because, when this profound suspension lifts a little, the body seems to come partly to itself again, and draws breath, though only to die once more, and, in doing so, to give fuller life to the soul. Complete ecstasy, therefore, does not last long. (Ibid.)

The effects of rapture

Even after life comes back to the body and the rapture is said to be over, the soul is effected for a day or more, with the will and understanding still overpowered, even though the body no longer is. It seems to be asleep to any affections but affection for God.

The lasting effect is an increased desire to do God’s will, come what may, and to suffer as much as possible for his glory. God protects the soul in a special way, so that no one, not even the demons, can harm it, as long as it stays free of sin.

False ecstasies

Here is Teresa’s humorous take on those who falsely think they are experiencing rapture:

Some women, because of prayers, vigils and severe penances, and also for other reasons, have poor health. When they experience any spiritual consolation, therefore, their physical nature is too much for them; and as soon as they feel any interior joy there comes over them a physical weakness and languor, and they fall into a sleep, which they call “spiritual”, and which is a little more marked than the condition that has been described. Thinking the one state to be the same as the other, they abandon themselves to this absorption; and the more they relax, the more complete becomes this absorption, because their physical nature continues to grow weaker. So they get it into their heads that it is arrobamiento, or rapture. But I call it abobamiento, foolishness; for they are doing nothing but wasting their time at it and ruining their health. (Interior Castle 4.3)

Practical as ever, Teresa says such people should eat more, get more rest, do less penance, and spend less time in prayer. They should focus on a more active life, so that the Devil does not delude them.

These are the first of the ways that God unites the soul closer to him in the sixth mansions. Next time we will look at touches and flights of spirit.

Connie Rossini


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Hi, I'm a Catholic writer and homeschool mother of four boys. I practice Carmelite spirituality. Check out my Books page for publications to help your whole family grow in holiness.

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