I was in a religious service recently where some people raised their hands, closed their eyes, and swayed back and forth as they sang. This kind of thing is generally a sign that the person is either experiencing a moment of spiritual ecstasy or is seeking such a moment and hoping her body language will serve as a catalyst.
I don’t recommend the latter.
I have experienced spiritual ecstasy myself many times. I don’t actively seek it and am a little suspicious of overly demonstrative displays. But I cannot deny the power of such an experience and the intense intellectual and emotional pleasure that comes with it.
For me these moments of spiritual ecstasy are mysterious, in that they cannot be planned or controlled. It seems to be a gift that comes when you are not expecting it. The feeling is an intense and emotional sense of connection to God. The rush of joy is as powerful as anything I’ve experienced in life. Some part of you – a part that may be pre-verbal – becomes convinced of a reality. It is a purely intuitive feeling of rightness. It’s as though absolute truth was just around the corner and barely out of your grasp. I can’t help but think of Moses in the Exodus story, who was put into a cleft in a rock when God passed by. He only caught a glimpse of God’s robe, but his face shone brilliantly afterward. He had the Shekinah glow about him.
As a side note, C. S. Lewis described this sort of experience in his autobiography “Surprised by Joy.” He called the feeling “Sehnsucht,” which is translated as longing and further refined by Lewis when he named it joy.
I think that love may be the best common human experience I can compare spiritual ecstasy to. Do you know the feeling of falling in love? Do you know that rush of attraction that is so powerful you feel caught up in something you cannot control? You may be aware of very good and logical reasons why you should not be with the person you are falling for, but it doesn’t matter. You want him. You love her. The deeper part of your mind that we sometimes call the heart ignores your pitiful pleas that love should make sense to you.
The idea of God does not always make sense to me. If I pay close attention to how reality unfolds in this world, the idea of a cold and impersonal universe, driven by chance and natural selection seems a rational conclusion. Such a point of view certainly solves a lot of logical problems. No wonder all this awful shit is happening. No one who cares about us is running the show.
But here is a crazy thing. The more I’m convinced that there is no loving Creator watching over us, the more likely I am to receive an emotional epiphany during worship. I will be sitting in church somewhere – often a powerless and humble church without much money or influence – and some little thing will shatter my heart. Often it will be a small piece of liturgy or an ancient symbol that points to one of the crazy, backwards, upside-down gospel truths that Jesus was famous for proclaiming. The call for us to become like children, the thought that the least important person might be the greatest, or the impossible idea that we should love our enemies.
Suddenly I will be filled with a crazy joy that drives out any other thought or feeling. I shiver and tears come to my eyes, though I often don’t know why I am crying. Something tickles my reptilian brain and it becomes absolutely convinced that there is more going on in the Cosmos than we can see or know with our meager five senses. And in that moment, every small thing I perceive seems aflame with God.
In those moments I have powerful and tender feelings for Christ’s broken church, wobbling along these 2000 years, still bumbling and stumbling and confessing and promising to do better. What a silly bunch of dreamers we are. Ridiculous, really. We stand together in our collective absurdity, somehow managing to catch – in the rich depth of our liturgy – truths that are beyond our understanding but accessible to our simple hearts.
Lately, when a moment like this comes over me, I have found myself uttering a short little prayer, inspired by a delightfully common game that many people love.
“I’m all in.”