A reader of my blog named Paul emailed me the following question:
I realize this is a difficult question to answer because of its lack of specificity, however any thoughts would be greatly appreciated. The Pentecostal experience of being baptized in the Holy Spirit, is it the same thing as experiencing the ecstasy of God?
Thanks for your question, even though it does indeed lack specificity! It’s a huge question, and I doubt that I can do it justice. So here are just a few thoughts, and I hope they’ll be helpful.
First, a bit of disclosure: I am mildly allergic to the word “experience.” It’s such a broad and vague word, and I think people use it in a variety of ways, not all of which are necessarily helpful for those of us seeking intimacy with God. And I’m not the only one with this allergy: in her book Silence, the Anglican solitary Maggie Ross has this to say:
Ancient, patristic, and medieval writers were extremely wary of “experience” in the modern sense, and of the virtual, skewed, illusory, repetitive, and encapsulating nature of the self-conscious mind, especially in matters of the spirit. They particularly understood that when self-consciousness is suspended there can be no experience. This is contrary to the modern sense of the word, which makes self-authenticating claims, e.g., “Of course it’s true that I was abducted by aliens: I experienced it.”
In other words, whatever we might experience may or may not have anything to do with God, or with contemplation, or with Divine Union. That’s because experience implies self-consciousness, whereas a genuine encounter with God will impel us away from self-consciousness. So there’s good reason to believe that authentic contemplation happens at a level deeper than ordinary conscious experience.
Christian contemplatives like Richard of St. Victor speak of excessus mentis, or “suspension of self-consciousness” as the summit of the contemplative life: but such suspension implies that God is acting on us at a level deeper than our awareness. As Thomas Merton put it, speaking to God: “you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.”
So, paradoxically, my first reply to this email is “let’s try to focus on something other than experience.” Let’s focus on love, on mercy, on truth, on compassion and kindness, on humility, on prayer, on discipline. These things may not be as appealing to our “entertainment-now” culture. But God is a God of love, not a god of entertainment. We are called to respond to God’s love, no matter what it feels like.
In other words, let’s focus on God, not on experiences of God.
Okay, I’ll stop ranting now and try to say something useful in response to your question.
One of the fruits of the spirit is joy. So part of a sustained, disciplined spiritual life will be the emergence of joy. I don’t think we create joy or somehow manufacture it by our own devices. It is a fruit — a gift — a grace. Sometimes there may be factors in our lives that may impede the flow of joy: we are in pain, we are angry or depressed, we are lost in the mire of sin (our own or another’s). But the lack of joy never means that God doesn’t love us, or considers us second-rate.
God wants to give us joy.
When we lack it in our lives, the question becomes “what can I do to remove the obstacles, either of my own making or of circumstance, that gets in the way of my receiving the fulness of joy?” Yes, repenting of sin may be one necessary step to take. Setting boundaries with others may also be necessary. Or even learning to trust and accept that, even in life’s many imperfections, joy remains something God is eager to give us.
So when you talk about the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the ecstasy of God, I wonder if you’re actually asking about joy. It seems that for many Christians, the sense of being baptized (immersed, washed) in the Holy Spirit is characterized by a profound and life-changing joy. Alleluia!
But I imagine for some, Spirit baptism might have another emotional component: a sense of gratitude at mercy received, or a sense of humility at acknowledging our smallness in the presence of God’s limitlessness. The Holy Spirit is not a one-trick pony, so presumably the “experience” of baptism in the Spirit could take many forms.
I think the same could be said of ecstasy. The word literally means “beside oneself” or “out of the body” — a phrase Christians often resist using, because of how popular it is in the esoteric or new age worlds. But I think the operative quality here is a beholding of God’s presence that is bigger than us, bigger than our bodies or our souls or our entire world. It’s being caught up into something a whole lot bigger than you are.
Again, I think this can be a way to encounter the grace of profound joy — but not necessarily. Think of the angels who when they appear always tell the humans they encounter “be not afraid.” With that in mind, true supernatural ecstasy might be just as frightening as it is blissful.
What these two categories have in common, of course, is the encounter between the Creator and the creature. They are intimate, life-changing, can’t-ignore-it milestones on a person’s spiritual journey. But of course, God sometimes comes to us in very humble, down-to-earth ways too. Some people never have a “mountaintop” experience and yet become profoundly holy, truly mystical in their embrace of Divine Love. God comes to us in many ways.
One other thought: it seems to me that one distinction between baptism in the Holy Spirit and mystical ecstasy is that the baptism happens in our bodies while ecstasy ushers us above or beyond our bodies. To use fancy theological language, one is immanent and the other is transcendent. But there’s a paradox here, for God is both found deep inside our hearts, and yet vaster than the physical cosmos. It’s the same God!
So to go back to that word I don’t like: it’s the same “experience.” Only one is intimate, present, here-and-now, embodied; the other is vast, limitless, eternal, bigger-than-the-body. Same God, different ways of encounter. But if we keep our focus where it matters (on God, not on us) then we see the basic unity.
Why would one person have one kind of encounter, and another the different kind? Hey, that’s nature. Some of us are right-handed; others left; some are tall and athletic, others short and sickly. God loves everybody the same. And God interacts with us according to what we need — which means my path will be uniquely mine, and may look nothing like yours. And isn’t that a grace? But we human beings have a tendency to always be comparing ourselves to the next person. That’s a waste of energy, because once again, it’s keeping the focus on me rather than Thee.
I hope this is helpful. Thanks for asking the question, Paul.
If you have a question about Christian contemplation, mysticism, interfaith dialogue, or silent prayer, please use the contact form to share your question with me. I may use it in a future blog post.