When we imagine the far reaches of prayer, it includes how we feel. There is plenty of thinking when we pray, of course, but it feels good to know God. We followers of Jesus are being transformed by our relationship with Jesus. In prayer we are opened up to the influence of the Spirit of God in places we are built to receive it.
The word “ecstasy” is not used in the Bible all that much, but people in the Bible are experiencing it. When people are having visions and are caught up into spiritual experiences it is called “an ecstasy.” So the word comes to describe an emotional/psychological place: “I am experiencing ecstasy. I am in ecstasy.” It is overwhelming feeling: happiness, joy, excitement. It is so overwhelming it can be like a trance, rapture, self-transcendence – it is beyond rational thought and self control. You might naturally associate the feeling with graduating from school, or falling in love, or having an orgasm. Spiritually, we might associate it with worship, speaking in tongues, or being brought to tears — the feeling of entering into a “huge space of grace” a friend once called it.
You may or may not have had many experiences of ecstasy. You may not want to have them. There always seem to be two kinds of kids in high school when it came to feeling experiences. There were the Christina Aguilera kind who “just want to feel this moment.” And there were always Ramones kind who want to be sedated. I think most of us were in the middle somewhere kind of hovering on the edge of feeling and on the edge of sedation.
I think Jesus offers a completely new way, not on either extreme and not in the middle. Jesus eases our pain and helps us safely feel again. In prayer we find an ecstasy that is brand new, at least it has been for me. The experience and the feeling has reference points in my old self and my former way of life, but it is completely new, too, because Jesus has introduced me to God. The ecstasy that comes with knowing God may scare you or make you feel so skeptical that you want to run away from it. But it is also constantly enticing. We long for it.
Finding non-chemical ecstasy
One time in college my buddy and I went looking for an experience. At the time, I was more Christina Aguilera and he was more Ramones. I took him to a Pentecostal worship meeting at our piano teacher’s church. I am fond of Pentecostals and consider their way to be part of the 57 ways I can describe my faith. Experiences of ecstasy in worship with Pentecostals helped convince me that I was on the right track when I committed to follow Jesus. If the Apostle Paul experienced ecstasy, if the disciples of Jesus experienced the transfiguration with Jesus, I thought I ought to have some out-of-control experiences, too.
So we ended up in a Pentecostal worship meeting among all these relatively normal looking people, (apart from some big hair here and there, which was popular among them at the time). Everything seemed like it would just be church until the music started and the ladies jumped up and started waving their arms. People cried. Someone shouted behind us and my friend flinched. Our piano teacher showed new sides of herself. Then they started singing loud and wiggling, some dancing, all waving. The music died down and they started shouting out prayers and then the speaking in tongues began. My buddy had had to get out of there and I left with him. He was one of the people that just could not get into the ecstasy, at least at that point. I don’t hold it against him. He was witnessing some non-chemical but maybe excessive kind of ecstasy. It was kind of scary.
You might be more familiar with the chemical called ecstasy: MDA — methylene-dioxy-meth-amphetamine. Ecstasy is the street named for a range of drugs. They are stimulants that speed up activity in the nervous system. They are hallucinogenic and typically affect perception in entertaining ways. I can’t resist this history; the Philly region has a lot of connection to this drug.
- The original patent for MDMA was filed on Christmas Eve 1912 by the German pharmaceutical company Merck which has a huge plant in Bucks county. The original purpose to control bleeding from wounds.
- Alexander Shulgin resynthesized MDMA for use with psychiatric patients in the 70’s. The drug soon escaped the lab and appeared in trendy bars and gay dance clubs, where it got the nickname ecstasy. By the 80’s and 90s it fueled raves. It is still around.
- For instance, our local Diabolique Ball at Shampoo not long ago was themed Agony and Ecstasy: A Religious Experience.
Today ecstasy is one of the four most widely used illegal drugs in the U.S., along with cocaine, heroin and marijuana.
One of my favorite bands of the last decade was called My Chemical Romance. They were named after a very popular book by Irvine Welsh called Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance. In 2011 some people in Scotland turned the book into a movie. The main character justifies his use of the drug ecstasy with this thought: “It isn’t death that kills you; it is boredom and indifference that kills.” The drug ecstasy, apart from its well known side effects, like eating away sections of your brain, erases a person’s anxiety and allows them to connect more easily, which is why it is often called the love drug. People long to be free to connect and feel good.
People don’t want to die before they die. They want to live. If you don’t have Jesus, you might be tempted to try ecstasy to loosen up some life. But what if you are a committed Christian and drugs are on your do not do list because you have been resocialized not to kill yourself? What if you are still bored and still indifferent and you still don’t love and connect? I think we all need to face up to how we avoid ecstasy or we manufacture it. And we need to continue to discover how we feel in relation to God and even receive ecstasy from our renewed relationship with God. It should be a regular feature of our prayer and worship.
We were made for ecstasy
I think we are looking for joy; we were made for ecstasy. C.S. Lewis famously put it this way:
“I was still young and the whole world of beauty was opening before me, my own officious obstructions were often swept aside and, startled into self-forgetfulness, I again tasted Joy. … One thing, however, I learned, which has since saved me from many popular confusions of mind. I came to know by experience that it is not a disguise of sexual desire. … I repeatedly followed that path – to the end. And at the end one found pleasure; which immediately resulted in the discovery that pleasure (whether that pleasure or any other) was not what you had been looking for. No moral question was involved; I was at this time as nearly nonmoral on that subject as a human creature can be. The frustration did not consist in finding a ‘lower’ pleasure instead of a ‘higher.’ It was the irrelevance of the conclusion that marred it. … You might as well offer a mutton chop to a man who is dying of thirst as offer sexual pleasure to the desire I am speaking of. … Joy is not a substitute for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy…. All joy…emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings.”
Lewis was describing his own experience of ecstasy and how the longing for God was better than receiving all the substitutes he could find. His was not quite the same as my Pentecostal friend’s leap into the arms of God, or Aguilera’s longing to feel it, or Gerard Way’s romance, but I think they were all motivated by the same root, the same desire. Everyone wants the joy of knowing God, it is how we respond to that want, that desire that makes the difference. It is in who or what we trust to understand the want and ultimately meet the desire that makes all the difference.
Often when people come across the idea of ecstasy in the Bible, they lay it off to the side like it is for odd occasions or strange people, or for the special people who stay after class. But all Jesus-followers are met by God, which, in itself is joy. We are not just looking at the Lord’s back as he leads us to eternity. He often turns and looks us in the face and we see his glory. Our relationship with the risen Lord reintroduces us in so many ways to paradise. Once we have peered over the fence and smelled the flowers; we always want to go back. And we should go there daily and enjoy that connection to the place from which we were created and to which we are going, where God lives. That feeling sustains us and moves us and no one should take it from us.
Jesus says, “I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.”
So now I have piled up some thoughts on the subject of ecstasy for you. I hope I have also given you some space to think and feel about your feelings. I defined the idea. I gave you some examples of it in relation to prayer. I showed the alternative the world offers in the drug called ecstasy. I countered that with a deeper definition by C.S. Lewis and topped it off with the promise of Jesus. I believe that promise is for each one of us — ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. The number one thing Jesus hopes we will ask for is himself — his grace, love, and Spirit. It is joy to us to know him and live in him.