Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Inner Work


For the week of March 17, 2008

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Ecstasy Through Prayer

(Part 8 of 9 in the Inner Work Series: The Stages of Prayer)

In the upper reaches of prayer, we encounter ecstasy, a rapturous and joyful state of contact with the high spiritual energies of the world of sacred light. Methods abound for attaining such states, but quick methods alone do not offer the preparation acquired through long spiritual practice. Though that preparation is not always necessary for entering ecstasy per se, it is most helpful for enabling us to spiritually profit thereby.

The most easily accessible approach to spiritual ecstasy goes through group prayer. Charismatic Christian prayer service, Sufi group chanting known as zikr, and Chasidic group prayer, to name but a few examples, offer rapid ways into sublime states of being. The shared energy of the group electrifies the atmosphere, empowers us to temporarily let go of being solely rooted in the physical and in our illusory selves, and connects us with the sacred essence of the world.

People with substantial experience with spiritual practices may be able to touch ecstasy through individual contemplative prayer. Having established themselves in peace, they continue their practice, not only to maintain their peace but to move deeper into the Sacred. Opening their heart and being to what is beyond consciousness, beyond inner peace, they attain the healing, nourishing, purifying, and intoxicating sweetness of Divine Light.

As wonderful as spiritual ecstasy may be, it should not be sought as an end in itself, but rather as a step along the way to a closer relationship with the Divine. A saying of the Prophet Mohammed goes: “God’s veil is light.”[1]  If one seeks only ecstasy, then one may indeed find ecstasy but be trapped by it. In such cases ecstasy becomes an indulgence, effectively blocking further progress on the Way. We become enmeshed in desiring the remarkable pleasure of it, rather than allowing spiritual ecstasy to reopen our joy of living and reinvigorate our personal journey toward the Most Sacred.

Nevertheless, the nourishment and purification of the soul found in ecstasy can serve as crucial, ongoing components of our spiritual path. The soul nourishment comes from the immense reservoirs of high spiritual energies that define ecstasy. As we encounter that sea of energies, our inner world overflows. My cup runneth over.[2]

The soul purifying action is less obvious. One way this operates is by weaning us off identification with the pleasures of the material world. We need not give up enjoyment of food, sex, and movies, but spiritual ecstasy, by eclipsing the material pleasures, does loosen their grip on us. Through its impermanence spiritual ecstasy also points beyond itself: a temporary though repeatable state. We want it to last, but it does not. So we are driven deeper still.

Ecstasy, though wonderful, does not fundamentally transform us. When through repeated experience, our entry into the world of spiritual light no longer induces an intoxication with ecstasy, but rather awe and sobriety, our prayer practice can start moving beyond spiritual ecstasy toward our ultimate destiny of nearness or even union with the Divine. We come to understand that ecstasy does not confer union, being one level removed. But it does spur us on.

For this week, work to deepen your prayer practice a little more.

[1] Quoted in William C. Chittick, Sufism: A Short Introduction, p. 139

[2] Psalms 23:5


     

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