A Reluctant Esctasy
by John Backman
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can, I perform my little ritual, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
—adapted from Sayings of the Desert Fathers
The room was quiet and settled like you’d expect a prayer circle to be. A dozen of us in a world-weary dorm room, all faded blue walls and particleboard desks and scuffed linoleum. I loved these people, and they felt like home.
And the words took shape in my mind.
I’d sat through enough prayer meetings and praise services to know what was happening. Under my breath — I was shy then — I let the words come to my lips. So this was speaking in tongues. A form of ecstasy. I hadn’t expected it to come so quietly.
* * *
Certain scholars would take issue with me. In the Christian church’s earliest days, they say, speaking in tongues wasn’t ecstatic, because ecstatic meant out of control. Glossolalia was, or was supposed to be, an orderly affair.
But ecstasy can mean different things. The original Greek can translate as “out of one’s mind,” as in insanity, but it can also mean “out of one’s place,” like a zebra among a hundred horses, or a single red splash on an all-black painting.
Or an unknown tongue in a rational mind.
* * *
Out of place happens to me sometimes, and sometimes is enough, because my appetite for it is finite. A few years ago, an old friend offered me one-sixth of a cookie laced with weed, which for reasons that still baffle me I accepted. The next day, after the hallucinations had died down, he asked me what I thought, and I told him I hated it because it disconnected me from reality and I love reality.
I’m not the only ambivalent one. Out of place left the ancient Hebrews on edge in their trek across Sinai, especially when God thundered the first 10 commandments from a thick darkness upon the holy mountain. The people saw it all — “the thunder and the lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking” — and took the sensible alternative. “You speak to us, and we will listen,” they said to Moses. “But do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Give us God, but at a distance, in his place.
* * *
But God doesn’t seem thrilled with distance or staying in place. Instead God barges in, and funny things happen, and we act funny too.
Like Teresa of Avila, the Spanish mystic. God treated her to a torrent of visions and inner voices in public places, leaving her in trances for hours or levitating above the convent choir. Mortified, she asked God to stop the public displays of affection. They were, she implied, out of place.
Centuries before that, Peter the disciple of Jesus babbled his way through the Transfiguration, an ecstatic vision if there ever was one. While Moses and Elijah (both long dead) chat with Jesus, Peter interrupts to say how wonderful it is to be there and how they should build booths in honor of the heroes of Israel and he would have gone on except God comes in a cloud and basically tells him to shut up and listen.
There are other examples too. Moses coming away from God’s presence with his face aglow. The ecstatic encounters that moved John Coltrane to play in tongues.
You may wonder why I’m telling you this. Actually, I’m telling me this. I’m telling me this because it’s strange and unprovable and I need to know that I’m not insane, or not alone.
* * *
I think it started in puberty. My early encounters with girls baffled me: I crushed on anything female, tangled my relationships beyond repair, and felt like a cheat and a liar. I was agnostic at the time, but on one cloudy day in an urban park, among my closest friends, the strain got the better of me. I looked at the leaden sky and exclaimed, “Am I a fraud?”
I wasn’t expecting an answer. I got one. No. Your feelings are confused, that’s all. The aftermath is fuzzy, but it involved dancing and bowing in worship to, well, I didn’t know — the answer, if nothing else.
Then, just a few years ago, a spiritual director visited our class — we were training to become spiritual directors ourselves — to listen to our stories one by one. She radiated welcome, and I couldn’t help but respond. Halfway through our conversation, she asked me about my relationship with God. I have no idea what I said. I only remember what she told me later: before I uttered a word, my eyes were dancing.
* * *
But like I said, my appetite is finite. I found that out early too.
An old movie theater housed the Pentecostal congregation. The ghostly light, fold-down movie seats and expectant buzz combined to leave me in a squirm. I was new here, with my ill-fitting clothes and my high school insecurity, and didn’t know what was coming.
The preacher looked normal enough: the standard big man with the two-piece cream suit, jacket open, tie clipped, one hand raised to proclaim the Word of God while the other cradled an open Bible. A fleshy Billy Graham, as it were, or an archetype of the pastors I’d seen at other churches. His volume was low; he hadn’t gotten rolling yet.
I’d expected all that. I hadn’t expected the wiry man who sprinted across the stage, thumped his hand on the preacher’s shoulder in mid-sentence, and shouted in tongues. He may have been ecstatic, whatever that means, but he sounded angry. Fear sliced through me with each unutterable word.
Do not let God speak to us, or we will die.
* * *
I’ve heard the warnings. The voice of the Holy Spirit is always crazy, M. Scott Peck said once. The call of compassion is sometimes an unsettling downward pull, wrote John Neafsey, a psychologist. Oh, and this from James Finley, sage and former monk: the coming and going of our moments of awakening began to graze our hearts with longing.
Maybe longing is what kept nudging me toward out of place. Or it was the voice, or the call. Whatever the case, it led me to the place where out of place took over my life — where it scuttled my career and my thriving business and replaced them with scribblings like this, with seeing all of three people for spiritual direction, with little money and less purpose.
No one in their right mind would follow this. And maybe that’s the point. Once out of place grabs you, you’re out of mind from then on.
* * *
That could be the way it worked with Shouting Guy. I didn’t know him, so I couldn’t tell what blend of ecstasy and insanity drove him. And I couldn’t see his life afterward, so I don’t know if it changed him.
Because that’s what ecstasy does.
Not at first, mind you. Peter walked back down the mountain to do what he always did. I prayed in tongues and then discussed it with my mentor and went on shirking my studies. But ecstasy keeps coming. Eventually, Peter saw the risen Christ and had visions, and he went from fishing in a backwater to leading a movement. I am no leader, but I am quieter, calmer, more caring than before I first found myself out of place.
It might all be easier if I knew where ecstasy was taking me. But ecstasy guards her secrets. Even weirder, ecstasy adjusts on the fly. God tried a few things to get through to me, like Shouting Guy, but settled on quiet because quiet drew me in. God tried magic with Teresa and got pushback and changed course. That’s a kind of love, if you think about it: taking the care to draw us in the way each of us responds best. Like buying your lover daisies instead of roses because that’s what captures her heart.
It seems funny putting ecstasy and love in the same sentence. But there’s nothing funny about it, really. Both hold you tight. Both make your eyes dance. Both converge when you become all flame.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A spiritual director and monastic associate, John Backman writes about ancient spirituality and the unexpected ways it can affect modern life. This includes a book, Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart, and essays in such places as Tiferet Journal and Amethyst Review.
From Belmont Story Review Volume 4: Out of Place