"Until a few years ago, the most intimate moments of life — childbirth, sexual intercourse, the instant of death — had largely eluded the recording eye of the visual artist. Connoisseurs of such images turned not to museums or sumptuous coffee table books, but to the local pornographer or a willing medical professional. But there has always been one exception. The ecstasy of prayer — the moment of shuddering union with the divine — has ever been a favorite subject of painters, East and West. Giotto's Ecstasy of Saint Francis (1297-1300), Poussin's Ecstasy of Saint Peter (1643 ), Bertoni's Ecstasy of Saint Catherine of Siena (1743), Beardsley's The Ascension of Saint Rose of Lima (1896), and the close-ups of the martyr's face in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) amply demonstrate the importance of this theme across the centuries throughout the Christian West. On these canvases, saints soar or swoon in transports of bliss, their fainting limbs often supported by helpful angels. Similar exuberance characterizes the scrolls and statuary of Asia, where countless gods and humans plunge into samadhi or find tantric rapture in one another's arms.
"In recent years, the camera has added immensely to this catalogue of exaltation. A Vodun priestess possessed by a lwa, a drug taker in a mescaline-induced trance, a Pentecostal speaking in tongues — all these images are now readily available on the Internet or in any well-stocked bookstore. This is astonishing: a spiritual event so profound that it is often likened to a ravishment has been made available, at the click of a button or the flip of a page, for all the world to see.
"The most remarkable of such photographic images — not least because it depicts the most remarkable of modern ecstatics — was taken in India in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It originally appeared in one of the most extensive accounts on record of the day-to-day sayings and actions of a spiritual master, The Gospel of Ramakrishna, published, in Bengali in five volumes from 1897 through 1932 and in English in 1942. The photograph, 'entitled "Ramakrishna in Ecstasy," shows the great Indian sage Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) standing amidst his disciples in a room in Calcutta. His nephew Hriday stands beside him, supporting him at elbow and back. The saint is raising his right hand, forefinger and pinky pointing to the sky, middle fingers closed against the thumb. His left hand is open, held chest high, as if receiving gifts. But what draws our attention is the face. Ramakrishna's eyes are closed, and a slight smile plays along the lips. His features radiate ... What? Light? Glory? Bliss? Happiness? All of these and something more, something mysterious, uncanny, almost supernatural. We can readily understand, even if we hesitate to accept, the assessment of novelist and playwright Christopher Isherwood, a devotee, that 'I believe, or am at least strongly inclined to believe, that he was what his disciples declared that he was: an incarnation of God upon earth.'
"Ecstatics abound in the world of prayer, and not all of them claim divine status. Bill W. was an ecstatic during his hot flash, so at times was the Russian pilgrim, and those anonymous Muslims immersed in the dhikr, and the apostles at Pentecost, and the Ba'al Shem Tov while reciting the benedictions of the 'Amidah, and Saint Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata, and Jalal al-Din Rumi: whirling, and Julian of Norwich beseeching. The list is long and impressive. But however familiar these figures may be, when we turn to their ecstasies we encounter something unknown. To study ecstatic prayer is to venture beyond sociology, psychology, biology, anthropology, and all other familiar scholarly disciplines. We enter that mysterious realm within the human being where heaven meets earth. What unfolds in that place is frequently and famously described as ineffable, and not only by religious figures, who for the most part lack literary skill, but even the world's great literary masters. For example, Jorge Luis Borges comments,
" 'In my life I only had two mystical experiences and I can't tell them because what happened is not to be put into words, since words, after all, stand for a shared experience. . . . It was astonishing, astounding. I was overwhelmed, taken aback. I had the feeling of living not in time but outside time. . . . I did my best to capture it, but it came and went. I wrote poems about it, but they are normal poems and do not tell the experience. I cannot tell it to you, since I cannot retell it to myself, but I had that experience, and I had it twice over, and maybe it will be granted me to have it one more time before I die.'
"And Borges again: 'in the case of ecstasies, that can only be told through metaphors, it cannot be told directly.'
"C. S. Lewis, in his space fantasy Perelandra, offers a convincing reason for this literary aphasia. Ransom, an Oxford don who has traveled to Venus, finds himself unable to describe what he has experienced there. The narrator says, 'I was questioning [Ransom] on the subject — which he doesn't often allow — and had incautiously said, "Of course, I realize it's all rather too vague for you to put into words," when he took me up rather sharply, for such a patient man, by saying, "On the contrary, it is words that are vague. The reason why the thing can't be expressed is that it's too definite for language." '
"Ecstasy is like that. It is sharp, precise, engulfing; it turns one inside out; there is nothing vague about it at all. And for this very reason it remains under descriptive embargo. This places students of ecstasy in an awkward position: we will limn the outward shapes and hope that the inward reality will become visible to our unecstatic eyes."