Q: Dear Dan, I have experienced what people call “resting in the spirit” or being “slain in the spirit.” It was amazing. The priest prayed for me and I fell to the floor as if I had passed out (no injuries as I was already praying on my knees facing the Altar). However, I was still aware of others around me but was lost in God’s love. I am curious if this experience is the same as “ecstasy”?
A: Before I answer your question, a little background is in order. The Lord has deeply blessed the Church by providing us with the mystical doctors. These great and holy saints have provided a clear understanding of what it means to encounter the living God. This provision comes in great detail and is an invaluable aid to help us process our experiences and to ensure our souls are properly oriented to Him depending upon where we are in our progress. So, with respect to your question, we are able to compare current experiences with those described by these doctors and determine their origin and place within this spiritual life.
Mysticism and Normal Spiritual Progress
Mystical ecstasy occurs as a normal phenomenon of the prayer of union experienced in the Unitive phase of spiritual growth. This phase is the last of the three and is preceded by two others. The first of which is the Purgative phase, and then the second is commonly known as the Illuminative phase. Each of these phases reflects the normal path of development in the spiritual life that many pilgrims experience if they are willing to abandon themselves to God. These phases are not commonly traversed quickly. The Purgative phase is a very ascetically rigorous period and usually is only passed through over an extensive length of time following serious battles with the forces of our lower nature. In each of these phases, mystical experiences can and do occur to greater and lesser degrees.
With respect to “resting in the spirit” or being “slain in the spirit” I have had the unusual opportunity to assist with a Healing Mass where this happened to many of the participants after the priest individually prayed for each person. Because, in one case, the laws of gravity were obviously suspended, I have no doubt about the supernatural nature of the situation. Also, because I knew many of the participants reasonably well, afterward I was able to ask a woman, whom I know to be very holy, to provide me with insights into her personal encounter with the Lord. From her description and my observation, this experience did not substantially mirror what the doctors of the Church refer to as ecstasy (particularly St. Teresa of Avila) which usually occurs in the latter of the three phases mentioned above.
Further reason for this conclusion is that I had some knowledge of the spiritual maturity of many of the participants that I described earlier. They represented a broad spectrum of spiritual maturity; however, they all exhibited the same phenomenon. Why? Probably because the Holy Spirit brought all of these participants together with the intent of blessing each of them with a grace that they needed for their spiritual growth. In St. Teresa’s language, this would be called a kind of “favor” or consolation. It is common for God to provide consolations, particularly in the early stages of spiritual growth. I am not saying that the particular phenomenon you have described is common, but that God’s common disposition towards us is such that he will encourage us with his presence when we need him to.
All that said, it is not likely these situations reflect a state of ecstasy, but would fit better in the category of divine consolation and spiritual favors. This is not a bad news, on the contrary, you probably have experienced a real grace from the Lord.
The Most Reliable Test of Mystical Experience
Several key points must be made about all of this. First, these encounters can, in many ways, be replicated by the flesh or the enemy and should be approached with openness but also from the standpoint of St. Paul’s admonition to “test all things and hold fast to that which is true.” (1 Thessalonians 5) The simplest and most reliable way to determine this is to examine the fruit of the encounter. If it produces obvious peace and holiness in life, it is likely from God. If it does not, then other forces may be at work.
Avoid Seeking After or Focusing on Mystical Experience
God grants such consolations to draw us to Himself but they should never be sought after. Assuming they are from the Lord, they are a means of grace meant to help us by deepening our faith and our love of Christ and others.
Our relationship with the Lord is not unlike human relationships. We meet someone we are attracted to, and in the early stages, as we get to know one another there is hand holding, walking side-by-side, and those expressions of mutual affection. God courts us in a similar fashion and the consolations He gives are His way of urging us forward. Just as a human relationship would wither and die if we were to become obsessed with the first kiss and didn’t allow for further growth, so too our relationship with God will be stunted if we focus on the initial affection rather than learning to love Him with our whole mind, heart, and soul. We must remember it is not the gift that we should desire, but the One who gives the gift. When we mix the two up, we end up in the sin of idolatry and spiritual gluttony.
Finally, it is normal to experience some amazement and awe when we encounter or witness things of this nature. Yet, even if the experience is a grace from God, we must be aware that the evil one will take advantage of undue curiosity to lead us off course. This can include the need to absolutely define what an experience is. Our culture today likes to define and put everything into a properly labeled little box. But God does not operate in ways that we can do this, so rejoice when God chooses to reveal himself in a special way to you, humbly accepting that its definition may remain a mystery! The key is to simply accept the grace and then, in response, proceed on your journey to love him and give all you are to him and his people.