The experience of the Divine is at the heart of spirituality and any effort to renew religion itself. Mystics undergo such experiences and attempt to name them by various terms: Julian of Norwich invented the word oneing; Meister Eckhart invented the word Breakthrough; Thomas Aquinas (and myself also) use the word ecstasy—as does the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible. Emily Dickinson follows suit.
Take all away from me, but leave me Ecstasy,
And I am richer then than all my Fellow Men—
Ill it becometh me to dwell so wealthily
When at my very Door are those possessing more,
In abject poverty—
Just as Eckhart tells us that for the person who is awake breakthrough does not happen once a year or once a month or once a day but many times every day, so too does Dickinson tells us that: “I find ecstasy in living: the mere sense of living is joy enough.”* And again,
To live is so startling
It leaves little time for anything else.
Compare Rabbi Heschel, “just to be is a blessing; just to live is holy.” Such an experience flows from an awareness of the sacredness of existence, the sacredness of life.
Emily also endures deep rupture and tasting of ashes, as so many shamans do. She undergoes death as shamans do, “dismemberment journeys,” Herrmann calls them. Ecstasy is the result, as Eliade puts it, “the shaman, and he/she alone, is the great master of ecstasy.” Indeed, he equates shamanism with a
…technique of ecstasy…the shaman specialized in a trance during which his/her soul is believed to leave his/her body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld.**
Emily speaks of this happening to her:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain…
And when they [the Mourners] all were seated
A Service, like a Drum–
Kept beating—beating—till I thought
My Mind was going numb—
Is she speaking of a shaman’s drum going on in her brain? Or the war drums of the civil war that was going on in 1861 when she wrote the poem? Or both?
Not only was there a funeral in her mind, but a “cleaving” as well.
I felt a Cleaving in my Mind—
As if my Brain had split—
I tried to match it—Seam by Seam—
But could not make them fit.
The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before—
But Sequence raveled out of Sound
Like Balls—upon a Floor.
She makes clear that Jesus is not the only one who underwent a crucifixion.
One Crucifixion is recorded—only—
How many be
Is not affirmed of Mathematics—
Our Lord—indeed—made Compound Witness—
There’s newer—nearer Crucifixion
She unites the mingling of joy and grief, via positiva and via negativa.
I can wade Grief—
Whole Pools of it—
I’m used to that—
But the last push of Joy
Breaks up my feet—
Following dying comes dancing and resurrection.
*Cited in *Steven Herrmann, Emily Dickinson: A Medicine Woman for Our Times, p. 14.
**Cited in Ibid., pp. 14f.
Thomas H. Johnson, ed., The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, # 1640, 271, 937, 553, 252.
See Matthew Fox, The Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom for Hard Times;
See also Matthew Fox, Original Blessing.
Banner Image: Solo dancer, Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival. Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash
Do you find “ecstasy in living” like Emily did? What follows from that? What follows if we don’t?
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