The use of private revelations, ecstasy and prophecy in the late Medieval European religious vernacular. What these words stood for, the growing opposition, and parallels to modern Christian mystics.
The societal and personal impact of these states has had a tremendous impact on European history. The mystical life was so widespread that contemporary Renewalists (Charismatics, Pentecostals, and Third Wavers) can use this era as a framework both to improve the experience but more importantly guard against excess. The extravagance of the mystical experiences was one of the essential sources for the Reformation and forced a significant shift in European thought and life—an impact still felt today.
All of Europe, whether Protestant or Catholic, was immersed in a mystic lifestyle.
Literature from this period is preoccupied with the supernatural. Three books especially stand out on the subject: William Lecky’s monumental work, History of the rise and influence of the spirit of rationalism in Europe, Volume 1 1, Paul Carus’ publication, The History of the Devil and The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries by Hugh Trevor-Roper.2 A fourth influence is my affiliation with the modern Charismatic and Pentecostal communities for over 30 years. Their modern experiences, especially those of the Charismatics, accidentally parallel those of the Medieval period.
Mysticism in Medieval Europe is a major topic that one cannot envelop in a short blog piece. The focus here is on the their ideas of private revelation, ecstasy, and prophecy around the 1500s and onwards to the late 1700s. The following is an attempt to explain these three words in a medieval mindset in a manner that a contemporary reader understands.
Private revelation is understood as a divine message. This revelation was imparted on a person by a dream or vision. The person does not necessarily have to asleep in bed for this to occur but could be wide awake. It could be the discerning of a devil or witch’s presence. The experience could produce an outcome with a miracle or healing. The private revelation could be an inner locution (an inner voice). It did not necessarily have to be major, nor theologically deep. It often applied to the mundane things in life such as decision making in a business transaction, marriage, divine appointment of a leader, or family life.3
Charismatics and Pentecostals still believe in private revelation but this term is not consistently nor universally applied. Most contemporary Christian mystics would say, “God spoke to me,” and add nothing more.
The eighteenth-century philosopher John Locke categorically railed against its effect. He called these types of persons enthusiasts:
Their minds being thus prepared, whatever groundless opinion comes to settle itself strongly upon their fancies is an illumination from the Spirit of God, and presently of divine authority: and whatsoever odd action they find in themselves a strong inclination to do, that impulse is concluded to be a call or direction from heaven, and must be obeyed: it is a commission from above, and they cannot err in executing it.4
Locke was outlining the problem of absolutism with the office of private revelation. If someone speaks out publicly with a private revelation, then it is an absolute thought that one cannot dispute. The disputation against such a revelation would then be arguing against God. A person or institution could act or behave irrationally with little or no accountability to anyone else because the motivation was perceived to be of higher origin. Locke attempted to outline a balanced approach on dealing with private revelations in his work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
Private revelation would be especially problematic if leaders used it as a means to instruct the masses. The public would have no choice but give absolute consent to whatever the leader’s divine revelation consisted of.
Another practice was that of divine ecstasy. Ecstasy is a state where the mind is either fixated on a religious subject such as the crucifixion of Christ, the love of God, the sign of the cross, the end-times, etc. It typically was understood that the person’s physical senses are overtaken by what is perceived as an external power. It may cause the person to go in a trance, or enter into a temporary catatonic state. The person is overwhelmed by the perceived presence of the divine.5 A similar description is described in contemporary Pentecostal and Charismatic theological terms as spirit baptism or slain in the spirit — slain in the spirit may be a closer parallel because it can occur on numerous occasions. This is unlike spirit baptism which Pentecostals and Charismatics teach can only happen once.
The sixteenth century Teresa of Avila was a religious icon celebrated throughout all of Europe. Her book, the Inner Castle, “forms one of the most remarkablespiritual biographies with which only the “Confessions of St. Augustine” can bear comparison,” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia6 She popularized ecstasy throughout the international religious community. She described ecstasy in her book, The Inner Castle, as:
This supreme state of ecstasy never lasts long, but although it ceases, it leaves the will so inebriated, and the mind so transported out of itself that for a day, or sometimes for several days, such a person is incapable of attending to anything but what excites the will to the love of God; although wide awake enough to this, she seems asleep as regards all earthly matters.7
St. John of the Cross echoed similar sentiments to that of Teresa, but added that the state of ecstasy provided knowledge beyond anything science could offer:
I was so far beyond,
So lost and absorbed,
I lost all my senses
I was of all sensing dispossessed;
And my spirit was filled
With knowledge not knowing,
Beyond all science knowing.8
The sixteenth century Stephanus’ Greek Lexicon devoted three columns to defining the word ecstasy.9 This was not normative for Stephanus to devote so much page space. This long entry demonstrated how controversial and popular this noun had become.
Conyers Middleton, in his 1749 publication Free Inquiry, demonstrated that by his time the mark of a prophet was by the confirmation of an ecstatic experience. He attacked this correlation which was a direct reproach against the Church and Civil authorities:
For whereas the Montanists delivered their prophecies always in ecstasy, or with loss of senses ; it was then urged against them, “that this was the proof of a Diabolical spirit ; that the true Prophets never had such fits ; never lost their senses ; but calmly and sedately received and understood whatever was revealed to them.” And Epiphanius makes this the very criterion or distinguishing character between a true and false prophet ; that the true had no ecstasies, constantly retained his senses, and with firmness of mind apprehended and uttered the divine oracles. St. Jerome also declares, that the true Prophets never spake in ecstasy, or in madness of heart, like Montanus and his mad women, Prisca and Maximilla, but understood what they delivered, and could speak or bold their tongues, whenever they pleased, which these, who spake in ecstasy could not do. Eusebius also mentions a book of one Miltiades, written against Montanus, the purpose of which was to prove, that a prophet ought not to speak in ecstasy.10
The Montanists were a critical piece of evidence by Middleton in demonstrating the improper use of the supernatural to communicate with and control society. It was a vanguard in the argument against the religious tyranny of the time.
Middleton’s diatribe set in motion new principles of thought for open discussion. Science no longer was a prisoner of prophecy, nor were the institutions of law, or civil duties, to be occupied solely by those people considered spiritually enlightened: spiritual absolutism could no longer dominate.
Evelyn Underhill was an English Anglo-Catholic writer in the early 1900s who devoted much of her intellectual pursuits documenting the concept of Christian mysticism. She wrote a comprehensive book entitled, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness.11 She acknowledged the religious dimension of ecstasy but believed it to be a psychological contrivement:
Such ecstasy as this, so far as its physical symptoms go, is not of course the peculiar privilege of the mystics. It is an abnormal bodily state, caused by a psychic state: and this causal psychic state may be healthy or unhealthy, the result of genius or disease. It is common in the little understood type of personality called “sensitive” or mediumistic: it is a well-known symptom of certain mental and nervous illnesses. A feeble mind concentrated on one idea—like a hypnotic subject gazing at one spot—easily becomes entranced; however trivial the idea which gained possession of his consciousness. Apart from its content, then, ecstasy carries no guarantee of spiritual value. It merely indicates the presence of certain abnormal psycho-physical conditions: an alteration of the normal equilibrium, a shifting of the threshold of consciousness, which leaves the body, and the whole usual “external world” outside instead of inside the conscious field, and even affects those physical functions—such as breathing—which are almost entirely automatic. Thus ecstasy, physically considered, may occur in any person in whom (1) the threshold of consciousness is exceptionally mobile and (2) there is a tendency to dwell upon one governing idea or intuition. Its worth depends entirely on the objective value of that idea or intuition.
In the hysterical patient, thanks to an unhealthy condition of the centres of consciousness, any trivial or irrational idea, any one of the odds and ends stored up in the subliminal region, may thus become fixed, dominate the mind, and produce entrancement. Such ecstasy is an illness: the emphasis is on the pathological state which makes it possible. In the mystic, the idea which fills his life is so great a one—the idea of God—that, in proportion as it is vivid, real, and intimate, it inevitably tends to monopolize the field of consciousness. Here the emphasis is on the overpowering strength of spirit, not on the feeble and unhealthy state of body or mind. This true ecstasy, says Godferneaux, is not a malady, but “the extreme form of a state which must be classed amongst the ordinary accidents of conscious life.”
The mystics themselves are fully aware of the importance of this distinction. Ecstasies, no less than visions and voices, must they declare, be subjected to unsparing criticism before they are recognized as divine: whilst some are undoubtedly “of God,” others are no less clearly “of the devil.” “The great doctors of the mystic life,” says Malaval, “teach that there are two sorts of rapture, which must be carefully distinguished. The first are produced in persons but little advanced in the Way, and still full of selfhood; either by the force of a heated imagination which vividly apprehends a sensible object, or by the artifice of the Devil. These are the raptures which St. Teresa calls, in various parts of her works, Raptures of Feminine Weakness. The other sort of Rapture is, on the contrary, the effect of pure intellectual vision in those who have a great and generous love for God. To generous souls who have utterly renounced themselves, God never fails in these raptures to communicate high things.12
The Catholic Encyclopedia was well aware of such an argument and countered:
The rigid condition of the ecstatic’s body has given rise to a fourth error. Ecstasy, we are told, is but another form of lethargy or catalepsy. The loss of consciousness, however, that accompanies these latter states points to a marked difference.
(5) In view of this, some have sought to identify ecstasy with the hypnotic state. Physically, there are usually some points of contrast. Ecstasy is always accompanied by noble attitudes of the body, whereas in hospitals one often marks motions of the body that are convulsive or repelling; barring, of course, any counter-command of the hypnotist. The chief difference, though, is to be found in the soul. The intellectual faculties, in the case of the saints, became keener. The sick in our hospitals, on the contrary, experience during their trances a lessening of their intelligences, while the gain is only a slight representation in the imagination. A single idea, let it be ever so trivial, e.g. that of a flower, or a bird, is strong enough to fasten upon it their profound and undivided attention. This is what is meant by the narrowing of the field of consciousness; and this is precisely the starting-point of all theories that have been advanced to explain hypnotic ecstasy. Moreover, the hallucination noticed in the case of these patients consists always of representations of the imagination. They are visual, auricular, or tactual; consequently they differ widely from the purely intellectual perceptions which the saints usually enjoy. It is no longer possible, then, to start with the extremely simple hypothesis that the two kinds of phenomena are one and the same.”13
Another vital contributor to the public’s supernatural sense was the office of prophecy. Thomas Aquinas had described it as the greatest gift because it could take all sensory data, whether physical, intellectual, or spiritual and make a cohesive meaning out of it.14 Anyone conferred with such a gift would rise to prominence. The condition was reserved for the blessed — and typically assigned to Church representatives — persons who were central to the international, national, and local political mechanizations. This definition seemed to hold quite well in the Catholic realm, but it was not universal within the Protestant world. For example, the Huguenot Camisards, who lived in the mountainous south-central part of France called Cévennes, saw the prophetic rite as a God-sanctioned directive for the overthrowing of a Catholic-based Government.
Final thoughts on Private Revelation, Ecstasy, and Prophecy
The study of these three terms are preliminary. It is a good start, but I am still not thoroughly convinced about prophecy or ecstasy. Prophecy from a Catholic point of view is understood, but the Protestant position is not researched in this work and needs more attention. Why the term ecstasy got dropped from the religious vernacular and slain in the spirit or baptism in the spirit took its place, are not resolved.
- William Lecky. History of the rise and influence of the spirit of rationalism in Europe, Volume 1. New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1888.
- Further details on Christian mysticism and how it affected the role of Patristics are in the following article, The Historical Rejection of Patristics and its Legacy.
- Decision-making such as marriage, appointments of leaders, etc. is my conclusions based on being within the confines of the Charismatic movement that practices private revelations. It may be my own bias, but this is seen as a natural progression of private revelation.
- An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, by John Locke. Book IV, XIX:5
- The Inner Castle by Theresa of Avila. Chapter 4:18
- Nine verses made upon an ecstasy of high contemplation by John of the Cross. tr: Willis Barnstone 1968
- Stephanus Vol. 3 Col. 570-572
- Conyers Middleton. A Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers, which are supposed to have subsisted in the Christian Church, from the Earliest Ages through Several Effective Centuries: By which it is shown, that we have no sufficient Reason to believe, upon the Authority of the Primitive Fathers, that any such Powers were continued to the Church, after the Days of the Apostles. London: R. Manby and H.S. Cox. 1749. Pg. 110
- See Thomas Aquinas on the Miracle of Tongues for more information