December 14, 2017
Ecstatic Prayer; Drawing closer to God through the power of intense prayer
There are all kinds of prayer. Prayers can be said through music, whether sung or expressed emotionally through an instrumental. You can pray silently, just a little private conversation with you and God. Prayer can be shouted out from the mountaintops. Sometimes, we don't even have the words and the Holy Spirit prays through us. There are even times when our prayer is a quick thought directed up to God, a silent plea in a time of impending disaster. A blog post could be dedicated just to the different ways to pray, and would still not likely cover all of them.
This post focuses on ecstatic prayer, which can take almost any form, including most of those listed above. Ecstatic prayer is not the only way to pray, but it is something which everyone should seek out. I don't want you to think that you have failed in any way if it takes you decades to get it, and you'll lose it quickly if you become boastful if it hits you hard and fast the first few times you try it. It will happen when it's meant to happen for you, when things are right in your life, and when you have the proper outlook, charity, and humility. That said, it is something which should always be sought.
A simple definition of ecstatic prayer is that prayer which one feels the Presence of God. It's more of a two way conversation than a plea directed out to the air. That's not saying you'll necessarily hear a booming voice, or even a still small voice like Elijah. (1) What you can expect is an experience which is unique to you, but which you will know that the Divine was listening to you.
While this post focuses on ecstatic prayer in a Christian context, it is absolutely not unique to Christianity. Hasidic Judaism calls it "Davening" (pronounced "dah-veh-ning" and sometimes spelled with two "v's.") (2) Sufi's refer to it as "audition" or "sama." (3) Hinduism has many practices which seek what they would call union with the Divine Ground, such as mantra chanting or the Transcendental Meditation methods taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. (4) It is pervasive through most religions, and it is abundantly present in Christianity.
Many people who experience this type of prayer will hear or feel answers come to them, or they'll get their answers through dreams they have when they next sleep. However, not everyone achieves that level of connection when praying, and even those who do have that kind of connection don't usually have it every single time. Sometimes a person is given only one such perfect moment of prayer in a lifetime. The goal is communion with God, which sometimes involves a two way conversation, and sometimes it's just your prayers and cries with the knowledge and feeling of God's Holy Presence.
While in some religions drugs, plants, extreme fasting, flagellation, self torture, and other methods are used to achieve this state, it is not my belief that such extreme measures are necessary. We will not be exploring drugs or torture in this post, and will instead focus on a more meditative method.
Why should I seek ecstatic prayer and union with God?
Most of you probably think the answer to this question is obvious, and you can skip to the next section if you'd like. However, some of you might say, "Hey, God will hear my prayers whether they're ecstatic or not, so why would I bother?" This small section is for the latter group of people.
Put simply, the best reason to seek ecstatic prayer experiences is because it is one of the best ways to strengthen your walk with God. The ecstatic experience is to draw closer to the Presence of God, and to develop a more personal relationship with Him. Your walk becomes less one about vague faith, and more about knowing; experiencing God and knowing for yourself that He really is there with you.
Lest you make the mistakes of Simon Magus, and think the gifts of God are just a power to be exploited, or even purchased, you should not go into it seeking the Gifts of the Holy Spirit for show and ego. (5) That said, it is good to seek these gifts for yourself because God wants to give them to us freely to help us, and others around us, in our walk with Him. (6) It is through ecstatic prayer that these Gifts of the Holy Spirit are most easily manifested within you.
Ecstatic prayer is the heart of Jewish or Christian mysticism, or indeed the mysticism of any religion. All of the mystics have had ecstatic prayer experiences of some kind or another. If you want to plumb the depths of God and the universe, of creation and angels, of the fabric of everything; there is perhaps no better way to begin to delve into these mysteries than through ecstatic prayer.
How to do it
While the goal is to be able to achieve some level of ecstatic prayer, some level of connection to God, in just about any situation, to have the purest and deepest experience, a certain level of preparation is necessary. It is helpful to have the right frame of mind and setting, especially the first several times you attempt ecstatic prayer. Keep in mind, you don't have to do any of these things to have an ecstatic prayer experience, but these steps certainly help.
You should be freshly showered, hair dried and combed, but not put up tightly. Being clean is more relaxing. I know I feel in better spirits after a good shower.
Next, prepare your space. A quiet church is often the best place for this experience, but anywhere you can be free from distractions will work. Have any icons, crosses, statues, or whatever helps you focus on God (simpler is better) in front of you.
Drink water, and make sure you urinate before you start. A clean inside will help you be in a purer state, more ready to meet the Divine. You also do not want to be dehydrated, as your thirst would be a distraction. Your only thirst should be for the Holy Spirit and the Water of Life.
Similarly, you should not go into your prayer meditation when you are hungry, but neither should you go into it bloated with food. Eat sensibly, a small amount, so that you will not suffer from hunger pangs; unless, you've trained yourself to better reach an ecstatic state with minor fasting (skipping a single meal.) Some people prefer more intense fasting, as mentioned earlier, but such is not the focus of this post. I will only say that you should seek competent medical advice before undergoing any kind of fast, and I don't believe fasting is the only way to reach the ecstatic state.
If you have a tallit cloth, a Jewish prayer shawl, it is useful to pull it up over your head, so that your gaze is focused on one object. Jewish people often refer to this as going into one's, "prayer closet." Many people believe it is what Yeshua meant when he said that we should go into our closet and pray privately. (7) Of course, you can pray with your eyes closed if it is easier for you, but I still like to be wrapped in the tallit when I pray; it's a connection to Yeshua, the Apostles, and all of the Prophets, who all wore the tallit.
Praying alone or with a small group
Decide what language or languages in which you'll be praying. Some people find that praying in your native language is perfect, as you understand what you are saying. Understanding the depths of what you're saying is important to some people. However, sometimes people find that praying in another language, particularly Hebrew or Latin, is most powerful to them. Of course, in some ecstatic prayer experiences, the Holy Spirit takes over and one prays in the tongues of angels; so, ultimately, the choice of what language in which you'll pray may not be entirely up to you! (6)
Music is sometimes helpful, particularly hymns of praise, and an ecstatic prayer journey should always involve scripture reading. If you can't sing, you can listen to recorded music. As for scriptures, you should read at least one of the Psalms, a passage from the Torah (first five books of the Old Testament, I particularly recommend the "shema" in Deuteronomy 6,) and something from the Gospels (The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6 is excellent, but any words of Yeshua are powerful.) You might also read from one of the Epistles of the Apostles, or from Revelations. The reason I include scripture readings along with singing, is because you might even wish to combine the two and sing scripture! Many of our scriptures, especially the Psalms of course, were likely sung long before they were ever written down, and there is a special power to singing scripture. Whatever your music choices, just make sure it won't distract you from your focus on God.
You may choose to take a cue from the Dervishes (Sufi) and dance while you pray, but you might be surprised to know that prayerful dancing has long been a part of Jewish religious practice as well! We're not talking about doing the Hustle or the Cabbage Patch (I know, I need more modern references) but just letting your body go and letting the spirit guide your dance. Of course, make sure you are in a safe place to dance ecstatically without hurting yourself or someone else. In lieu of dancing, you can try rocking in place, or gently rotating your hips and torso where you sit or stand.
In the same vein as singing and dancing is, of course, musical instruments. (8) Some people find instruments distracting to the experience, while others find they help keep the mind from wandering and help set the mood. Drums, a kinnor like King David played or other kind of harp or lyre, organ, piano, acoustic guitar, or whatever instrument you find soothing and spiritual. Again, sometimes silence is best, but find what will work best for you in that moment.
Regardless of all the peripherals discussed above, none of it will matter unless your prayer is done right. You must remain focused on your prayer. Your prayer should include genuine praise and thanks to God for all that is good, as well as your intercessions for others. Of course, intercessions for yourself can also be a part of an ecstatic prayer experience. Remember to ask for Wisdom, as it's God's favorite request. (9,10) Above all, ask for the Holy Spirit to come and fill you. It may seem obvious, but it's easy to overlook simply asking God to send His Holy Spirit to fill you at that moment.
Prayer in Church during services
You might be tempted to think that a church service is the worst place to have an ecstatic experience with God, but it is actually one of the best places and times to have such an experience. The sheer energy of everyone singing and praising God, and enjoying the readings from and expounding upon scripture, and the power of holy communion all add to your experience.
The main thing you need to watch out for is to not be distracted by other people. Don't chit chat or gossip. Don't worry about what anyone else is wearing, or how they approach the communion line. Other people are not your enemy, indeed it is having others praying and praising with you which particularly heightens a church experience; however, focusing on them instead of on yourself and God will take you away from your experience.
Praying by yourself, or with a small group, before service is particularly helpful. Free and open, not scripted, prayer can be a big part of that preparation, but most people find that reciting the prayer Yeshua taught us, lovingly called the "Our Father" or "Pater Noster," (11) or another scripted prayer, such as the Rosary, (12) is particularly a good way to begin the experience.
Find something on which to focus. While Jews may focus on the Torah scroll (2) Christians whose churches don't have Torah scrolls, some Christian churches do, may focus on a cross or crucifix in their sanctuary. For Catholics, it is especially appropriate to focus on the Tabernacle which houses the Holy Eucharist; as we believe that it contains the real Presence of our Lord. The idea is, just as when praying alone or in a small group, to find one object on which to focus your attention during the service, and one which will make you think of God. Of course, don't become so focused on the object that it replaces your focus on God, or your ability to know what's going on during the service.
A single ecstatic prayer experience is a treasure and gift from God, and developing an ecstatic prayer life is nourishment for the soul, direct from the Holy Spirit of God. As you work towards developing these ecstatic experiences, you will find that you can feel that connection to God in more and more situations. Eventually, the goal is to feel the Presence of God always, in all situations.
This post did not cover the phenomenon called, "The Dark Night of the Soul." Such a state is where you cannot feel the Presence of God no matter what you do, and your faith alone must carry one through such times. I do not claim to know why they happen, sometimes to some of the seemingly holiest people. I only know that if you persevere, God will show Himself to you again.
The final words I want to leave you with are the most important: In order to have the purest ecstatic prayer experience and truly know the Presence of God, you have to strive to walk rightly. God abhors sin. You do not have to be perfect, for you are perfected through the Blood of Christ. (13) However, the closer you follow the teachings of Yeshua, His beloved Son and our Messiah (Jesus Christ,) the closer you will be able to draw to the Father, and the Holy Trinity. Be charitable, kind, forgiving, loving, prayerful, thoughtful, and seek God in all things. Eventually, you'll even feel the Presence when you're washing the dishes or cooking, and you'll be amazed at when your gifts are used.
Baruch Haba B'shem Adonai!
References and further reading
1 1 Kings 19:11-13
4 https://tmhome.com/books-videos/maharishi-mahesh-yogi-tm/ (for further reading about Transcendental Meditation. I did not quote from this page.)
5 Acts 8:9-24
6 Isaiah 11:2, 1 Corinthians 7-11 Romans 8:26
7 Matthew 6:5-6
8 Psalm 150 as one of many examples
9 1 Kings 3:3-14
10 James 1:5,6
11 Matthew 6:9-13
12 http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/rosaries/how-to-pray-the-rosary.cfm (for reference on the Rosary. Page not quoted.)
13 Hebrews 9:11-13