Catholics presuppose this state of trance as the elevation of the soul to intimate union with God and its consequent detachment from the sensible world. What they however disregard to address is the grounds on which Protestant believers establish their claims that trance or swoon could conceivably be caused by diabolical influence. More common, they state that the state of absorption and rapture could be induced by natural psychological causes and should not necessarily be associated with religious experience.
Mystical ecstasy was one of the most significant markers of difference between Catholics and Protestants. While the Catholic world teemed with men and women who claimed union with God, conversed with Jesus Christ and his mother Mary, or flew or levitated, or bilocated, or read minds, or were stigmatized with the wounds of Christ’s passion, Protestants denied that any such phenomena were possible. It seemed to be ascribed as delusional and demonic to them.
Protestants renounced religious imagery as idolatrous, the medieval concept of sainthood as delusional, and all mystical ecstasies as blasphemous or demonically inspired claims, Catholics embraced all three with renewed fervour in the 16th century, largely in response to those Protestant denials.
Catholics could be sceptical too, of course, because fraud was always possible, along with heresy and demonic deception. Church authorities kept a sharp eye out for such things. So sharp an eye, in fact, that many of the canonized saints of that era were scrutinized by the Inquisition at one time or another. This vetting process sifted the wheat from the chaff constantly, and yielded remarkable results, exposing feigned sanctity and lending extra weight to those mystics it judged to be genuinely holy.
The term ‘contemplation’ was a synonym for what we now call ‘mystical experience,’ and the term ‘contemplative’ stood for the noun ‘mystic’ as well as for the adjective ‘mystical.’ Contemplation was considered the earthly goal of every monastic, and, ultimately, the eternal destiny of every human being.
A central and most essential component of the Protestant Reformation was the rejection of the pursuit of contemplation in this life and the concomitant rejection of the monastic lifestyle that was inextricably linked to it. Despite their disagreements on many theological issues, all of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation could agree that mystical ecstasies of the sort and the miraculous phenomena associated with such altered states of consciousness were not just impossible for humans to attain, but that all such experiences were delusional or demonic in nature. At the root of this rejection lay a new and very different conception of the relationship between the divine and human natures and the spiritual and material spheres.
Transverberation was another important phenomena associated with mystical ecstasy. The term transverberation comes from the Latin transverberare which means to pierce through. In mystical theology it is also known by the Italian term ferita (wound) or ‘heart wound’. It has also commonly been referred to as the Seraph’s assault because it is often accompanied by a vision of an angel who inflicts the wound. It is a wound of love that inflames the soul with the love of God and at the same time a purification. The three major themes associated with transverberation are love, mystical ecstasy and martyrdom. Catholics emphasised highly on the attainment of spiritual experience and forming a connection with God through such piercing of soul. While these experiences of uniting with God were cathartic for the Catholics, Protestant understanding of the range of psychic phenomena, including levitation, stigmata, telekinesis, luminous phenomena, inedia etc., went beyond the belief in God to demonic acquisition of soul.
In the Reformed Protestant tradition, opposition to mystical ecstasy was even more emphatic and more directly based on metaphysical principles, summarized in the formula ‘finitum non est capax infiniti’ (the finite is not capable of the infinite). In other words, God is conceived as so radically transcendent and ‘wholly other’ as to preclude any union of the sort sought by mystics.