Monday, August 13, 2007

Death by Ecstasy

by Brenda Roger

Until a few days ago, the extent of my knowledge of the idea of ecstasy was the image of this sculpture of St. Teresa of Avila by Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). I've been researching the physical symptoms of ecstasy and trying to determine if it can kill you. I'm working on a short story and I wanted to use death by ecstasy as part of the plot.

Perhaps, it was St. Teresa's image floating around in my mind that gave me the idea. She looks like she could die, but also like she doesn't care if she does. Bernini was a genius at dematerializing marble to look like folds of fabric and delicate pale skin. The tilt of her head and curling of her toes all suggest that she is at the mercy of something outside of herself. In all of my research, Bernini's description of ecstasy is still the most useful.

St. Teresa was a sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite nun. She was the first female to be named a Doctor of the Church (although, in true Catholic fashion, it happened hundreds of years after her death). She wrote extensively about her pursuit of spiritual perfection. She was a controversial reformer within her order, and on occasion, her writings are described as feminist. One does not think of nuns as rebels. How delicious. It is St. Teresa's descriptions of ecstasies and other mystical experiences that keep her in the contemporary consciousness, with a little help from Bernini, of course.

Ecstasy is defined as a feeling of oneness with God. It is a kind of spiritual perfection. The plot of my story requires something more sinister, so I think it will be closer to death by peak experience than ecstasy. A peak experience is not specifically religious. I haven't forgotten that my story is fiction, and it is up to me to create and describe the experience of my character. It is so because I say it is! Isn't it fun to be a writer?


Anonymous said...

Brenda: I love your art posts! I was hoping you'd get back to one, soon, and I see my wish has been fulfilled.

I was trained in Reichian therapy. Reich was a student of Freud, and he felt man's most intense fear was "fear or pleasure." Seems a little ludicrous, on the face of things, but my work with clients teaches me it's a real phenonmenon.

Something to consider: Is it ecstacy that causes the death, or fear of/ resistance to ecstacy?

Just my 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

Tory! Very compelling idea! Thanks. I'll be thinking about that all day, now.

Anonymous said...

My mother's theory about all those nuns who felt the "presence of God" during the night were simply having nocturnal orgasms.

But then, she's more of an art aficianado than a religious person. In case you wondered.

Another great post!

Joyce Tremel said...

Very interesting, Brenda!

I never knew that was the true definition of ecstasy. And actually you could have "death by ecstasy" if you consider the drug by the same name.

Nancy, I'm glad I didn't have anything in my mouth when I read your comment! It might be a little hard to explain why I had coffee all over my keyboard at work.

Anonymous said...

I don't have any direct experience with ecstacy -- either the state or the drug. All I know comes from being raised Roman Catholic and living through the psychedelic '60s. It's my impression, though, that in an ecstatic state the soul can leave the body and either choose not return or get so lost in the bliss that it's unable to find its way back. Do either of those work for your story?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, Brenda! I always learn something fascinating from your posts.

Nancy, Now I'm not going to be able to get the whole nocturnal orgasm thing out of my mind. Thanks a lot!

Anonymous said...

Nancy does seem to bring out the evil in us all...

Anonymous said...

the drug, which I think is spelled differently, is so 1994 that it isn't even interesting!

Joyce Tremel said...

The drug is spelled the same. It's still popular around here, except now it's 9 and 10 year olds getting their hands on it.

Anonymous said...


That is helpful. Thanks!

Anonymous said...


I always thought St. Teresa might be thinking of something other than religion in Bernini's version of her ecstasy!