In a great work of Christian literature, Sheldon Vanauken writes about his love for his wife, the tragedy of her illness, and his grief over her death in his book A Severe Mercy, but amidst the suffering they experienced something that can be described as awe and even ecstasy. He found himself awed at his love for her and hers for him. There was something about their sharing in the same cup of suffering that brought them out of themselves for each other. Consider this quote from Mr. Vanauken as he recounts an experience of joy shared between him and his wife during her illness:
“She knew without my saying that I was hers, that I was full of happiness that we were deeply together again, wherever the road led. And I knew without her saying that she had, somehow, come to a new understanding that God in his ample love embraced our love with, it may be, a sort of tenderness, and we must tread the Way to Him hand in hand. We understood without words that we must hold the co-inherence of lovers and be Companions of the Co-Inherence of the Incarnate Lord: she in me and I in her; Christ in us and we in him.”
For those who have never been through such an ordeal, it might be easy yet unintentional to gloss over the words “we must tread the Way to Him hand in hand…she in me and I in her”, but that would do a great disservice both to the author and to the reader. What Mr. Vanauken is describing is the loss of self in the loved one through abandonment in Christ, an abandonment that could only come about through such an experience of suffering. The greatest good became not the benefit of one over the other, but rather a sort of emptying of self in service to the other, and this service became the vehicle to the ultimate Good – Christ Himself, Christ in them and they in Him. To be poured out for another is to be outside the self, conforming oneself to a more perfect image of the Son, who as St. Paul teaches in Philippians 3:6-7, “Though He was in the form of God did not regard equality with God something to be grasped; rather He emptied Himself taking the form of a slave…”. The loss of oneself in the other is a bit of a misnomer. It is certainly not loss in any way. It is, rather, the discovery and therefore the actualization of our true nature as images of God, a God Who in Himself lives a mystery of personal, loving communion. I would even go so far as to refer to it as a sort of Divine Ecstasy. The ecstasy experienced in the loss of self between Mr. Vanauken and his wife became the place where they found themselves in each other and experienced a joy brought about not by personal, selfish gain but by baptism into Christ’s sanctifying suffering.
In our eroticized culture of today, the word ecstasy is often used in reference to the pleasure derived from the sexual act and only that pleasure. To focus only on the pleasure of the sexual act and not on the primary goals of unity and new life is to focus only on the self. In other words, when pleasure becomes primary, selfishness is at its peak. The problem here is that the word ecstasy by its very definition and literal translation must necessarily and completely exclude focus on the self. Ecstasy comes from the Greek ekstasis, which means “to stand outside oneself”. Standing outside oneself can only be brought about by the opening and emptying of oneself. It is a complete self-giving. Ecstasy can only be obtained by complete self-giving; therefore, ecstasy can never be obtained by self-absorption. The ecstasy of self-giving and self-forgetfulness here on earth is a sign pointing us to the ecstasy of Heaven, where we will exist in a state of absolute self-giving and openness to the Other that is God and all those in unity with Him. This level of existence will be the pinnacle of the experience of pleasure, for to be in unity with God is to be in unity with Pleasure Itself. Ecstasy and pleasure, therefore, is rooted in self-giving and the emptying of oneself for the other in an expression of love.
From this perspective, suffering creates a new experience of ecstasy. For the suffering loved one, it is an opportunity to be conformed to the image of our suffering Lord and to learn to submit to the perfect will of God. Submission to the will of God amidst great personal suffering demands the denial of self-will. It demands a “standing outside of oneself” in order to stand within the will of God.