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RELIGIOUS AND OTHER ECSTASIES 



JAMES H. LEUBA 
Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania 



In the psychology of religion adequate conclusions cannot 
be reached unless, making full use of the comparative method, 
phenomena that are alike, whether they appear within or 
outside of religion, are studied together. 

We propose in this paper to establish whatever relation 
can legitimately be established between religious and non- 
religious ecstasy. B eginning with instances generally regarded 
as purely physiological in their origin, i.e., independent of any 
belief or other conscious factor, we shall end with a religious 
ecstasy. 

The main manifestation of that dread disease, epilepsy, is 
often preceded by curious signs, varying greatly from person 
to person, but fairly constant in the same person. In some 
instances, the "aura," as these premonitory symptoms are 
called, is in the nature of an ecstasy. In Modem Medicine 
Dr. Spratling reports the case of a priest under his care whose 
epileptic attacks were preceded by a rapturous moment. 
Walking, for instance, along the streets he would suddenly feel, 
as it were, "transported to heaven." This state of marvelous 
enjoyment would soon pass, and a little later on he would find 
himself seated on the curb of the sidewalk aware that he had 
suffered an epileptic attack. 1 The same author mentions else- 
where two other epileptic patients, "teachers of noted ability," 
who speak of their aura as "the most overwhelming ecstatic 
state it is possible for the human to conceive of." 2 

1 W. P. Spratling, art. "Epilepsy" in Osier's Modern Medicine, Vol. VII. 
' Epilepsy and Its Treatment, p. 466. 

39i 



392 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

Similarly, the Russian novelist Dostoevsky enjoyed, before 
his epileptic attacks, a moment of supreme elation: 

There are seconds — they come five or six at a time — when you 
suddenly feel the presence of the eternal harmony. It is something not 
earthly — I do not mean in the sense that it is heavenly — but in the sense 
that man cannot endure it in his earthly aspect. This feeling is clear 
and unmistakable. It is as though you apprehend all nature and 
suddenly say, "Yes! it's right, it's good." It is not that you love — oh, 
there is something in it higher than love — what's most awful is that it 
is terribly clear, and such joy! 1 

There is in The Idiot a similar description: 

I remember among other things a phenomenon which used to 
precede his epileptic attacks, when they came in the waking state. In 
the midst of the dejection, the mental marasmus, the anxiety, which the 
madman experienced, there were moments in which all of a sudden 
the brain became inflamed and all his vital forces suddenly rose to a 
prodigious degree of intensity. The sensation of life, of conscious 
existence, was multiplied tenfold in these swiftly passing moments. A 
strange light illumined his heart and mind. All agitation was calmed, 
all doubt and perplexity resolved themselves into a superior harmony, 
but these radiant moments were only a prelude to the last instant — 
that immediately preceding the attack. That instant, in truth, was 
ineffable. 2 

The epileptic aura is a phenomenon well known to medical 

students. The following information, taken from Spratling's 

works, is valuable for our purpose: 

The most common psychic aura is a sudden acceleration of the imagi- 
nation, a quick overflowing of the process of thought in which "the 
train of imagery is urged ahead with trembling, excited haste until the 
thread is snapped and unconsciousness occurs." 

Sudden blindness may constitute the most substantial 
part of the aura. 

Auditory aurae usually partake of the character of roaring and 
voices, the sound of the waves, etc. Such aura occurs in from two to 
three per cent of all cases. 3 

1 The Possessed (Besi), tr. by C. Garnett (New York: Macmillan). 
' The Idiot, I, 296. 

3 The last quotation is from Three Lectures on Epilepsy by W. A. Turner (Edin- 
borough, 1910), p. 6. 



RELIGIOUS AND OTHER ECSTASIES 393 

Hallucinations of taste and smell occur also. The reappear- 
ance of normal consciousness is frequently marked by tempo- 
rary mental confusion, during which phase automatisms or 
semipurposive actions may take place. 

The preceding instances of epileptic aurae show the following 
features: (1) the total absence of a causal conscious factor: a 
purely physiological cause is assigned; (2) the aura comes 
suddenly and unexpectedly; the subject's r61e is therefore 
an entirely passive one; it is as if an external power had taken 
possession of him; (3) it brings with it a "sense" of illumina- 
tion, of revelation; (4) the experience is at times so wonderful 
that the most extravagant descriptive terms and comparisons 
seem to the subjects to fall short of the reality; it is an ineffable 
experience. 

These traits might naturally enough suggest superhuman 
causation. Yet, no metaphysical significance is ascribed to 
them. The priest did not think himself actually transported 
to heaven; neither did he believe that he had communed with 
God. Both the priest and Dostoevsky accept the scientific 
view: these raptures are the expression of a particular organic 
disease; and so, the latter says, "it is not a higher life, but, 
on the contrary, one of lower order." 1 

In Les Obsessions et la PsychastMnie by Janet are found 
instances very similar to the preceding and yet not apparently 
connected with epilepsy. In them some conscious activity, 
sometimes regarded as the sufficient cause, precedes the 
ecstasy. In fact, however, the conscious activity (perception, 
idea, etc.) plays rather the r61e of an occasion, as, for instance, 
of a spark that explodes a train of powder. 

Fy, while walking in the country, is intoxicated by the 
open air, "everything seems delightful"; it seems to her that 
she is going "to burst from happiness." She declares: 

I have never before experienced that; the day passes like a dream; 
time passes five times more swiftly than in Paris. I feel a better person, 

1 The Idiot. 



394 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

and it seems to me that there are no bad people, every face is sympathetic 
and it seems to me that I live in the Golden Age. 1 

Gs., contemplating Paris from the top of the Trocadero, 
is roused to intense admiration, and for a moment he forgets 
his suffering. He says: 

It seems to me that it is too beautiful, too grand, that I am lifted 
up above myself. At the time, it gives me an enormous pleasure; but it 
exhausts me, my legs shake, and it seems to me that, unable to stand 
that happiness, I am going to swoon. 2 

But, however vivifying and inspiring a beautiful day in the 
country or Paris from the Trocadero may be, these sights do 
not usually liberate storms of feeling such as are described 
by these two persons. The country and Paris acted upon them 
like a last drop that starts an overflow. Quite similar are the 
two following instances, taken from my own documents. 

A young woman passed, on divers occasions, through 
moments of sudden and extreme happiness. In one instance 
it was when recovering from illness; in another, she was "in 
a beautiful place in the Catskill Mountains, walking or sitting 
alone." Suddenly, she found herself "uplifted" by an 
" overwhelming sensation of the bigness of things." She felt a 
desire to pray. But these words are, in her opinion, quite 
inadequate to describe her experience. 3 

Another woman writes: 

Once when walking in the wild woods and in the country, in the 
morning under the blue sky, the sun before me, the breeze blowing 
from the sea, and the birds and flowers around me, an exhilaration came 
to me that was heavenly — a raising of the spirit and nature within me 
through perfect joy. Only once in my life have I had such an experience 
of heaven. 4 

The case of Nadia is not essentially different, for, although 
two powerful emotional stimuli, love and music, provide 
rational causes, common sense will not in this instance regard 

1 Pierre Janet, Les Obsessions et la Psychasthtnie (Paris, 1903), I, 380-81. 
'Ibid., p. 380. 3 No. 125. •< No. 40. 



RELIGIOUS AND OTHER ECSTASIES 395 

them as causes commensurate with the intensity of the storm 
they let loose. The love itself has hardly any rational basis, 
for Nadia has never spoken to the man and has seen him but a 
few times. She wrote to Pierre Janet, her physician: 

The concerts given by X have been for me a revelation; they have 
awakened such an enthusiasm in me that I have never recovered from 
it. I cannot explain its effect. When I left the hall after the first 
concert, my legs and whole body shook so that I could not walk, and 

I spent the night in tears But it was not painful, far otherwise; 

it was as if I was coming out of a dream which filled my past life. I 
understood things more as they really are. I was in a veritable heaven 
of happiness. My only hope during many years has been to hear him 
again and to experience the same feelings. I believe that, as people 
said, I had a passion for him, but it was not an ordinary passion; of that 
I am sure. He seemed to possess a supernatural influence over me. 1 

Nadia reminds one of love at first sight. Is not the coup de 
foudre de V amour, as the French say, a phenomenon in several 
respects similar to the one we are discussing? The passive 
r61e of the subject, the suddenness of the emotional onslaught, 
the ineffable happiness establish a resemblance more than 
superficial. But space does not permit of a more detailed 
comparison. 

Jean occasionally experiences what he calls sensations sublimes et 
solennelles. This happens, for instance, when he thinks of himself as a 
representative in the Chamber of Deputies, and when, before well-filled 
galleries, he pronounces a great political speech. A slight shudder 
runs through his body — not an unpleasant shudder — : his heart is calm 
and beats slowly . . . . ; instead of his habitual humble tread, with 
head down, he straightens up, and strides along with an important air. 
His intelligence is exalted and keen, and he thirsts for knowledge; above 
all, he enjoys a sense of happiness never otherwise felt. "They are," 
he says, "divine impressions that prove to me the existence of a soul 
in the body." 2 

The appellation "divine" applied by Jean to his emotion 
and the illogical sequence of ideas by which he comes to the 
belief in the existence of a soul in the body are well worth 

1 P. Janet, op. cit., p. 387. "Ibid., p. 381. 



396 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

noticing; the same sort of reasoning is common enough 
among persons cherishing high intellectual pretensions. 

Few, if any, persons will fail to recognize in their own 
experiences moments of exaltation comparable to the foregoing, 
both in their quality and in their occasion. We are in the 
habit of regarding these moments as determined by some 
mental content, but the noteworthy thing is that they are, in 
principle, no more rationally caused than Jean's ecstasy or the 
raptures of No. 125. Did Jean actually pronounce mentally 
a noble discourse? Did he develop a succession of great 
thoughts supported by vast erudition, set forth with powerful 
logic ? Certainly not. He simply pictured himself speaking 
in the impressive setting of the Chamber of Deputies. He 
did not actually say anything, or the things which he said 
mentally were mere shadowy fragments of commonplace 
stump-speech oratory. But he heard the applause from the 
galleries, and he straightened up, and he felt a shiver course 
down his spine, and he thought himself convincing and witty. 1 

These last cases are, then, instances of the presence of an 
internal, organic store of energy ready to be set off at a slight 
provocation. Paris from the top of the Trocadero, a sun-lit 
landscape, a strain of music, an imaginary speech in the 
Chamber, were, in each particular case, equally efficient 
fuses. Every normal emotional experience (but not only 
those) is dependent upon these two factors : a stimulus in the 
form of a perception or other mental process and an organic 
disposition set into activity by the stimulus. Each particular 
instance differs from every other in respect to the share of 
these two determining factors. In abnormal instances there 
may be no conscious stimulus. That is the case in the epileptic 
aura; the emotional explosion is, as it were, self-started. 

The trait of religious mystical ecstasy which has been 
most insisted upon in the literature of the subject — a trait 

1 This is a delusion due to causes similar to those that determine the illusory 
sense of power in a partly intoxicated person. 



RELIGIOUS AND OTHER ECSTASIES 397 

without which, according to the Roman Catholic church, no 
ecstasy is a true religious ecstasy — is its " noetic quality," as the 
philosophers call it; the mystics themselves speak of "revela- 
tion" or of "illumination." A careful examination places 
beyond doubt the revelatory character of every one of the 
preceding instances. Nadia alone uses the term "revelation," 
but all of them convey in no mistakable terms the unique, 
wonderful quality of their experiences. They seem to them 
not only different from, but another sort of thing than, any- 
thing they have so far known. Both Nadia and Jean speak 
of a new understanding of things; and Dostoevsky, struggling 
to describe the undescribable, notes two aspects of revelation 
upon which the Christian mystics usually lay stress, its clear- 
ness and its certitude. 

It might be said, by way of objection, that what we refer 
to in these instances as "revelation" is too lacking in con- 
ceptual clearness to deserve that name. But is it not well 
known that lack of conceptual definiteness has never been 
regarded by the mystics, or their apologists, as a sufficient 
reason for disbelieving in the revelatory quality of the mystical 
experience ? It is sufficient for the present purpose to remark 
that objection on the ground of vagueness applies equally to a 
great many other instances of ecstatic "revelation," both 
religious and otherwise. 

Why is it that although our instances possess all the essential 
traits of religious mystical ecstasy, namely, suddenness, 
ineff ability, noetic quality (impression of illumination), and 
passivity, they are not regarded by the experiencers as due to 
God and are not classed as religious experiences ? A sufficient 
reason has already been offered with reference to the ecstasies 
known to the experiencer to be part of an epileptic attack. As 
to the others, they did not take place under conditions favoring 
a religious interpretation. The more common of these condi- 
tions is an antecedent belief in the divine origin of ecstasy; 
or, at least, in a God who can manifest himself in man. When 



398 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

to that belief is added a desire or an expectation of entering into 
blessed relation with God, the probability of a divine interpre- 
tation being put upon ecstasy is very greatly increased. This 
general and inadequate statement must not be interpreted as 
implying the impossibility of an ecstatic experience becoming 
itself the ground of belief in a God-Providence. 

We pass now to an instance of ecstasy regarded both by 
the experiencer and the world in general as religious. 

M. E. is a man of superior education and of great moral 
earnestness. Throughout his life he has wrestled with 
philosophico-religious problems. He is wont to see in life, 
at least in its more dramatic events, the hand of Providence. 
It will be observed in the account which follows that the 
ecstasy fell upon him with startling unexpectedness; as far 
as he knew, nothing whatsoever, whether in his physical or in 
his psychical condition, could have foreshadowed its appear- 
ance. In this respect his ecstasy did not differentiate itself 
from certain epileptic aurae. Did it differentiate itself from 
them in any way other than the interpretation placed upon 
it and the natural consequence of that interpretation? It 
is for him a divinely caused experience. The effect of that 
belief was to lift up the ecstasy to the rank of an event of the 
highest spiritual importance. 

As to ecstasies, I experienced one, among others, which I remember 
perfectly. I will try to tell you when and how it happened and what it 
was like. I was thirty-six years old. I was climbing with some young 
fellows from Forclaz to the Croix de Bovine in order to reach Champex. 
We were following a road bordered by blooming oleanders, and looking 
down over a stretch of country dotted here and there with clumps of 
firs. The wind scattered the clouds above and below us, sending them 
down or driving them up in whirling eddies. Now and then one escaped 
and floated over the valley of the Rh6ne. I was in perfect health; we 
were on our sixth day of tramping, and in good training. We had come 
the day before from Sixt to Trient by Buet. I felt neither fatigue, 
hunger, nor thirst, and my state of mind was equally healthy. I had 
had at Forclaz good news from home; I was subject to no anxiety, 



RELIGIOUS AND OTHER ECSTASIES 399 

either near or remote, for we had a good guide, and there was not a 
shadow of uncertainty about the road we should follow. I can best 
describe the condition in which I was by calling it a state of equilibrium. 
When all at once I experienced a feeling of being raised above myself, I 
felt the presence of God — I tell of the thing just as I was conscious of it — 
as if his goodness and power were penetrating me altogether. The throb 
of emotion was so violent that I could barely tell the boys to pass on and 
not wait for me. I then sat down on a stone, unable to stand any longer, 
and my eyes overflowed with tears. I thanked God that in the course of 
my lif e he had taught me to know him, that he sustained my life and took 
pity both on the insignificant creature and on the sinner that I was. 
I begged him ardently that my life might be consecrated to the doing of 
his will. I felt his reply, which was that I should do his will from day to 
day, in humility and poverty, leaving him, the Almighty God, to be 
judge of whether I should some time be called to bear witness more 
conspicuously. Then, slowly, the ecstasy left my heart; that is, I 
felt that God had withdrawn the communion which he had granted, and 
I was able to walk on, but very slowly, so strongly was I still possessed 
by the interior emotion. Besides, I had wept uninterruptedly for 
several minutes, my eyes were swollen, and I did not wish my companions 
to see me. The state of ecstasy may have lasted four or five minutes, 
although it seemed at the time to last much longer. My comrades 
waited for me ten minutes at the cross of Bovine, but I took about 
twenty-five or thirty minutes to join them, for, as well as I can remember, 
they said that I had kept them back for about half an hour. The 
impression had been so profound that in climbing slowly the slope I 
asked myself if it were possible that Moses on Sinai could have had a 
more intimate communication with God. I think it well to add that in 
this ecstasy of mine God had neither form, color, odor, nor taste; more- 
over, that the feeling of his presence was accompanied with no determi- 
nate localization. It was rather as if my personality had been trans- 
formed by the presence of a spiritual being. But the more I seek 
words to express this intimate intercourse, the more I feel the impossi- 
bility of describing the thing by any of our usual images. At bottom 
the expression most apt to render what I felt is this: God was present, 
though invisible; he fell under no one of my senses, yet my consciousness 
perceived him. 1 

1 Th. Flournoy, Observations de psychologie religieuse, Obs. V, pp. 351-57 (abbrevi- 
ated). The translation is by W. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 
pp. 67-68. 



400 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

No wonder that this exquisite experience aroused in M. E. 
thankfulness toward the Giver of it and a wish to know what 
could be done in order to deserve this and other blessings. 
He " felt His reply." It was that he " should do His will from 
day to day." This thought, so obvious that it might have 
appeared in any mind with similar religious ideas, is taken as 
God's reply. This is the only revelation conveyed in a con- 
ceptual form. No one would insist upon its evidential value. 
But in the opinion of M. E. the power, the goodness, and prob- 
ably other qualities of God, as well as ineffable aspects of the 
meaning of life, were also revealed: he "felt" them. One 
can readily understand how, as soon as God was regarded as 
the author of this brain storm, the mind of M. E. filled with 
the glorious meaning of "God"; whereupon the "miracle" 
glowed for him with the light that has gathered during centuries 
of worship around the Christian idea of God. It seems almost 
as if M. E. himself realized that he was interpreting his feelings 
and emotions; for he repeats "as if" several times: "It was 
rather as if my personality had been transformed by the power 
of a spirit." 

The reader familiar with the writings of St. Paul has prob- 
ably compared in his mind the great apostle's ecstatic experi- 
ence with the preceding accounts. It possesses every essential 
characteristic belonging to the instances we have discussed, 
and no other: suddenness, surpassing delight, illumination, 
ineffability, passivity. In his second letter to the Corinthians, 
when he comes to the subject of "visions and revelations of the 
Lord," he relates how "fourteen years ago" — whether in the 
body or out of the body, he does not know — he was "caught 
up to the third heaven," and "heard unspeakable words which 
it is not possible for man to utter." 1 

Whether or not we regard this experience as of an epileptic 
nature (as some do), this question demands an answer: Was 
there any way for St. Paul, ignorant as he was of modern 

1 II Cor. 12:1-4. 



RELIGIOUS AND OTHER ECSTASIES 401 

science, sharer in the belief common about him in divine 
and diabolical possession, and passionate disciple of the Lord 
Jesus risen from the dead and seen once already on the way to 
Damascus, to interpret the storm of feelings and emotions 
that suddenly assailed him otherwise than as a divine occur- 
rence? This question must be answered, we think, in the 
negative. 

The ecstatic quality of an epileptic aura may puzzle the 
lay mind. Why should a morbid physical process appear in 
consciousness as an "exalted" delight? As a matter of fact, 
it need not be so; the epileptic aura possesses at times a very 
different character. In theory — and the actual facts fulfil 
sufficiently the theoretical expectation — the aura may have 
any affective quality whatsoever. There are instances on 
record in which the face of the subject wears "a terrified 
expression." It may be added that a sense of well-being and 
joy is characteristic of morbid conditions other than the 
epileptic aura. In certain phases of progressive general 
paralysis the wretched patient beams his enjoyment of life as 
he tries to say how well he feels. 

If the pathology of the epileptic aurae were known, probable 
conjectures might be made regarding the similar, non-epileptic 
brain storms that need the stimulus of some psychical factor 
in the form of perception or ideation. Ignorant though we 
are, this at least is clear: in epilepsy a discharge of nervous 
energy takes place unexpectedly and without the instigation 
of a psychical stimulus. The almost endlessly varied forms 
of epilepsy owe their peculiarities to a special distribution of 
that discharge. In grand mat it is intense and general. The 
grave motor commotion and the loss of consciousness indicate 
that the discharge has invaded the motor area of the brain 
as well as other regions. In psychical epilepsy, on the contrary, 
only those parts of the nervous system correlated not with 
motor but with sensory and ideational functions are affected. 
There is therefore no conspicuous motor effect, but instead 



402 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

production of conscious phenomena such as hallucinations. 
The type of hallucination will be visual or auditory according 
as the discharge affects the visual or the auditory region of 
the brain. When intense and exquisite emotions are pro- 
duced, we must think of the nervous disturbance as affecting 
those parts of the nervous system that are involved in the 
production of ecstatic states of mind. 

The sudden discharge of nervous energy may be understood 
in two ways. It may be due to an abnormal production of 
energy in certain parts of the organism which, when it has 
gained a sufficient tension, breaks the anatomical bounds 
within which it was confined. Or, the available nervous 
energy remaining normal, a pathological inciter to discharge 
may be present which causes at certain times the epileptic 
or the epileptiform seizure. 

It should not be imagined that all the non-epileptic brain 
storms are rapturous; they are no more frequently so than the 
epileptic aurae. If our instances are all of the ecstatic sort, it is 
because ecstasy is the subject of this paper. Among nerve 
storms of another affective quality may be mentioned the 
pathological fits of anxiety, of fear, and of rage that break out 
without any, or, at best, with the most insufficient, psychical 
causes. And, to speak of more ordinary occurrences, there 
are persons constitutionally disposed to irrational anger, just 
as there are people constitutionally prone to raptures. There 
are numerous instances on record of unmotivated attacks of 
anxiety; this one, for instance: A woman forty-six years old 
suffered at times from 

a feeling of extreme nervousness and agitation, great restless anxiety, 
with a sense of uncontrollable dread of some unknown impending terror. 
Physically, the attack was characterized by violent trembling of the 
whole body, hurried breathing, irregular heart's action, and profuse cold 
sweating. 1 

1 Ernest Jones, "The Pathology of Morbid Anxiety," Journal of Abnormal 
Psychology, VI (1911-12), 102. 



RELIGIOUS AND OTHER ECSTASIES 403 

In his " Study of Anger" Stanley Hall reports the following 
instance of abnormal rage: 

A girl in good health up to 17, had fits of anger with great regularity; 
about once a month she was violent and lost all self-control. No small 
vengeance was her desire, no less than a passionate desire to kill the 
offender. Hatred shown by looks and gestures was intense. 1 

That ecstasies entirely or mainly due to the internal, 
organic factor should, under the conditions sketched above, 
be taken as divinely caused, is, in the general state of popular 
knowledge, just what the psychologist would expect. 

To the religious moralist the most important information 
conveyed in the present objective study will probably be 
found in the consequences following from the type of explana- 
tion accepted by the experiencer. Let us take up again for 
comparison the case of the priest and that of M. E. In both, as 
a consequence of a nervous discharge due to physiological 
causes, inexpressibly delightful and "elevating" emotions are 
produced. But, although the priest uses the expression 
"transported to heaven," the experience has for him no moral 
significance; or, to speak more exactly, in so far as he regards 
it as the prodromal stage of a loathsome disease, the experience, 
though "heavenly" in sensory quality, is nevertheless repulsive 
and depressing. M. E., on the contrary, by the divine inter- 
pretation he puts upon his ecstasy, is raised to a high level 
of energy and is inspired to the achievement of noble moral 
purposes. The value of God, as conveyed to him in the Chris- 
tian tradition and enriched by his own meditations, becomes 
actualized: he feels the divine love, and he hears the call to 
righteousness. Every prompting and every purpose, regarded 
as sanctioned by the Christian God, is stimulated to a strangely 
intense degree by the assumed divine Presence. At the same 
time a sense of utter safety and of happiness too deep and lofty 
for words suffuses his being. 

1 American Journal of Psychology, X (1898-99), 541. In "A Study of Fears," 
by the same author, are to be found striking instances of sudden abnormal fears; 
see ibid., Vol. VIII.