Divine Drunkenness, Mystical Madness
Why was such language once so common? Why has it nearly vanished?
A toping trope
Readers who spend any extended amount of time with premodern Christian literature will not fail to come across, sooner or later, references to the “drunkenness” of the saints or indeed of God Himself. A related trope speaks of “madness” and “folly.” Not only is the trope fairly common, it is used with considerable daring by mystics and by theologians with a mystical flair—for example, St. Dionysius the Areopagite or his namesake, Denis the Carthusian.
One might wonder if St. Paul is at the origin of this kind of language, as he seems to be at the origin of so many other strands of Christian mysticism. Let’s consider just one example. In Ephesians 5:18 he writes: “Do not be drunk with wine, wherein is luxury: but be filled with the Holy Spirit.” The implication is that we should be drunk, but with the Spirit rather than with wine. That is how St. Thomas Aquinas takes it in his commentary:
Thus he says: I have stated that fornication and all uncleanness should not so much as be named among you (Eph 5:23). Yet you ought also be careful to abstain from superfluous wine since excessive food and drink is a cause of sensuality; and especially wine which warms and excites a man. Wine is a luxurious thing, and drunkenness riotous (Prov 20:1). When the king was merry, and after very much drinking was well warmed with wine, he commanded . . . to bring in queen Vasthi before the king (Esth 1:10–11). Fornication and wine and drunkenness take away the understanding (Hos 4:11). Whence Jerome remarks: a man over whom Sodom could not prevail (i.e., Lot) was conquered by wine. Therefore [he says] do not be drunk with wine, wherein is luxury.
But be filled with the Holy Spirit. Among all those things which breed a variety of moods is wine; thus it begets animosity and makes men talk in thousands (3 Esd 3:21). Appropriately therefore does he teach them the opposite, to be filled with the Holy Spirit who engenders an intensity of devotion: in spirit fervent (Rom 12:11). Who also spreads joy and spiritual happiness: justice, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17). Who, moreover, makes men speak out boldly: and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit; and they began to speak with diverse tongues, according as the Spirit gave them to speak (Acts 2:4), so that those who heard them thought they were drunk (Acts 2:13).
To onlookers, the apostles at Pentecost seemed to be carrying on like drunken men, but they had had nothing earthly to drink. The scene in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles was obviously on the mind of St. Ambrose of Milan (340–397) when, in the hymn Splendor paternae gloriae, he penned the memorable line: “Laeti bibamus sobriam ebrietatem Spiritus”—“Joyfully let us drink the sober drunkenness of the Spirit.” (In Urban VIII’s unfortunate revisions to the breviary, the sharp paradox is canceled out by the substitution of “profusionem” for “ebrietatem”: “let us drink of the affluence of the Spirit.”)
Know (or unknow) your limits
Pushing the limits of coherent discourse, like those who have drunk freely and well (cf. Jn 2:10), St. Dionysius in his Ninth Epistle declares that God Himself is said to be drunk:
In our terminology, inebriation has the pejorative meaning of an immoderate fullness, being out of one’s mind and wits. It has a better meaning when applied to God, and this inebriation must be understood as nothing other than the measureless superabundance of good things which are in him as Cause. As for being out of one’s mind and wits, which follows drunkenness, in God’s case it must be taken to mean that incomprehensible superabundance of God by virtue of which his capacity to understand transcends any understanding or any state of being understood.
Although he is familiar with the Epistle in which it is contained (as he quotes it some fifteen times), St. Thomas never quotes this particular passage, nor does he ever apply the language of drunkenness to the Divine Nature. Perhaps he regards the metaphor as too daring or too dubious, although it is scarcely more daring than much of the rest of the content of On the Divine Names, which Aquinas placidly explains line by line.
As it turns out, the Dominicans in general were quite happy to use this kind of language. For instance, the fifth Master General of the Order of Preachers, Humbert of Romans—an exact contemporary of St. Thomas—candidly admitted his sobria inebrietas: “I became like a man who is drunk, like someone sodden with wine, from my encounter with the words of God.” That must have been some bacchanalian lectio divina!
Our mad Lover
Related to this language of drunkenness is the language of madness—a not surprising connection, since it could be said that the drunk act as if out of their right mind and the mad (at least sometimes) act as those intoxicated might do. Another great Dominican, St. Catherine of Siena, freely speaks this way: “In mercy you cleansed us in the blood; in mercy you kept company with your creatures. O mad lover! It was not enough for you to take on our humanity: You had to die as well!”
Once again St. Paul is relevant—not so much for something he says of himself, but because of a barbed comment aimed at him by Festus, successor to the governor Felix, after hearing the Apostle preach about Christ: “Paul, you are mad; your great learning is leading you into madness” (Acts 26:24). The irony is that it is man without God who is insane, and man with God who is sane; yet to the world it will always appear the other way around.
In fact, this insight isn’t peculiarly Christian, even if Christianity runs a lot farther with it. We find it already in Plato, that most proto-Christian of pagan philosophers. In the teaching of Socrates, the true philosopher will be driven forth as a madmen by the mundane merchants, preening politicians, and sober sophists of the day. Plato claims in the Phaedrus that the regrowth of the soul’s lost wings resembles madness (243E–245C) and that the true philosopher, “initiated into perfect rites” (249C–D), is regarded by the many as insane because they do not realize he is filled with the divine. The great Neoplatonist Plotinus talks about reason at its highest functioning—in the presence of the One—as “drunk reason.”
The phenomenon we are looking at is man taken out of himself, seized by a stronger power, given over to its influence, taken to another level at which he does not normally dwell and to which he could not attain by his own efforts. What are the deepest roots of this longstanding way of thinking and of speaking about the paradox of a height of goodness, or surrender to goodness, that seems at the same time unsettling, almost self-cancelling?
There’s no success like excess
Here I would like to quote an illuminating passage from an early work by Robert Barron, written long before he was a bishop or a famous media figure:
All of Christian life begins with Jesus because in him we see the meeting of two ecstasies, that of God and that of the human being. For Thomas the most impressive and powerful aspect of the Incarnation is its surprise. God’s decision to join us human beings in our own flesh, in time and space, in all of the weakness and suffering of our finitude, is something in the presence of which astonishment is the only proper response. God must be a reality stranger, more powerful, more wonderful than we can imagine. Though God needs us not, though God is utterly self-sufficient, God nevertheless goes out of himself, in an unheard-of ecstasy, and becomes one of us. There is, in all of this, says Thomas, an excessive, ever-greater quality.
Excess—that is the key concept. Nothing in God, nothing about God, is self-contained and finite; all that God is is continually being given and received in the innermost life of the Blessed Trinity, inexhaustibly and immeasurably, and this internal overflow flows over into creation and redemption, so that there is no limit to the copious font of divine mercy that pours into souls in the sacraments, resurrects bodies at the end of time, glorifies the just in the now of eternity, so that every entity involved is living in and for another. That is precisely what will look like drunken or mad behavior to a self-centered, self-enamored, self-absorbed observer.
The spiritual writer Fr. Jean C. J. d’Elbée picks up where then-Fr. Barron left off:
We spoke of His follies of love. Why were they follies of love? Because they were follies of humility and annihilation. Bethlehem: the infinite God, a little Child on the straw of a manger. Nazareth: a poor God, a God who is an apprenticed worker, whom those near Him, His own, treated as a visionary! He was with His Apostles as one who serves and not as one who is served. The washing of the feet: Jesus on His knees before Judas, humbly and carefully washing his feet. Gethsemane: when He appeared before His Father covered with all the sins of men. The festival robe in which Herod clothed Him in mockery. Barabbas preferred to Him. Raised on the Cross, with two thieves beside Him: God, put on the level of criminals. The cruel irony hurled at Him when He was on the Cross: “He saves others and cannot save Himself. Come down if you can.” And finally, the Tabernacle until the end of time.
Another modern writer, Jean Petit, adds a gloss:
Scandal and madness, on account of our ignorance, is the contact point where the secret of the Triune God lies, with weakness of the flesh, with obedience in the face of death, and with the silence of the Eucharist. It is through this that infinite life is poured out upon our wretchedness.
“Love is strong as death, jealousy as hard as hell” (Cant. 8:6)
Note well that only an excessive, ecstatic lover is capable of extreme self-limitation, a fixed position, a permanent adherence; one might speak of a voluntary imprisonment for the sake of the beloved. In yet another paradox, it seems that only the one who is absolutely free to give himself is also free to limit himself in the most radical way possible, to be wholly present in one place and time to a single beloved, as if he is totally for that one alone—reserved, expended, for that one alone.
In his novel Callista, John Henry Newman places these words on the lips of the character Caecilius:
There is but one Lover of souls . . . and He loves each one of us, as though there were no one else to love. He died for each one of us, as if there were no one else to die for…. The nearer we draw to Him, the more triumphantly does He enter into us; the longer He dwells in us, the more intimately have we possession of Him. It is an espousal for eternity.
Both Fr. d’Elbée and Jean Petit expressly mention the Holy Eucharist, where all of these paradoxes meet like radii at the center of a circle: the Host is host to all the mysteries. For here, the eternal and infinite Logos of God makes Himself wholly present under the most humble, confined, particular signs of bread and wine, consumable and corruptible. He has proportioned Himself to the individual who approaches Him, that each of us may have all of Him, and He may take possession of His own. Thus are fulfilled the words of St. Paul: “And Christ died for all; that they also who live, may not now live to themselves, but unto him who died for them, and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:15).
The great Redemptorist, St. Gerard Majella, was one of the many “fools for Christ” who surrendered Himself unreservedly to the One we like to describe as “reserved in the Tabernacle.” A book about him tells us:
The Eucharist taught him the depth and generosity of self-surrender: the “madness” of love, according to his own words. At times when he was praying before the Eucharist, he was seen laughing; when asked by his superior to explain, he ingenuously recounted that he had often heard a voice coming from the tabernacle and telling him, “Madman, madman! A day will come when you will get over this madness of yours.” And he said that he used to reply to this voice: “Lord, aren’t you the one I learn the madness from? Why, being an infinite God, have you locked yourself up in a narrow monstrance out of love for me?”
The Christian is drunk, mad, foolish, because God Himself, first of all, acts like one who is drunk, mad, and foolish. He loved us first, that we might love Him in return. This way of speaking is found in every century and culture; the examples I’ve given only scratch the surface.
Can this language still work for us?
I have not done anything like a stylometric analysis of modern Christian literature but, as an avid and wide-ranging reader, my sense is that these sorts of “tropes of excess” have largely vanished from our literature. If that is true, it begs for an explanation.
Reasons are likely many, but would include a rationalism that prefers what it regards as accurate and sober language, a taste for plainer and more controlled forms of speech, a distaste for high or hyperbolic rhetoric, and a suspicion of emotionalism, which is seen as a sign of possible fraudulence.
Be that as it may, it seems a pity that we should find this vocabulary so foreign, so strange, when it was an ever-present feature for so many centuries. One might even have reason to believe that the loss of it points to a strangeness in ourselves, a sort of constriction or minimization of the full reach of divine love. Our predominant and by now unconscious rationalism may have made us too much like dry, hard-packed soil that no longer absorbs the rain but presents a barrier to it.
Maybe we have culturally bought in to the separation and opposition between agape (charity, gift-love) and eros (desire, need-love) to such an extent that the eros that should be present with agape has vanished, and so we cannot imagine being drunk or mad with love for God, or imagine Him being drunk or mad with love for us. This lack of imagination, which is also a lack of intellectual perception, can and should be healed. The healing begins on our knees, asking for the grace to love extravagantly, as we are loved by the one who made us and poured out His blood for us.
Other articles and videos of mine that you may find of interest:
My Monday article this week at New Liturgical Movement is “Lutherans in America Using Latin in Ordinations in 1703” (May 22, 2023).
My Wednesday article at OnePeterFive this week is “To a Seminarian Midway: Is It Worthwhile to Start Over?” (May 24, 2023).
The video of my lecture “Obedience and the Common Good: Why We Should Defend the Traditional Latin Mass,” together with Q&A, was published on my YouTube page on May 22nd. The talk was given in Columbia, South Carolina, at the end of April.
A recording of my short Ascensiontide motet “Non Vos Relinquam” (composed in 1994, the year I graduated from Thomas Aquinas College in California) went up on my YouTube page on May 18th.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Ephesians, nos. 307–8, in Commentary on the Letters of Saint Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, trans. Fabrian R. Larcher and Matthew Lamb (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Academic, 2018).
 See Matthew Britt, The Hymns of the Breviary and Missal (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1922), 58. In the post-Vatican II revision of hymn texts, St. Ambrose’s poetry was restored—one of those very rare instances where a certain detail in Paul VI’s liturgical books is superior to what may be found in the books in force in 1962.
 Epistle 9, 1112C, in Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 287.
 Quoted in Paul Murray, The New Wine of Dominican Spirituality: A Drink Called Happiness (London/New York: Burns & Oates, 2006), 272.
 St. Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, trans. Suzanne Noffke (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1980), ch. 30, p. 72.
 See, for extensive commentary, Josef Pieper, Divine Madness: Plato’s Case Against Secular Humanism, trans. Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995) and Enthusiasm and Divine Madness: On the Platonic Dialogue “Phaedrus,” trans. Richard Winston and Clara Winston (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2000).
 Thomas Aquinas, Spiritual Master (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1996), 25–26. On the extasis of God, see Sent. III.32.1.1 ad 3; In De div. nom. [=DDN] 4, lec. 10, n. 437; ST I, q. 20, a. 2, ad 1. Barron’s “meeting of two ecstasies” has to be understood along the lines of the texts just cited, if we are not to get into troubles. A fuller exposition of the divine ecstasy cannot, however, be undertaken in this article.
 I Believe in Love: A Personal Retreat Based on the Teaching of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, trans. Marilyn Teichert and Madeleine Stebbins (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2001), 122–23.
 Descending Fire, p. 77
 Saint Gerard Majella, His Writings and Spirituality, ed. Noel Londoño, trans. Peter Heinegg (Liguori, MO: Liguori, 2002), 273. As if answering St. Gerard’s question, Pope Benedict XVI preached in his homily for the Christmas Midnight Mass of 2006: “God’s sign is simplicity. God’s sign is the baby. God’s sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendour. He comes as a baby—defenceless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness. He asks for our love: so he makes himself a child. He wants nothing other from us than our love, through which we spontaneously learn to enter into his feelings, his thoughts and his will—we learn to live with him and to practise with him that humility of renunciation that belongs to the very essence of love. God made himself small so that we could understand him, welcome him, and love him.”
The prayer that immediately springs to mind is the Anima Christi:
Anima Christi, sanctifica me.
Corpus Christi, salva me.
Sanguis Christi, inebria me…
That is a marvellous and illuminating article. I have long thought that “Laeti bibamus sobriam ebrietatem Spiritus" is one of the finest lines in Latin hymns (though are so many to choose from, in truth). Interesting about why we no longer prize this kind of behaviour. I suspect it may be partly because Christians today are more focused on being of the world and acceptable to it than they used to be, when they were absolutely clear that they were just passing through. Thought provoking article, thanks.