In contemporary discourse, rapture has become shorthand for the apex of sexual pleasure, which is a far cry from its original sense. The Latin word raptus literally means “seized” or “captured.” In a medieval context, this term was used to denote both the trance-like state of abstraction induced by proximity to the Godhead and the crime of rape. The evolution of medieval mystical discourse eventually provides a bridge between these two extremes, anticipating the erotic hybrid of modern parlance. The mental abstraction associated with mystical rapture is not unique to the Christian tradition. In Neoplatonic circles, terms like exstasis (literally standing outside oneself) or excessus mentis (departure of the mind) implied being raised above one’s normal understanding in the contemplation of the divine. In contrast to these more neutral terms, rapture conveys the idea of being physically overpowered by the divine presence – a meaning that becomes increasingly prominent over time as a result of medieval theology’s progressive emphasis on the body. From a theological standpoint, a contemplative’s alienation from the senses was interpreted as a function of the body’s frailty, as it was considered fatal for postlapsarian humankind to see God directly (Ex 33:23). Because embodiment is intrinsic to human nature, many theologians perceived the physical abstraction associated with rapture to be unnatural, while some, such as Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), emphasized its implicit violence. Although Aquinas would argue that it was precisely the quality of violence that distinguished rapture from conditions like ecstasy, not all religious writers would maintain this distinction.
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