I’ve always wanted to be a mystic. Not of the crystal ball variety, but like Teresa of Ávila, or even Phillip K. Dick. I confessed this to my priest several years ago, and was told we aren’t supposed to long for such things; mystical experiences can be hard to reconcile. They can make you crazy. More probably, an encounter of this ilk would make the return to regular life unbearable.
There’s an obvious wisdom in this warning. After illumination by holy fire, could one return to bill-paying and scuffed paint, exhaust fumes and pop songs—with anything like joy, or even forbearance?
Even so, for nearly half my life, I’ve been tormented by the desire for some transcendent glimpse, a moment in which I might see the layers of reality peeled back, exposing the twitching musculature of the universe. This desire is at the heart of my dabbling in different religious practices.
It’s also why I was a drug user for many years. As an undergraduate anthropology student, I took a class on worldwide religious rituals, wherein I learned that the whole point of drugs, as far as many non-industrial cultures are concerned, is access to the Divine. The idea of recreational drug use—getting stoned and playing hours of Mario Cart, say—would be blasphemous.
Furthermore, drugs—meaning naturally-occurring substances which, when ingested by human beings, produce an altered state of mind—are regarded by many cultures as a doorway to a Beyond that is wilder and more fraught than any ocean, any jungle. As such, it is inadvisable to open the door or go through it without a seasoned guide.
For this reason, I never sampled anything really hardcore. As much as I wanted to see the universe’s underpinnings, I had the wherewithal to realize that I was a white girl from the suburbs, lacking in shamanic prowess. What if I wound up in God’s boiler room, with cockroaches the size of submarines?
I limited myself to pot-smoking, and limited my pot-smoking to times when I was “being creative,” i.e. writing, collaging, painting. It was my way of keeping the drug sacred. But I spent most of my time writing and making art; I was high a lot.
The drug interrupted the steady stream of self-criticism that makes creative endeavors a slog. Moreover, I also found that when high, there was an easy, crystal-clear line of communication between myself and God. Sitting on the floor with paper and glue spread around me like a planetary ring, I could pose theories to God. I could ask questions. Responses arrived inside my mind without delay. The voice that spoke was not the familiar voice that narrates my near-constant internal chatter. It was gentle, vast, and succinct. Though I didn’t always like the answers, their inherent truth was undeniable.
But after a few years, I began to feel like God wanted me to stop.
I resisted at first. Why would God want me to stop doing the thing that allowed us to hang out together and have conversations? It was societal pressure, I decided. I was at the age where a person has to decide who and how they want to be. Did I want to be a status-quo person with clean urine and health insurance, or did I want to talk to God? That question was easy to answer.
I kept getting high, but it wasn’t the same anymore. I could still “hear” the voice I’d come to think of as God’s, but I began to detect a level of disappointment in our conversations. The voice, which was infinitely patient, never scolded me, but I could tell that It—whatever It was—was weary of the routine we’d established. This realization stung.
Then one evening I went to pick up a pizza. The cashier, a skinny, middle-aged woman with stringy gray hair, harangued me for at least five minutes about UFOs and government conspiracies. I could tell from her eyes that she was stoned. Oh shit, I thought. Was this what lay in store for me, a person who gets high and talks to God?
Not long after that, I gave it up.
The silence stunned me like a hammer-blow. When I’d go outside, the sky was just the sky; the trees mere trees. There were no messages beneath the thin surface of reality. Nothing throbbed with meaning. To say that I missed God would be putting it lightly. The line had gone dead. I could have started smoking again, but I feared a cosmic rebuke. For months I was an excommunicant, roaming wordless wilds. My art and writing dried to a trickle.
And then one night I wrote a poem. I hadn’t written a poem in years, but I was strangely and suddenly compelled one evening to write a poem about God’s breath and the words “I Am.” That’s all I can remember; unfortunately, no record of it remains on any hard drive or server. I was sober when I wrote the poem, but that night I experienced the same heady, dizzy feeling I had when high. In fact, the sensation was overpowering. I was stone-cold sober but I felt nauseous, like when I’d smoked way too much.
That poem was perhaps the only “divinely-inspired” thing I’ve ever written. That no record of it remains anywhere—when I’ve saved every bit of drivel for the last ten years—suggests the ephemeral nature of such experiences.
It also suggests to me that true mystical experiences are not a cozy living room to which one might retire at leisure. They are conferred at God’s discretion, if at all. Drugs were, in hindsight, my way of trying to force God’s hand.
The few “supernatural” experiences I’ve had since the poetry incident—and there have been a handful of small things—I now trust more, because however else they might be discredited, they haven’t been chemically-induced. Perhaps it has all been, in some way I cannot fully grasp, for my own good.
I like to think I’m in a better place, a more spiritually-advanced place (whatever that means). But the truth is, I grieve for the easy rapport of those days. I grieve my artwork, which has never come back to me. I grieve my powerlessness to conjure the voice.
God has become to me like a star: because I cannot feel its heat, nor discern the spumes of plasma leaping from its distant surface, I must accept on faith that the speck of light I perceive in the evening sky represents a flaming ball of gas too large to fully comprehend.