The last thing I would have expected to be doing on Halloween night was standing in a brightly lit room attempting to sing Portuguese hymns of Christian praise. Yet there I was, swaying back and forth, clad in white, leafing through a booklet of verse and mumbling along. I was barely able to stand by the end of it. I hung my head in my hands and endured tidal waves of nausea brought on by the medicinal sacrament that had been periodically served throughout the night. I forced myself to remain upright until the last recitation of the last Hail Mary was complete. The closing of the work initiated a reception of congratulations and gratitude while I collapsed and recovered. I had survived my first experience with the doctrine of Santo Daime.
Up until then, my experience of working with that particular sacred medicine—known to most Westerners as ayahuasca—had been within a more traditionally indigenous setting in which the ceremonies took place in near total darkness. This sort of sensory deprivation encourages one to go deep inside the depths of one’s own consciousness in an effort to confront whatever forces may be surreptitiously lurking therein. The ceremonial atmosphere is determined by one or more experienced shamans who will sing spiritual songs called “icaros” which will ideally influence the various energies involved in an effort to assist in the healing of whatever maladies may be troubling those who are present. The experience is deeply personal and can be therapeutically effective to the extreme.
Although the same medicine is used, the structure and ambience of a Santo Daime work is very different. As mentioned above, the lights are on and we all stand and sing hymns, much like any typical church service. However, the fact that we are all under the influence of a powerful psychedelic helps to prevent the boredom and sterility that many of us associate with going to church. Actually, the enthusiasm that permeates the work is quite palpable. The women and men are divided on either sides of the room, while the most experienced practitioners—or “Daimistas”—are gathered around a centre table which holds an alter consisting of a cross and several framed images of Jesus. They play along to the hymns with guitars and maracas. This collective activity is perhaps the most significant difference with an indigenous-styled ceremony. Rather than having a single experienced shaman hold and coordinate the space, every participant is encouraged to contribute to a singular focus, creating a sort of communal shamanism.
While the history of the origin of the use ayahuasca is murky and full of speculation, the doctrine of Santo Daime is recorded and relatively clear. In the early part of the 20th century, a tall and strong black man named Raimundo Irineu Serra—known today as Master Irineu—ventured into the Brazilian Amazon to work as a rubber tapper. There, he encountered the shamanic practice of drinking ayahuasca. During an extended participation in this ancient ritual, Master Irineu received a vision from what he perceived to be the Virgin Mary. She instructed him to establish a specific spiritual doctrine. Master Irineu was a Catholic, yet he was also the descendent of African slaves that were brought to Brazil only a couple of generations previous. As such, the doctrine he spearheaded—although unmistakably Christian—contains many elements of traditional African animism. The influence of Amazonian shamanism and in particular its sacred brew forms the backbone of the practice. This unique mixture of religious faith and tradition was crystallized in the year 1930, when Master Irineu formally established the first church of the Santo Daime in Brazil.
About 80 years later, through a matter of circumstance, I had stumbled into this strange world. At this point, the Santo Daime had become an international phenomenon and the crowd that had gathered for my first ceremony was a clear representation of that fact. I was in the midst of backpacking trip to Peru and I had temporarily settled into a contemplative existence in the area known as the Sacred Valley, famous for the nearby ruins of Machu Picchu and the historic city of Cusco. I had a definite intention to work with plant medicines yet I was willing to be patient and allow the opportunity to present itself as naturally as possible. Although I had no intention of pursuing my spiritual interests in a Christian framework, a fluid combination of chance encounters and instinctual impulse made it so. Just over a week had passed when I was eventually led to a farmhouse in the small town of Calca where the work was to take place. I had been briefed a few days beforehand on the basic structure of a Santo Daime ritual to ensure the lack of any potential shock at the stark contrast with all my previous ayahuasca experience. Still, the totally unfamiliar format seemed to prevent me from properly absorbing the essence of the work. More than anything, my experienced seemed arduous and bereft of any noticeable spiritual benefit. I quietly decided that I was probably not suited to this sort of practice, and although I felt honoured to have taken part in the event, I was content to leave it behind me and continue my explorations elsewhere.
A couple of days later, I moved into a house to sublet a room from a fellow traveler. As fate would have it, the room directly below mine was being rented by a couple who had not only been present at the Santo Daime work, they were among the most experienced practitioners there. They had been seated at the centre table, playing musical instruments and singing along full-heartedly with the hymns which they had apparently completely memorized. It also turned out that we were all from the same area of Canada. I found their personalities to be much more grounded than many of the spiritual seekers I’d met in the valley and they were obviously very serious about their practice which they had been pursuing for about a decade. Through casual conversation, I became acquainted with the concept that the essence of Christianity has always had a certain psychedelic impulse as evidenced through hundreds of artistic renditions of saints and other holy figures juxtaposed with what are reckoned to be hallucinogenic mushrooms. The idea that it was this same impulse that had somehow manifested itself deep within the Amazonian jungle served to explain the seemingly bizarre phenomenon.
Given the turbulent history of the Christian church, it has grown to become an easy target for criticism. It doesn’t take an enormous stretch of the imagination to theorize that the doctrine of Santo Daime is yet another example of Christian colonialism in its continuous appropriation of less dominant cultures throughout the world. And if all my knowledge of the practice remained theoretical I might be inclined to agree. However, having had personal experience with the community and the work, it is clear to me that this is far from the truth. In general, the religious impulse that is evident within the Santo Daime bears little resemblance to that of modern day Christianity. Whereas the former relies heavily on direct transcendental experience, the latter seems to rely mostly on stale tradition that over the course of history has become increasingly separated from its original source of inspiration. Many prominent thinkers in our recent history have come to the conclusion that this “original source of inspiration”—not only for Christianity but for all religious activity–was in fact a psychedelic experience. If one has experienced these realms with the proper dose, set, and setting, it’s not hard to see why. To the extent that this is true, the Santo Daime may be one of the purest forms of Christianity that exists today.
As I developed a friendship with my fellow Canadian housemates, I became increasingly impressed by the level of conviction with which they pursued their chosen spiritual path. It was not the conviction of a recently converted fanatic—a trait which I find regrettably common in many psychedelic circles—but rather that of a more mature and subtle sense of confidence which permeated their explanations and answers to my questions. Eventually, our conversations regarding the secret current of Christian esotericism had made a spark and my curiosity was sufficiently reignited. I would attend another Santo Daime work. As opposed to participating in some wacky new age cult, I would now be helping to carry out an ancient tradition to bring forth the holy light of God unto a world of darkness.
I arrived at my second Santo Daime work with a sense of purpose that had probably been absent during my first. I felt as though I’d made a slight progression from a spiritual tourist who might not belong to some kind of initiate of an ancient mystery school. I recognized many of the faces around me as I took my seat and flipped the booklet of hymns to its appropriate page. Over the next several hours, I made a genuine effort to sing as many hymns as I could handle. The melodic patterns and pronunciation seemed to come easier as the songs took on a sort of natural familiarity. As the medicine began to take hold, it felt as though—through the force of our singing—we were all collectively summoning the same energetic extravaganza that may have possessed Master Irineu to found such a unique doctrine all those years ago. Throughout the course of the night, the realization dawned on me that these songs were more like incantations that enabled us to tap into the same spiritual force from which could have arisen the original form of the Christian faith.
Just to be clear, my experience with practicing Christianity is limited to a few isolated visits to church as a young child on holidays such as Christmas and Easter. As a teenager who listened to punk music, I developed a certain disdain for religion in general and today I can just barely feel the remnants of that particular part of my personality shudder to think that I have enthusiastically participated in a couple of Christ-centred rituals. Fortunately, that aspect of my self has been increasingly subdued ever since I first began to ingest psychedelic medicines. In its place has grown a sympathetic understanding of all kinds of religious impulse. I consider this transformation to be of enormous benefit for myself as well as those with whom I spend my time. That there exists a connection between psychedelics and human spiritual growth is absolutely beyond question.
It is basically impossible for us to achieve certainty, in a material sense, that the essence of Christianity may have involved the use of certain plant medicines throughout its history. It is a fact that there exists a huge amount of Christian artwork that contains what appears to be various species of mushrooms, some of which are identifiably psychedelic—such as the Amanita muscaria. There is also no shortage of allegory within religious texts that seems to come together almost perfectly when viewed in a psychedelic framework. Despite this, I find it difficult to imagine most people becoming convinced of this concept without direct experiential knowledge of these heightened states of awareness. There does not exist any book or documentary that will produce the type of conviction that can result from a personal relationship with what is almost certainly a form of higher intelligence.
My second experience with the Santo Daime was undoubtedly more profound than I could have expected. Although the focus on a collective intention seemed to circumvent any real sense of deep personal dialogue I may have otherwise had with myself, I was decidedly shaken up for the following couple of days. I have since been compelled to reevaluate my perspective on the concept of Christ and the influence it may have bestowed on human culture. At the very least, I have acknowledged that there is much more to the story than what is normally presented to us. Whether or not the rapidly spreading doctrine of the Santo Daime represents the second coming of Christ remains to be seen. The best way to determine the validity of such a metaphysical proposition is quite clear however. And that is to let the works continue.
Image by Lou Gold, courtesy of Creative Commons license.