Over the years, I have seen some wild callings. A geologist shows up in the rainforest to study a mysterious boiling river, drinks the brew of the local shaman, meets the spirit of the river and becomes the ecosystem’s champion on a global scale. A young man drinks ayahuasca and, through much fortuitous circumstance, gets his medical degree at Stanford so he can champion the use of plant medicines in healing. A young woman has a vision of the womb of life at a treatment center for addiction in Peru and goes on to study the phenomenology of healing experiences with icaros, or sacred songs, becoming a pioneer in the psychotherapeutic discipline of integration of psychedelic experiences.
The list goes on, of course.
This is what makes self-confessed “psychedelic virgin” Brian Muraresku’s “calling” to reclaim the memory of the original Christian sacrament all the more interesting. Stirred by the recent resurgence of psychedelic research, Mr. Muraresku, a lawyer and Jesuit trained scholar of the Classics (oh, let’s throw in Sanskrit for good measure) embarked upon a timely quest: to take up the tracks of classicist Carl Ruck, chemist Albert Hofmann, and mycologist Gordon Wasson in their groundbreaking 1978 publication, The Road to Eleusis. This work, largely reviled and ignored, wove a compelling case that the kykeon, or sacrament utilized in the ancient Eleusinian mysteries, was psychoactive and thus the visionary experience reported within the Telesterion were facilitated by sacred plants.
Mr. Murareksu, with his wit, scholarly chops, indefatigable investigator’s zeal, and insider’s familiarity of the institutions of Academia and the Catholic Church, was the perfect candidate to take up this cold trail and not only bring a ringing vindication to the work of Carl Ruck based upon new archaeological evidence, but also to extend his work into that Holy of Holies: the Christian sacrament.
Was the wine drunk in the original Last Supper with Christ spiked (as was perfectly normal in the Ancient world) with visionary plants? Was the Eucharist, in the early centuries of the Christian movement (in keeping with other ancient traditions), psychoactive?
It’s a great question, and to make Mr. Muraresku’s attempted answer great reading, he takes us along on the quest. The Immortality Key is one of those intellectual adventures that is such a pleasure to read. We follow Brian’s footsteps as he weaves together the old argument of Ruck, rebooted with big advances in archaeological technology and theory (for example, the so-called “agricultural revolution” was actually sparked by the need for “graveyard beers,” potent brews that facilitated communion with the ancestors), and ultimately penetrate the Vatican libraries, Roman catacombs, and back rooms of the Louvre with him and his colorful, supporting cast of characters.
We get some big insight too. Perhaps the most significant is the book’s weaving together of the Dionysian and Christian lineages, powerfully illustrated in that eccentric Gospel of John, whose otherworldly Christ (so different than the Christ of the synoptic gospels) smacks of Dionysus: performing miracles with wine and claiming himself the “True Vine.” Under Mr. Muraresku’s skillful dissecting knife, the underlying connections between the Greek cult and the language and symbolism of the gospel are laid bare.
In short, this is fun, and the argument woven by Mr. Muraresku is deeply compelling – even in the absence of the ultimate “smoking gun”: a chalice recovered from an ancient celebration of the Eucharist which upon analysis is found to contain psychoactive substances.
Yet, like all pioneering attempts, there are rough patches and cantilevered sections to his edifice. Like that old mythical figure, Procrustes, who had that practice of cutting off or stretching his guest’s limbs to fit his bed, Mr. Muraresku may be doing violence to some of his evidence to make it fit his theory.
For example, he makes much of the passage from the Letter to the Corinthians where Paul, writing to a congregation whose partying had gotten out of hand, states that as a consequence of their lack of recognition of the true nature of the Eucharist, “many of you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.” The intriguing verb here, in the ancient Greek, is koimontai, which is translated as “fallen asleep” in the version that Mr. Muraresku cites. Yet its accurate translation is “dying.” The Corinthians, according to Paul, were drinking a lethal Eucharist, and Mr. Muraresku makes much of this to validate his claim that, “The Corinthians seemed to have incorporated an extreme beverage into their liturgy. The boundary between psychedelic wine and poisonous wine is razor thin, however, and fatal overdosing mistakes can be made.”
Well, maybe. This is one of the places where Mr. Muraresku’s work may reflect his armchair anthropologist’s naivete: after all, to understand a culture from within you must experience it, and you have to do that for quite a while. A little familiarity with plant based shamanic practices does not reveal a “razor thin” boundary in dosages. To die from drinking a little too much psychoactive wine is unlikely, and unsupported by reports from the Ancient world. You were more likely to vomit it up and pass out, as the Cyclops did when Odysseus overdosed him!
As well, when I pulled my Bible from graduate study days off the shelf and opened it to the passage in question, my translation clearly reads “dying,” and the overall context suggests something quite different to me. In the early stages of Paleo-Christianity, there was a universal belief that, as put in the Gospel of Matthew, “Any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven.” The Book of Acts, for example, documents how a couple of donors to the community of St. Peter were struck stone cold dead for just such a sin. This seems to be a far more likely explanation – at least from the anthropological perspective.
Mr. Muraresku’s lack of hands-on experience and anthropological study is apparent throughout the rest of the book as well. One niggling example: he claims chemist Albert Hofmann “identified” the Aztec sacred plant, ololiuhqui as psychoactive, containing an LSD-like alkaloid, but entirely omits who truly discovered it – Richard Evans Schultes, and how it was the great Harvard ethnobotanist’s profound familiarity with indigenous cultures that allowed him to do so.
In other words, it’s the chemical composition, not the relationship within the sacred, that matters in Mr. Muraresku’s razor-thin argument. This is in keeping with that poison secreted by Aristotle into the mainstream thinking of the West. As Franciscan priest Richard Rohr reminds us, for Aristotle, “substance is a higher and preferred category than relationship (to put it another way, nouns are better than verbs).”1The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell. Pennsylvania: Whitaker House, 2016. Pg. 74
We prefer to isolate a chemical over understanding the relationship within the sacred as experienced by those cultures who utilized sacred plants. This accounts for the utter absence of veneration for Persephone and Demeter or Christ in Mr. Muraresku’s book, and by extension in the psychedelic community in general. It’s the chemical, not the profound relationship with divinity, that matters. It’s the individual’s trip, not the deep communion with the Holy, that gets the emphasis.
Yet time spent in contemporary groups who utilize sacred plants as sacraments, such as the Native American Church, the Santo Daime, or in the Amazon rainforest with shamans such as Juan Flores at Mayantuyacu, will give a sharp chiropractic adjustment to that view! Talk of chemicals is rarely heard in those communities, for the native perspective engendered by years and years of training is one of veneration and deep relationship – and there is no illusion that the “chemical” is the vehicle to the experience of the sacred. Rather, the plants teach us to see the cosmos as sacred. They are allies and teachers with their own intelligence and awareness. Living beings, no more reducible to molecules than we are.
In the end, will Mr. Muraresku’s work trigger that hoped for revolution in our understanding of the experience of the sacred? Will the Pope join him in drinking from that chalice of psychedelic wine in the City of the Dead beneath St. Peters?
It is a consummation devoutly to be wished! But it’s unlikely as long as the Aristotelian logic that caused our schism with the sacred in the first place continues to dog us.
The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name By Brian C. Muraresku 480 pp. St. Martin's Press. $29.99.
Image: Nicki Adams with adapted image by Andreas F. Borchert