Can Psychedelics Guide a Mystic’s Path to Mystery?
This essay is part of the Lucid News “God on Psychedelics” project, reported and written by veteran religion journalist Don Lattin. To read the complete series, visit the home page.
The Rev. John Mabry, a retired pastor with the United Church of Christ, has spent his life thinking and writing about the mystical core of the Christian tradition and how to help others navigate that territory. He has mixed opinions about the use of psychedelics as a spiritual path.
“Mystical experiences interrupt life-as-usual and say, ‘Hey! There is more to this than you thought.’ Some people are going to go after that ‘more.’ That’s what divine mystery is after—inviting people into that deeper interior reality. But these experiences aren’t just an end in themselves—they’re a glimpse into where we are going.
“Many people start on a mystical path because of their experiences on psychedelics. They can really be useful in that way. But if the person is just having the experience and not choosing to go deeper with it, it’s a bit like having a one-night stand. The divine wants us to have a deeper relationship than that.”
Like Rabbi Art Green, profiled in the previous installment of “God on Psychedelics,” Rev. Mabry believes that mainstream religious institutions have failed to provide a viable path for the last few generations of spiritual seekers, whether or not they use psychedelics to connect with the divine. “We suck at talking about mysticism,” he said in an interview. “We have this rich mystical tradition and we completely ignore it.”
Mabry, who now lives in New York and teaches at the interfaith Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley, said Catholics are better than Protestants in teaching about Christian mysticism — but both have a long way to go. He notes that the vast majority of both active and lapsed Christians are unaware of the rich mystical traditions in the Christian faith, such as Ignatian prayer, the early Gnostic Christian movements, non-canonical writings like the Gospel of Thomas, and such medieval mystics as Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhardt, and Mecththild of Magdeburg.
“Martin Luther was a deep mystic, but our Reformation heritage is all intellectual. There is no mysticism to it whatsoever,” he said. “If you don’t know about it, you can’t pursue it. Christianity itself is a deeply mystical religion. Mysticism is at the heart of the religion. In becoming human, Jesus brought the Godhead into union with creation. That’s a deeply mystical teaching. When a person is baptized, that person becomes one with Jesus. The body of Christ isn’t a metaphor. It’s a living reality.”
Mabry was born in a southern California suburb in 1962 and raised in the Southern Baptist Church. “I was so wounded by the fundamentalism in my upbringing,” he said. “I was terrified of God.”
In college, Mabry turned to a more progressive and liturgical form of Christianity — the Episcopal Church. He felt called to the priesthood, but couldn’t afford to attend an Episcopal seminary. After some years ministering in a small Catholic-but-not-Roman movement, he was accepted into the United Church of Christ as a pastor.
His college years also found him experimenting with psychedelics. He dropped acid a few times, did some magic mushrooms, and became “an enthusiastic cannabis fan.”
“In college, I was still pretty estranged from God and the church. I had some mind-blowing experiences, but I kind of compartmentalized them. I came to understand them better later on.”
Along the way, he wrote a series of books about his journey, including The Monster God: Coming to Terms with the Dark Side of Divinity and Growing into God—A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Mysticism.
In more recent times, Mabry has explored the psychoactive properties of ketamine. “My ketamine experience was very spiritually affirming. My understanding of God has changed. There is this mystery behind the universe and our religious traditions are metaphors and symbols that point at that larger reality. Our religious traditions are like user interfaces on a computer. The guts of a computer are a complete mystery to me, but because I have this user interface I can get a lot of work done. This is what religions do for us. We enter into relation with mystery and create meaning.
“When you do psychedelics, you get a glimpse of unmediated mystery that is really beyond comprehension. I don’t see that as different from what my religion is pointing to, but it’s on a scale where I can’t do too much with it. The images and metaphors of my tradition help me to cozy up to this Mystery, to make it approachable—it’s more of a mediated relationship. Because of how we are structured psychologically, some of us need a face in order to be in relationship with that mystery. For me, the face of that mystery is Jesus.”
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Since the earliest days of the Jesus movement, followers of what would be later known as “Christianity” have been debating “Who was Jesus?” Or more to the point, “Who gets to decide?” Was he the Jewish messiah, a Palestinian revolutionary, a charismatic faith healer, or a gnostic mystic? Was he the founder of the Roman Catholic Church or one’s personal Lord and Savior? Was he a wandering wisdom teacher, the only Son of the One True God, or the semi-mythological founder of a Greek cult formed around the ingestion of an entheogenic potion?
This debate dates all the way back to the early Jesus movement and the suppression of Gnostic communities in the first centuries of Christendom. Then, as now, mysticism and unauthorized prophecy were considered dangerous by the institutional church. The clearest example of this is the suppression of the Gospel of Thomas, a non-canonical text that has a pedigree at least as strong as the stories contained in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The Gospel of Thomas was among a treasure trove of ancient texts unearthed in 1945 not far from Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. The only complete copy we possess was written in Coptic, translated from a Greek original. Fragments of the Greek version were first discovered earlier in the twentieth century. There is no account of a virgin birth, miracle stories or bodily resurrection in this version of the life of Jesus. It is simply a collection of 114 wisdom sayings attributed to the man.
As a thought experiment, try reading some of these sayings as a means of understanding the source of the healing behind psychedelic-assisted therapy and spirituality.
“I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out.”
“Two will rest on a bed: one will die and the other will live.”
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
“Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the all.”
“When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same…then you will enter the kingdom.”
“Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you. For there is nothing hidden which will not become manifest.”
“Many are standing at the door, but it is the solitary who will enter the bridal chamber.”
“Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”
“Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Do you not realize that he who made the inside is the same one who made the outside?”
What is so striking about these passages is how modern they sound, how familiar to those of us who are more comfortable with the methods of psychotherapy than the religions of belief. Jesus is not telling us what to believe in the Gospel According to Thomas, but inviting us to find our own hidden truth.
There’s a Zen-like quality to these sayings. Bible scholar Elaine Pagels tells a story of how she was having tea one October afternoon at the San Francisco Zen Center, about a year after the 1979 publication of her best-selling book, The Gnostic Gospels. Pagels was sitting with Richard Baker, who at the time was the leader of that pioneering Buddhist meditation center. He told her the story of how, as a young man, he’d left Boston and went to Japan, entered a Buddhist monastery, and became a disciple of Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of the SF Zen Center. “Had I known the Gospel of Thomas,” Baker said, “I wouldn’t have had to become a Buddhist!”
It’s not surprising that Baker, a convert to Eastern mysticism, would resonate with the Gospel of Thomas. Another text from this Christian sect, written around 200 C.E., the Acts of Thomas, even claims that the apostle himself traveled to India and found many converts. Even today, many Christians in India see Thomas as the founder of their church. But this openness to the idea that we may find the divine in our own experience—that in a sense we are God, that there is no separation between us and the divine—was de-emphasized by later church leaders.
Here’s how Mabry describes that mystic vision in his book The Way of Thomas — Insights for Spiritual Living from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “Thomas’ Jesus is trying to prod us into a state of unitive consciousness, in which we realize: the unity of God with all things (including us human beings), unity within the self, and our mystical unity with one another.”
Mabry describes that realization as “at once slippery and simple,” perhaps a bit like the revelations one might have on a properly prepared and responsibly facilitated trip on 5-MeO-DMT, ketamine, magic mushrooms, or LSD.