"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Huston Smith, 81, speaks slowly with the deliberate enunciation and wry playfulness of a serious scholar who is used to having what he says deeply considered. Seated in his Berkeley, Calif., living room, the authority on world religions takes out a letter he’s just received from a reader of his most recently published book. The letter recounts a spiritual epiphany.
“It is so moving,” Smith intones warmly and begins to read it aloud with evident respect:
“It was like I traveled into myself and broke through to the other side, and I was in the presence of God. I was in communion with all that ever could be, and experienced love beyond measure. I experienced a person loving me. Being love. Being all. Total peace. The end of all fear. Eternal joy. I was in union with an infinite person who had nothing but perfect love for me and in whom I was in union and it was ALL, capital A, double L …”
The letter describes a “theophany,” nothing less than a vision of the divine. It is also a 51-year-old man’s remembrance of an LSD trip at age 18. The teenager, who got more than he bargained for when he dropped acid, grew up to be a Catholic priest.
For reasons that require no explanation, the priest never told his church superiors about this formative religious drug trip, as he confides in the letter. He’s written to Smith in response to the religious philosopher’s provocative new book: “Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals.”
In this collection of scholarly essays on drugs and spirituality written over the past 40 years, Smith explores and entertains a venerable yet now taboo topic: how mind-altering drugs have led to divine revelation. Though Smith himself participated in Timothy Leary’s famous drug experiments at Harvard, it wasn’t until a maverick think tank called the Council on Spiritual Practices approached him that he decided to do the book.
Founded by a former vice president of Oracle, the council is no collection of fly-by-night Castaneda-heads who have tried to turn an appreciation for hallucinogens into a higher calling. Robert Jesse, 41, who once worked full-time with techie marketers and engineers, now spends his days with religious scholars, spiritual leaders and scientists whose work addresses “primary religious experiences.” Rather than being content to just hear about the divine secondhand, these thinkers focus on ways that individuals come to perceive it, feel it and see it directly.
The Council suggests that these transcendent experiences can be triggered by a diverse variety of influences, ranging from a monk’s holy visitation after days of prayer and fasting to a Native American roadman’s vision after a potent hit of peyote. The Council funds academic research, publishes books, hosts speakers and has even held a conference about the nature of such religious experience. And although they are sincerely interested in any activity — be it meditation or dancing or gobbling magic mushrooms — their stance on the relationship between drugs, or as they put it “certain plants and chemicals,” and enlightenment puts them square in the middle of the raging culture war over the legalization of drugs.
While the loudest criticisms of U.S. drug laws have come on political, social and medical grounds (with the proponents of medical marijuana most vocally grabbing the limelight), now Huston Smith has dared to make a religious freedom argument. “I was extremely fortunate in having some entheogenic experiences, while the substances were not only legal, but respectable,” he said of his early experimentation with LSD. “It seemed like only fair play that since I value those experiences immensely to do anything I could to enable a new generation to also have such experiences without the threat of going to jail.”
Were this statement to come from almost anyone else, it would not stand a chance of being heard. But Smith is that rare living person who adjectives like “great” and “renowned” and “acclaimed” accrue to without a tinge of overstatement. His 12 books of religious scholarship and philosophy include “The World’s Religions,” which has sold some 2.5 million copies around the world over more than 30 years. He has taught at Washington University, MIT, Syracuse University and most recently the University of California at Berkeley. Over his long career — he got his Ph.D. in 1945 — Smith has become that notable academic who also reaches a popular audience. He’s even the subject of a five-part Bill Moyers PBS documentary called “The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith.”
This side of a religious leader, Smith probably couldn’t have a bigger voice in the popular cultural conversation when it comes to spiritual questions. Who else could get to use the platform of National Public Radio to discuss the religious importance of illegal substances? At a recent bookstore reading, Smith himself touched on his odd circumstance.
“Many people do ask why someone of my honorific age would risk something of a reputation to move into a topic that is this controversial,” he quipped, drawing appreciative smiles from the audience. Here’s a respected scholar with no less than 11 honorary degrees, publicly jumping into the fray of the war on drugs, and better still, all in the name of religion. It’s enough to utterly stump the most “compassionate conservative.”
But before anyone breaks out in choruses of “Right ons!” be clear that Smith’s interest in mind-altering substances is explicitly limited to their “philosophical and spiritual,” not “recreational” use. Indeed, both Smith and the Council take great pains to distance themselves from the hedonists who indulge in drugs without the divine in mind. They employ the neologism “entheogenic” — meaning roughly “God-enabling” and coined in 1979 to replace “psychedelic.” Among the spiritually minded, “entheogenic” can refer to the likes of mescaline, psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, peyote, MDMA (aka ecstacy) when they’re approached as a religious sacrament and not just as a way to get high.
If it sounds like a tough distinction to draw, consider that the Pentagon itself has come to grasp it. When the military formally allowed Native American soldiers to use peyote in religious services, a Pentagon spokeswoman told the Associated Press in 1997: “If they’re using peyote in their religious practice, it’s a sacrament, not a drug, just as sacramental wine is not considered a drug.” While peyote remains a “Schedule 1″ controlled substance today, a 1994 amendment to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1974 created an exemption for Native American use of peyote in their traditional religious ceremonies. It’s the only such exemption, where an otherwise illegal substance is legal for use by a designated group in the U.S. on grounds of religious freedom. The Brazilian government has gone even further with regard to ayahuasca, a substance which, like peyote, has a long history of religious use. First provisionally in 1986, and then permanently in 1992, Brazil legalized the religious use of the substance.
Smith’s essays in “Cleansing the Doors of Perception” range from scholarly to personal and some even revel in Smith’s own drug experiences. One piece, “Empirical Metaphysics,” recalls his time with Timothy Leary in the early 1960s. “We felt like we were on the cutting edge,” he writes of his Harvard cohort. “On the new frontier to new knowledge about what the human being is and can be.” There was no need to go “underground,” he explains. “Getting down to business, we pulled out our date books to schedule a session with mescaline.”
One essay details a mescaline session at Timothy Leary’s home, reprinted from the official trip report Smith wrote in 1961: “The experience was momentous because it showed me a range upon range of reality that previously I had only believed existed and tried without much success to imagine.” The essays reveal the impact that Smith’s own primary religious experiences — “occasioned,” as he would say, by “entheogens” — had on his spirituality. They took him to a place where some 20 years of meditation had not. “I was a pretty flat-footed mystic,” he confided to the amusement of a bookstore audience, adding that he still meditates today.
But the collection also plunges into the most difficult philosophical questions surrounding the use of mind-altering substances: What is the real religious import of drugs? What does it mean to have such a religious experience triggered by a mind-altering substance? Does that make that experience somehow less authentic? What role have these substances played historically in other faiths, from the Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece to the use of peyote by the Native American Church? And what role might these substances have played in the formation of other traditions that have since been lost to prehistory? And perhaps most importantly, how can such a religious experience be carried over into living a more religious life?
Smith is not out to proselytize the spiritual benefits of hallucinogens: “The first thing that is very clear to me is that these substances are not for everybody” he says. “So, the last thing I do in this book is to advocate.” In fact he calls the drug culture that grew out of the ’60s “wild, chaotic and irresponsible” and in part blames it for the current anti-drug “hysteria” of today. But the issues raised in the book will resonate with many whose own drug use falls somewhere between “recreational” hedonism and rigorous spiritual practice. At their most subversive, Smith’s essays invite questions: What do the spiritual insights that many casual drug users report have in common with an authentic apprehension of the divine? Who’s to say where recreation ends and spirituality begins? After all, if we have real religious freedom in this country, then just as we should have the right to use mind-altering substances for religious rites, so too then should we have the right to define the very nature of our spiritual practices and beliefs. These contentious issues have been debated since so-called recreational drugs went mainstream in the ’60s.
Until the Council on Spiritual Practices dug up these essays and presented them to Smith to consider republishing, most of them had been yellowing in obscurity in aged scholarly journals in university library vaults. Now, they’re once again in circulation, this time in a much more mainstream context, published in the Tarcher/Putnam imprint of popular publisher Penguin Putnam.
“This can be seen as something of a coming out,” says Jesse of the Council on Spiritual Practices. “Huston has never been secretive about his early experiences with mescaline and other entheogens, but he wrote about them in the early ’60s, and those accounts were published in places where not a lot of people saw them. Since that time, Huston’s own public exposure has grown enormously.”
So, why is he stepping into the limelight now? Smith’s position is that given the current state of our society we really need to keep all our options for religious experience open.
“I am convinced that we live in the most secular, reductionistic, consumeristic, this-life-now-is-all-there-is society,” he says. “There has never been in human history a people for whom transcendence — or another world — has been so occluded. Our culture is living in Plato’s Cave. We have been stripped — and I hold the universities and intelligentsia in every area responsible for this — we have been stripped of belief in a reality outside the cave of mundane ho-hum, more-of-the-same life. The only ideals we have that are operative are success and maybe fame.” He adds, “We need all the help we can get to resist this tidal wave of materialism and stand up to it. Now, for some people, they not only find themselves told that there is another world waiting, but they are actually ushered out of the cave and see it.”
Today, the experiences that ushered Smith out of that cave are obviously forbidden by law. Jesse puts it simply: “I do not know of a mechanism now that would allow what happened for Huston in 1961 to happen in the year 2000 or 2001.”
Yet they persist underground. Of course, it’s virtually impossible to divine exactly how many people are having their sacred practices criminalized. But a perusal of the Net finds scads of descriptions of experiences under the influence of various substances which the writers clearly deem religious. Some even explicitly address the religious freedom issues at stake. Of course, most imbibers are not willing to speak openly about their unusual spiritual practice for fear of legal or social reprisal, maybe even from their own church. Complicating the issue is the fact that by no means do they all approach the drugs through religious traditions that have long histories of using the sacrament, like the Native American Church or the Santo Daime in Brazil. From pagans to Christians, the covert takers of entheogens for religious purposes would appear to range all over the map.
Thomas Riedlinger, now a mental health counselor in a hospital in Olympia, Wash., is the rare person who is willing to talk about his own religious experiences while under the influence on the record. While a student at Harvard Divinity School in 1994, he took LSD on Good Friday and went to church. “I don’t feel that I’ve been a reckless user of these substances. For me it was an exercise in religious freedom,” he says. “I was fully aware of the risks involved.” In a kind of homage to the 1962 Good Friday Experiment at Marsh Chapel on the campus of Boston University, which Smith has a chapter on in his book, Riedlinger and two other divinity school students went to the same chapel on Good Friday on acid.
“Most mainstream Christians will tell you that they have a personal relationship with Jesus. I always found Jesus to be rather aloof,” he says. “What happened in Marsh Chapel is I suddenly saw a different way to interpret the phenomenon of Jesus. After that I felt much more comfortable embracing my Christian faith tradition.”
Riedlinger gave a talk on the experience at a conference organized by the Council on Spiritual Practices about “psychoactive sacraments” and he’s written an essay that the council will publish later this year in book form with the other talks from the conference. “I don’t see that I have the right to deny any other individual the opportunity to utilize substances like the classic psychedelics as part of their faith journey,” says Riedlinger.
Smith echoes this sentiment, quoting the epigraph from Aldous Huxley at the beginning of his book: “‘The mescaline experience is without any question the most extraordinary and significant experience available to human beings this side of the Beatific Vision,’” Smith says: “We, the people who have religious concerns have the right to demand of our government: why are they debarring us from this most important experience available to us short of the Beatific Vision?”
It’s still hard to imagine any government official having the basic knowledge of the topic to even begin to take this question seriously. But neither Smith nor the Council on Spiritual Practices is actively lobbying anyone, trying to get a specific law changed or influence an election. In fact, Jesse tells me, he wouldn’t condone the legalization of drugs like cocaine. Instead, their work remains in the realm purely of ideas — encouraging the exchange of research, information and scholarship on a practically verboten subject.
Yet their views are so contrarian from accepted religious norms that they often seem like their polar opposite. While mainstream religious leaders rail against the scourge of drugs in their communities as all but a sign of the devil, these spiritual optimists imagine a world where drugs are accepted as a tool for ethical religious ends.
“A lot of organized religion in Western society anyhow is organized around social service and community, and not always around profound religious experience,” says Jesse. “There’s potential with the entheogens to be able to offer people a direct experience of the divine, instead of only hearing about the divine. So, the entheogens could become a tool which would allow organized religion to become more concerned with religious experience.”
By the same token, religious institutions could play a role in inspiring the users of entheogens to translate what they learned during their experiences back into their daily lives. Imitating an imbiber, Jesse enthuses: “‘You should see what I saw! The universe was big! And I watched the Big Bang happen!’” Now switching into his own voice: “And they come back from that experience and there’s not really any evidence that it improved their relationships with their family, their spouse and their coworkers.”
Is there any hope of any of this becoming a socially acceptable reality? Does, for example, the relative success of the medical marijuana movement signal a change in attitudes toward drug laws? Jesse is skeptical: “The medical marijuana movement has generated resistance in some quarters because of the perception of mixed motives,” he says. “Some of the political and volunteer expertise that goes into getting those initiatives through may come from people whose first or deepest motive is not relieving the pain and suffering of AIDS and cancer patients. Instead, some of those resources have come from people who see this as the loosest brick in the drug laws.”
Even the most vocal anti-drug-law crusaders, like Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies say that the pro-legalization crowd who fund ballot initiatives on everything from medical marijuana to lightening the sentencing of drug offenders, aren’t likely to take up the cause of the religious use of drugs anytime soon. “Most voters might think that it could easily be abused,” he says. “My intuition is that the poll numbers are not good enough when it comes to protecting the religious freedoms in the area of the use of psychedelics. As a culture, we’re suspicious of direct religious experience.”
The more likely change could come in the courts. A practicing religious sect or individual could mount a religious defense or bring a civil suit if it came under criminal attack for its use of banned substances. Doblin says he’s aware of two civil cases involving U.S. branches of Brazilian churches using ayahuasca, in the early stages. According to Graham Boyd, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s drug policy litigation project, there’s also a religious case currently in the U.S. courts. A Rastafarian returning from Hawaii to the U.S. territory of Guam was arrested for marijuana possession and has mounted a religious defense, which the Guam Supreme Court is currently considering.
But for Smith and the Council on Spiritual Practices, which he supports through a special edition of his new book, the “cause” is more about the circulation of ideas than petitions, the filing of research findings not law briefs. Smith and Jesse are not sign-waving sloganeers trying to compress the difficult questions of the hows, wheres, whys, by-whoms and at-what-costs into a three-line chant.
“I am more a philosopher than an activist,” writes Smith. While some activists may wish he were more willing to work on the political ramifications of his views, the fact that he has raised these issues at all is remarkable. And in the end, perhaps it could only be a philosopher who could whisk drugs out of their lair in the underground, and put them under a divine spotlight.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)