Sunday, July 29, 2018

Psychedelic Christianity: a Review of “His Life is Mine”

I don’t want to reduce this book to only my musings on the similarity between Christian mystical experience and psychedelic experience. However, that is the piece that is most fascinating to me, and that I most want to get out before I go wandering in the wilderness for 7 days. Perhaps I will write a more thorough review later.

Archimandrite Sophrony is a Christian mystic. Through contemplative practice in the Orthodox Christian tradition, he seeks direct experience and knowledge of God. This book is partly the Orthodox mystic doctrine, and part diary. It’s a very personal account, describing the first-person experience of emotional swings between agony and ecstasy as Sophrony pursues his inquiry into the divine.

I was hesitant to read the book, worrying that the account of a man of faith would not speak to such a heterodox person as myself and that I would be overwhelmed with boredom or skepticism. When people ask me about my religion, I admit to being strongly influenced by Buddhism, Christianity, and psychedelics. And of course I spent some years as an atheist scientific materialist which is a viewpoint I often find useful, though I am not limited by it. But my interest was piqued upon learning that Sophrony himself was a worldly, cosmopolitan person before becoming a man of faith. As a young man in Russia, he became fascinated with Eastern religions and meditation. He fled his native Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution and took up residence in Paris, where he became a painter. It was only after a time that he returned to the Orthodox religious tradition of his youth and became a Christian monk of the monastery on the holy Mount Athos.

Perhaps there is something about Sophrony’s own cosmopolitan spirit that speaks to me, a kind of spiritual kinship between those who must wander. The book was gifted me by an abbot in the high desert of New Mexico on my own wanderings. He had also led a colorful life, living as a Hari Krisna and a hippie in San Francisco before adopting the black robes of the Orthodox monk. I think he sensed an echo of similarity between our three souls. And indeed, sensing the curious spirit of both Sophrony and that abbot allowed me to trust their honesty and to more deeply enter dialog with them. I don’t trust a man who hasn’t done a certain amount of exploration.

Sophrony’s account of Christianity is the most attractive that I have seen. There are religions that are more about questions and religions that are more about answers. The questioning, questing religions are the better ones. Sophrony is on a quest to know God through imitation of Christ. He is led by his bold, open heart and a humbleness of spirit

There are many surprising and touching passages that I would like to share with you. But I don’t have time to do so before I am shipped out on my adventure. So I will try to share one particular insight for now.

There is a resonance between Sophrony’s description of Trinitarian doctrine and the psychedelic experience. I am interested in the bridges between two of my three favorite religions: Christianity and psychedelics. Although I am interested in both, there is mutual enmity between the two traditions.

A common psychedelic theme is the oneness of existence. This can be an impersonal oneness, or it can be more pantheistic in which the participant stays aware of some sense of identity. Psychedelics tear down the boundaries between things. But there can be a tension. There can be a part of the mind that holds onto distinction, to the duality between self and other, subject and object. Sometimes this can cause distress, as the person fears losing track of his identity in the current pushing him towards oneness. The dualist and monist view of reality go to war.

Sophrony’s description of the Trinity perhaps offer a way to reconcile the unreconcialable. Referring to the biblical assertion that “God is love”, Sophrony writes:

“If God, the First and the Last, were [one person], then He would not be love”.

Yet he also writes

“To love is to live for and in the beloved whose life becomes our life. Love leads to singleness of being”

Thus, in the mystery and paradox of the triune Godhead, we see the true nature of love demonstrated, requiring both duality and oneness. It is as if both perspectives must be seen and held simultaneously in order to see reality’s true nature. The paradox is accepted, without attempt to resolve it. And this true nature, the proper understanding of one’s relationship to existence, is love. Love unites self and other, subjective and objective, without annihilating either.

It is this mysterious, paradoxical nature that we are invited to participate in through the communion of the faithful. Sophrony says that according to ancient Orthodox tradition, man is one-in-many, just as the trinity is one-in-three. This brings to mind the words of Jesus in John chapter 17:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

I hope that some brave Christian psychonaut explores this connection further.

Besides these things, there are many surprising, touching, and heart-rending passages in Sophrony’s book. It is not a popular book, but it is a powerful one. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Christianity but jaded by the shallow conversation they hear in the mainstream churches. Sophrony’s Christianity is Christianity with some meat on it. It is challenging and deep, engaging the whole heart and mind, an infinite experience in pursuit of knowledge of fundamental reality.

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