by Stephen Mo Hanan
Editor's Note: One of the most interesting aspects of "God" is religious experience. What else can we know of "God" except through mystical experience? Whatever that is and Wherever it comes from. One of the sources of mystical experience is drug-induction. Certain "sacred plants" have the biochemical properties to produce an altered state of consciousness in human beings. From such altered states sometimes come religious experience. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James argued that the criterion for verification of religious experience is not agreement with doctrine, but the degree of positive change such experience has in the person's life and in their effect on the world around them. Stephen Mo Hanan provides a wonderful account of life-transforming experience coming from such a biochemically induced mystical vision.
On the day that followed the initial observance of Earth Day in April, 1970, I found myself at the age of 23 climbing the western slope of the Mount of Olives, facing Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock.
A friend had given me a tab of mescaline to take with me on my journey to Israel. I had tripped three times the previous fall, opening my mind to questions about the universe and my place in it that I'd never previously asked, but without any spectacular effects. I had some residual fear that the gloomy winter just passed might, under psychedelic stimulus, flush forth some dark matter, but curiosity outweighed anxiety, and on a warm and sunny April day, I bought a bag of strawberries in the Arab market, swallowed the mescaline, and headed for the Mount of Olives.
A few hours later, I was lying in the grass on a slope well up the mountain, very stoned, throwing overripe berries at a nearby rock and buzzing on the vivid bursts of red juice across the pale and dusty stone. By mid-afternoon I had returned to the foot of the mountain and entered the Garden of Gethsemane, a lush patch of green adjoining a Russian Orthodox church and filled with roses and olive trees. The venerable presence of the trees induced within me a deep sense of awe surpassing any I'd ever felt, though comparable to my childhood response to the blowing of the Shofar that, year after year, signalled the close of Yom Kippur.
As I walked through the Garden, the certainty that God was about to speak to me increased to the point where I was no longer capable of standing. I paused in front of an opulently flowering rose bush, then dropped to my knees. Next I lost consciousness (though the expression seems inaccurate) and inwardly perceived a vast multitude of fiery Hebrew letters streaming towards "me" from every corner and direction of infinite space. The letters were Quf, Dalet, Shin, spelling out Qodesh, the Hebrew for "holiness" or "the sacred." Simultaneous with this light show dawned a feeling of prodigious joy, and a realization that the entire manifest cosmos springs from a single, non-physical Source with twin attributes that are nonetheless one: Love and Intelligence.
To this day I have no idea how long the experience lasted, seconds, minutes, an actual eternity which stopped time altogether. Ever the actor, upon regaining ordinary consciousness I asked myself, "So what's the finish?" and at that very moment the adjoining church bells rang out, taking me back into the realm of miracle. I laughed uncontrollably as tears streamed down my face.
The first thought I had was that an experience of such magnitude could hardly have come from inside a small pink pill. Like Jacob waking from his dream of the angels, I said, "Truly the Lord was in this place, and I knew it not." What I (and possibly Jacob) meant by "this place" was not just the geographic site, but my body/mind itself, and, indeed, that extension of my body/mind (as I now perceived it) which stretched out as the panorama before me, united and sanctified beyond imagining by the presence of an All-enfolding Love.
Somehow I got back on my feet and walked out of the garden. A brown-robed friar passed me at the gate, and while I thought of asking him to bless me, inwardly I blessed him instead. I looked out at a world transformed, ablaze with love. The song of birds, the sky and sunlight, the monks and tour buses, the schoolchildren at play, the Hasidic father chastising his small son, the very stones and hills of Jerusalem, seemed joined to me with bonds of holy sympathy.
And then followed perhaps the greatest revelation of all. I had labeled myself homosexual at thirteen but never acted on it, nor shared my guilty secret with a single soul. Now I knew that my sexuality was in no way whatever a barrier to God's Love. I was not condemned, cursed, or doomed. Every element of my psychological makeup was a worthy vessel for the Creator's use. I sat down on the ground and wept some more, tears of gratitude and relief, tears of true salvation. Not only had I seen God, but God saw me, and approved.
The mescaline eventually wore off, but the vision of Reality vouchsafed to me that afternoon has never left me. From that moment I knew it was my task in life to bear witness to the healing, loving power I had discovered. It gave me the courage to come out, to let shame dissolve in the light of self-acceptance. It inspires my every creative endeavor. It isn't the easiest of paths, but after following it for more than a quarter century I feel a lot more authentic, and more playful, than when I started. Along the way I came across a quote by the medieval mystic Dame Julian of Norwich, who had a similar transforming glimpse: "I am not good because of the vision, but only if I love God better." Although I observe the anniversary of my Jerusalem experience annually as if it were a birthday, I believe that its real significance lies in reminding me to love God better, in myself, in everyone I encounter, in my sexuality, and even in adversity. The difficult hands which the universe periodically deals are easier to play, knowing they are dealt with Love.
Stephen Mo Hanan is a performance artist in New York City.