By Brigid Ingen
Back in the Year of Our Lord 20 and 19, I decided to go take ayahuasca. I was something of a novice to drugs in general, save for some experimentation with marijuana as a freshman in college, so why, exactly, I decided to take the world’s most powerful psychedelic was something of a mystery, even to me. Like a lot of things, I blame insomnia and a sketchy YouTube algorithm late one night that featured more than one long-haired freaky person describing a post-ayahuasca state of blissfully altered consciousness, which made it sound pretty darn appealing. At the time, I thought you could only take this magical medicinal entheogen in Costa Rica or the Amazon rainforest. Not so, my curious friend. A similarly long-haired freaky person who I count as a friend let me in on the fact that not only could you vomit your way to bliss in the United States, Kentucky is one of the few states in which it’s perfectly legal to do so. Now, this legal loophole involves joining a very questionable “Native American Church” made up primarily of, shall we say, the side of the class that dressed up as pilgrims for the Thanksgiving play. Interestingly, this is the same legal protection that allows snake handlers to do their snake-handling thing.
I want to circle back around to the vomit, if I may. In practical terms, ayahuasca is a brew, if you will, made up of Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis plants, both found in the Amazonian rainforest. It tastes something akin to coffee with melodious background hints of that banana your kid left under the sofa for a month. And the thing about ayahuasca is, it makes you purge. Now, the form that these purges take are many and varied, but the most common ones are your classic gruesome twosome, vomiting and diarrhea. With that said, I’ve also heard of people lucking out and “purging” through laughter or singing, which certainly beats waiting your turn for the singular bathroom in what my ayahuasca folks refer to as “The Oratory.” Yes, the Catholic connection is not lost on me either, friends.
So, in mid-May 2019, I hopped in my car and made the two-hour drive to “The Oratory,” where I would meet Demian and Christine, the delightful couple who ran and continue to run this little branch of the Native American Church. As I cruised into the parking lot of what was once a small, local car dealership, I knew I was in the right place because there was a chartreuse Volkswagen hippie bus painted with red toadstools with white spots. This, I was to learn, was the tour bus for Demian’s band. “The Oratory” itself was a large, open rectangle of a room with a small kitchen attached, and of course the much-lauded, and very singular, bathroom. I had stuck with a preparatory diet for two weeks (no pork!!) and I drank a lot of water on the drive in, as instructed, so I popped in to visit the little girls’ room, where, having peeked behind the shower curtain, I found a paramedic’s backboard.
Having assembled our merry crew, Demian and Christine walked us through where the night was headed and gave us wise instruction, such as don’t trust a fart on ayahuasca. The twelve of us then assembled into the cramped kitchen, wherein there was a rectangular folding table covered with a red and white plastic tablecloth, upon which 12 small, pottery cups sat, arranged in a circle around a bigger pottery bowl filled with Starlight peppermint mints. These, I learned, were for getting the taste of ayahuasca out of your mouth after you drink it. On one end of the kitchen was a distressingly banal sink and refrigerator, and on the other was a small bookshelf. I squinted my eyes and could only make out the Bhagavad Gita. The only line I knew from it, Oppenheimer’s famous “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” repeated in my brain as Demian and Christine said some obligatory prayers, for lack of a better term, to the mother and father of the universe. Then, we were ready for liftoff. I grabbed a cup, did my best impression of my hard-drinking days, and swallowed it in one gulp.
I must take a pause in our story, dear reader, to talk about where my faith life, or lack thereof, was when I decided to break on through to the other side, as Jim Morrison would put it. Despite being widely known for causing spiritual, mystical trips, or “journeys” as my hosts at the Oratory insisted on calling them, my express purpose was not to have a spiritual experience. Indeed, at the time, I was an atheist. Prior to my atheism, I had grown up nominally in the Episcopal Church, but my father’s struggle at interpersonal relationships meant that we left the only Episcopal Church in our small, Iowa town when I was 14. After that, I sailed on to agnosticism and then its cousin, atheism. So again, it’s something of a mystery as to why, exactly, I purchased a medal with Our Lady of Fatima on it shortly before I left for The Oratory, and why I would wear that medal around my neck as I went off on this magical mystery tour. At least, why it was a mystery at the time.
Now, back at the ranch, or rather The Oratory, I ended up having to drink several more cups before things really got going. I had brought a quilt my mother had made for me with fabric patterned with rose bushes, and I knew things were really about to let rip when I started to see the patterns of the quilt move in front of me, pulsing to a recording of an Amazonian playing a large drum that was piped into the room. I lay back and quickly discovered that if I closed my eyes, images began to appear. And boy, did they ever.
The first thing I heard was “Uranium 235.” Then, slowly, the idea was revealed to me that my scoliosis, of which I have quite a serious idiopathic case, was caused by Uranium 235. Then I saw the curl of a paisley pattern, and suddenly felt the most incredible feeling of love I’ve ever felt radiate from my heart and through my body. At the time, I didn’t know that Uranium 235 is the only naturally occurring fissile isotope, which makes it widely used in nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons. And I also didn’t know that my hometown, Ames, Iowa, was the location at which all the uranium used in the Manhattan Project was purified, the byproducts of which rendered the entire town a Superfund site.
If God was trying to get me to sit up and pay attention, it worked. I had hard information I couldn’t explain, information that I hadn’t known before. And I had no explanation for why and how it’d been revealed to me. But suffice it to say, my interest had been piqued. I curled up on my bedroll and, exhausted, fell asleep.
The next day was a repeat of the first. The same gathering in the kitchen, the same container of Starlight Mints, the same prayers, if you will, to the mother and father of the universe. And then I drank my first cup. And my second. And my third.
Nothing was happening. Everywhere around me, people were screaming and puking and trotting quickly to the bathroom, and I was just hanging out, awkwardly. It felt like everyone was having a terrible time at this awful party that I wasn’t invited to, but for some unfathomable reason wanted to be. Every half hour or so, Demian let me drink another cup, and by the seventh cup, I had to lie down, as things were finally starting to happen again.
And then it hit me, like a semi-truck full of bricks with lead in them, or whatever the metaphor is: the brightest light I’ve ever seen. It was like sticking your face in a Xerox photocopier and hitting “copy” with your eyes open. It lasted for what seemed like several minutes, although my sense of time was seriously warped, before I was violently awakened and suddenly and completely conscious. I felt like I had been dropped out of a plane. I couldn’t stand. And I had to go to the bathroom.
At that point, one of my merry compatriots in gastrointestinal distress noticed that I was awake and uh, in need of some assistance. She grabbed Christine away from folks in the kitchen, and she helped me hobble into the bathroom. I was still, let’s just say, not with it, and as I sat on the toilet with my pants around my ankles, Christine and I had a theological conversation about the spiritual power of women, and most specifically, one woman in particular—Our Lady. I don’t remember much of that conversation, but I do remember Christine making quite an impression that the Hail Mary refers to Mary as the mother of God.
I returned to my bedroll and sat down. I had experienced the most profound spiritual experience of my life. “Well,” I thought, “I guess I’m Catholic now.”
Now, according to Wikipedia, the hands-down best source for information on drugs, “people who have consumed ayahuasca report having mystical experiences and spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on earth, the true nature of the universe, and deep insight into how to be the best person they possibly can. This is viewed by many as a spiritual awakening and what is often described as a near-death experience or rebirth. It is often reported that individuals feel they gain access to higher spiritual dimensions and contact various spiritual or extra-dimensional beings who can act as guides or healers.” (Yes, I quote Wikipedia, this is my story and I roll how I want). Now, I’m not going to sit here and pretend I know what I saw. I had no idea what, if anything, I experienced. I still don’t know what, if anything, I experienced. I won’t know in 30 years what the heck that was. It’ll be one of my first questions if I’m lucky enough to get to heaven because I went in one way and came out another. I just know it’s something that I don’t want to experience again, not because whatever this was felt evil, but because the aftereffects were, shall we say, severe and unpleasant.
In any case, it took four more months for my conversion to be complete, which occurred when I ordered an Our Lady of Guadalupe rosary from Etsy because it was pink. I prayed through one rosary, interestingly enough on December 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and that was it. I was sold. (As an aside, I asked Our Lady to intercede on my behalf for my desire to have a family, a prayer she’s answered many times over in different ways).
And so, I looked up a local Church and went for a little visit. I did not, at that time, know that there was a sect of Catholicism without the pope. But that’s what I managed to stumble across, the local Sedevacantist parish, which I attended two more times before discovering the disjointed, schizophrenic writing of the priest that ran the parish, which ranted alarmingly about Freemasons and Voltaire. (I’m sure there are some lovely Sedevacantist priests, but this particular fellow raised some red flags). That was enough to get me to go a more mainstream route, although the services were lovely.
The next day I sat in the parking lot at work and called our local cathedral, which had already started RCIA classes. Happily, they let me into the class because I was Episcopalian, so they felt I had a decent grasp on things. I’m here to tell you, I did not have a decent grasp on things, but I digress. I wish I could tell you it was smooth sailing from there on in, but we all know what happened in March 2020, a point I will not belabor. My confirmation was pushed back from Easter to June 6, and I received my very own chalice of His most precious blood due to coronavirus. After that, they gave me my very own chocolate cake with raspberry filling, decorated with an icing photo of the cathedral, which I took home and ate entirely by myself.
And that is the story of how I became Catholic. And so, dear reader, now you know why I have a tough time coming up with what to say when some sweet old lady asks me for my conversion story.
PHOTO CREDIT: Viajero del Norte