Fifty years ago Lonnie Frisbee took LSD and wandered into Tahquitz Canyon naked. He returned a born-again Christian. While in the canyon, Lonnie had a vision of hundreds of thousands of people being baptized in the Pacific Ocean, and he felt a voice in his spirit tell him that he had been selected by God to become a modern prophet for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Within two years Lonnie was baptizing hundreds of people a day on the beaches of Southern California. He would go on to be a key participant in the birth and dramatic growth of what Time called the Jesus movement, and two very large Charismatic churches, Calvary Chapel and The Vineyard.
According to Cahuilla legend, for whom Tahquitz Canyon has held spiritual significance for thousands of years, it is the prison of the first shaman created by Mukat, the creator of all things. After being scorned by a woman, Tahquitz turned against humanity and was exiled to the canyon forever. He is said to be the father of all shaman. During the 1960s, in a sort of spiritual gentrification, it became a popular destination for hippies and spiritual seekers who wanted to go into the desert to get high and have orgies.
Lonnie was a natural evangelist. If he found truth, he shared it. He was captivated by Harvard professor, Timothy Leary’s writing, and regularly organized “Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out” sessions in the canyon to introduce his friends to psilocybin, LSD, and peyote. But psychedelics were not just for “spacing out” and Lonnie was a believer in Leary’s claim that psychedelics can facilitate a confrontation with one’s true self. Leary also advised using music, spiritual texts, or holy places to help direct that confrontation. Lonnie would often bring along spiritual texts to the canyon and read them aloud while he and his friends tripped balls.
Before his own conversion he had led a group to the foot of the 60-foot waterfall in the canyon. After getting high and painting an enormous image of Jesus on a nearby rock, Lonnie read from the Gospel of John and implored the acolytes of Timothy Leary to become disciples of Jesus Christ. In what might be the most unorthodox baptism in history, a stoned, unordained and unbelieving priest baptized several couples at the base of Tahquitz’s eternal prison.
Divinity at the Tip of the Tongue
In a 1967 episode of Firing Line, Timothy Leary attempted to clarify the impact of and justify the use of psychedelics to William H. Buckley Jr. He claimed that psychedelics were not just another form of escapism. “It’s like a microscope,” Leary said. LSD does not draw you away from the essential elements of your existence but turns them into a searing coal and presses them against your lips just as the Seraphim pressed the coal of the Lord against Isaiah’s lips in the throne room of heaven.
Leary told Buckley that LSD would provide a path through the confusions of modern society by focusing the mind of the user on what is truly real and essential—family, friends, personal health, etc. Intentionally or accidentally, Leary employed the language of religious ascetics like St. Anthony who fled the interruptions of the city to devote themselves to prayer and focus on God.
Second Class Mystics
At about the same time that Lonnie was baptizing hippies in the Pacific Ocean, Jim Bell was attending College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts and preaching the Be Here Now gospel of Baba Ram Dass. One Christmas break, he and a group of friends had taken a double dose of peyote buttons and barricaded themselves in a New Jersey apartment to ride out the wave. During an interview he said:
“We were seeing all sorts of colors and we were totally out of orbit so we turned the lights out. And we each had a sleeping bag. My friend Joe was in a sleeping bag next to me. And Eleanor Rigby was playing on the radio. And I was really zeroed in on the idea of existential loneliness. And I had a vivid vision of Jesus on the cross. I was startled. It was like Jesus was looking at me with a double look of sadness that I had departed from my childhood Catholicism and compassion because of how confused I was. And he said, ‘look at what I’ve done for you.’ So I turned to Joe and said, ‘Jesus claimed it all, do you think he was right?’ But Joe didn’t answer.
Over the next few months Jim struggled to “blend Christian love and Buddhist wisdom” but ultimately he settled into a Pentecostal church made up of a lot of people with similar experiences to his own.
“People have said, ‘You saw Jesus on drugs. So it is illegitimate.’” In an interview, Jim told me, “Well it is illegitimate. I could have seen Buddha or anything. But I saw Jesus. God was using the vision to speak to me.”
How do the rest of us understand the experience that Lonny and Jim claim? In The Varieties of Religious Experience William James quotes J. Trevor contending that the legitimacy of the experience is in the impact is has on a person’s life,
“The spiritual life…justifies itself to those who live it; but what can we say to those who do not understand? This, at least, we can say, that it is a life whose experiences are proved real to their possessor, because they remain with him when brought closest into contact with the objective realities of life.
I think this is true of Lonnie Frisbee or Jim Bell. Their mystical experiences were not passing visions that mixed with the hundreds of previous psychedelic and mundane experiences. Neither were they just a “simple beliefs that run dry” as professor of Religious Psychology, Ralph Hood has said. They are “experiences that are embedded in your very nature that ensure you with a sense of ontological validity because they elicit in you a sense of ontological wonder that occurs when the self dissolves and is made a part of a greater reality.” In other words, when a person has a mystical experience it changes how they see themselves in relationship to everything around them.
How to Disappear Completely
Most of us are never caught up in a revelatory tsunami that strips of us our confusion and sends us into the desert of life like Moses leading the Israelites, a pillar of fire showing the way. Maybe it is better that way. It is good to have one Moses. It would be unbearable to have thousands.
Revelation comes to most of us in the microscopic miracles of daily life like a slow intravenous drip for our existential longings. Our baptism is not one of fire but of patience. But regardless of the intensity or frequency of a spiritual experience, the challenge is the same as it was for Lonnie or Jim every day after their visions. How do we live in honor of the experience of god long after the experience has passed? Drugs or no drugs, mystical revelation or the reliable rhythm of daily prayer, we have to be able to live meaningful lives without depending on something from without to shatter our reality each moment.
If we expect the divine to only appear to the saint, the mystic, or the psychedelic shaman then we believe in a god who deserves not our love but our scorn. The experience of god is “not too hard for you, neither is it far off,” to paraphrase Moses. “It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us?’… Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say, ‘who will go over the sea for us?’…but the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart.” Our moments of nakedness before god do not happen only in the deserts of California, or at the mercy of peyote, but in every act of love that we give or receive.