Roberta was pretty enough to be a homecoming princess. I was a non-athletic math and science nerd, and forever grateful she went against custom. Furtive glances in the high school hallways led to flirtatious smiles, and one evening I summoned the nerve to park in front of her house. That was an accepted dating technique in Portland, Oregon, circa 1958. I was 17 and driving my first car, a 1947 Chevy Fleetwood fastback. Paid a hard-earned $75 for it. It looked super cool parked in front of Roberta’s house, the light from the street lamp shimmering off its sloping back. She came out of the house, and I invited her to sit in the car with me. To my relief and terror, she did.
That began a courtship consisting mostly of short trips to the A&W Root Beer drive-in after dusk. For guys, the drive-in dates showed that someone had found us desirable, and that one of the highest status symbols on Planet High School was within reach: sexual intercourse. The drive-in visits were followed by curbside make-out sessions in front of her house. This falsely reassured her parents of no bad behavior.
Adolescent passion in Fleetwoods was a fumbling of buttons, buckles, and bra hooks, with forays into unfathomed territories portending incomparable wealth or loss. Night after night, our passion ended in a stand-off. But as time went on, her defenses weakened, and I stood a little closer. I was obsessed with losing my virginity to a woman who was under considerable pressure not to lose hers. She and her family belonged to a fundamentalist church, the Wesleyan Methodists. My upbringing was among ordinary Methodists, whose pilgrimage relied more on homily than on fire and brimstone.
And so it came to pass that the desire to fornicate brought me to the Wesleyan Sunday services, where you could actually smell and feel the heat of hell. The charismatic preacher was a magnificent orator, beginning with a few daily temptations and the lies we tell ourselves. Before you knew it, the congregation was bound for a tour of the devil’s realm, with fire and brimstone everywhere. The preacher’s face, puffy even when calm, was blood-red, drenched in sweat, and swollen near to bursting. “Amen!” escaped from old men like vented steam, fanning the preacher’s fire. At times I thought he was going to have a stroke as he bellowed warnings and predictions of the soul’s imminent demise. And then his voice would soften as he delivered our only hope, God’s eternal love and forgiveness, a pillow held out to catch us in our fall. To those caught, it was spiritual euphoria.
After Sunday church, the congregation gathered at the home of one of the families for a potluck. By then the preacher’s furnaces had cooled. The oral violence, the threats and accusations, had been stored for the next flame-throwing sermon. Away from the brimstone, he was one of the sweetest men I ever met. The radiance streaming from his face could only have come from the constant touch of God.
God touched me at the Wesleyan summer camp. I had already been to the camps run by the ordinary Methodists, where grace before meals, a few bible readings, and prayers before bed were the only required stops on our spiritual journey. Roberta had invited me to attend the Wesleyan camp, and I had agreed, not wanting to jeopardize the course my sex drive had mapped out. The Wesleyan camp had daytime crafts and physical activities like the ordinary Methodists had, but evenings were different. Each night we gathered in a Quonset hut auditorium for the saving of our souls, and each night we heard a new voice. The camp recruited its attendees from a large region, and with them came a phalanx of preachers for the calling out of ripening young sinners.
To that point in my life, church had been a Sunday routine, and I regarded myself as religious. Church attendance had been required of me and my sister from early childhood, but our parents only attended on Christmas and Easter. (At the time, I was critical of them for this apparent hypocrisy.) Besides the Sunday services, I attended weekly classes for children, and later for adolescents. These classes also served critical secular needs, as it was there I first encountered girls socially, out of school. I had my first dance at a church social, and later my first kiss, an awkward bumping of lips in the bushes beneath a stained-glass window. By the time I started dating Roberta, sex and religion were already intertwined. But I believed in God and had proof of His existence even before I attended the Wesleyan camp meeting.
Earlier that year, a friend and I had driven the Fleetwood out into the hinterland of Sauvies Island, 40 square miles of dikes, farms, and bottomlands at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. My friend and I were of the opinion that adventure was more likely to be found by following the unpaved roadbeds on top of the dikes to the most remote parts of the island. It was a self-fulfilling opinion, as we eventually came to a place where part of the roadbed on top of the dike had been eroded away. After stopping to conduct a thorough engineering analysis, we got back in the car and abruptly nosed into the far wall of the washout, hopelessly stuck not only miles from home, but from the nearest farmhouse.
It was a horrible situation, and I didn’t know what was worse, leaving or staying. It would be a long walk back, and required the abandoning of the beloved Fleetwood. I feared it would be brutalized and pillaged, the fate of abandoned cars. And even if we got help in time, the towing fee would bankrupt me. The only positive option I could think of was divine intervention. So I walked off a little ways by myself, got down on my knees, and begged for deliverance. I promised God to do His bidding the rest of my life if He would only rescue the Fleetwood from its terrible predicament.
As I walked back to the site of the disaster, I saw something moving on top of the dike at a great distance, maybe a mile away. It was another car, coming from the opposite direction, from the most remote part of the island. As it approached, I could hardly believe my eyes. Attached to the front bumper was something I had never seen on a sedan before. A cable winch. It was a miracle, my miracle, in answer to prayer less than five minutes old. God must have been hard up for new workers. There was no other reasonable explanation.
From that event until the Wesleyan camp meeting, I had not been particularly busy on behalf of God. It might even appear I was hard at work for the other guy. The Miracle of Sauvies Island had been reduced to intermittent moments of guilt lacquered with lame promises. But I think it was that incident more than anything else that primed me for the camp meeting’s preacher-of-the-night. My journey on the Road to Damascus, as well as on the road to coitus, began in the Fleetwood.
I don’t remember the details of the preacher’s exhortation, but I do remember the lighting. It was semi-dark where we sat on folding chairs in the Quonset hut, while up front the fluorescent light was glaring – not the sort of light associated with parting clouds and throngs of angels, but of Quonset huts. It was almost too functional, showing the interior of the building to be wholly without character except for a small cross and framed picture of Jesus on the wall behind the preacher. Whatever one might think of fundamentalists, they are less concerned with the material.
At some point during the sermon – as usual, hot from the fires of hell and the burning love of God – the visceral words scoured the lacquer from my guilt-ridden soul. I felt a power in me not mine responding to the preacher’s bidding. It pulled me up out of the chair and to the front of the hall, where I was so overwhelmed with Spirit I started crying. A few others had also come forward, and for each of us there was a preacher waiting. They were intimate with the experience and would be our guide. Mine led me back down the aisle to the door. But outside, he let the Spirit move me, and I felt drawn to the area behind the hut, near the wall closest to the sermonizer. I was euphoric, filled with God’s love and forgiveness, crying from pure joy, kneeling on the ground, leaning forward on my hands, gushing happy tears in near-total darkness.
Suddenly, on the ground in front of me, within a foot of my knees, there was a small circle of white light, no more than two inches in diameter. Everything else was black night, and the light made no sense according to the known laws of the universe. It seemed not to have an earthly origin, as if it had been beamed from heaven.
My guide was kneeling beside me, his arm draped over my shoulders. I kept babbling on about this light, and he finally said, “It’s coming through that knothole in the wall.” Maybe he was tiring of my obsessiveness and wanted me to move on, taking a chance that a little ordinary reality wouldn’t hurt the mystical process. And it didn’t. Rather than deflate the moment, that too became part of the mystery. I had been carried to that bit of ground by an external force, and had not seen the small circle of light until after I had knelt down. It was no less of an experience because God had used humble elements of His universe – the Quonset hut’s knothole and fluorescent lighting – to show me He was listening. He had made it tangible.
The experience was so strong the euphoria survived sleep and lingered well into the next day. I was in a state of bliss, with a constant radiant smile.
* * *
There was something of ecstasy in the mystical experience, and in retrospect it had properties that seem related to those of the aftermath of the sexual climax, as if they share a common physiological origin or pathway. In the euphoria following the sexual climax, I have sometimes experienced a strong sense that I have stepped outside of the limits of time, that my partner and I exist in an eternal realm as well as in a finite one – and in that eternal realm, the moment will continue forever. Although the content of the post-climax euphoria may vary widely among individuals (and within individuals), the euphoric sense of timelessness is probably a universal human capacity.
Unlike medieval troubadours, a charismatic evangelist might bristle at equating the sexual climax with the touch of God. But the preacher’s argument is compromised by his own charisma. Whether emanating from him, a rock star, or Bill Clinton, charisma is subtly to overtly charged with sexual as well as spiritual energy. And charisma affects the self as well as the other. It is no wonder so many preachers fall by the wayside.
After camp, I continued going to church with Roberta, and may even have uttered a few involuntary amens. But like the aftermath of the miracle on the dike, there was no follow-up labor for the Lord. Eventually, even the mystical experience became material, the organic high against which all future euphorias would be measured.
In his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902), philosopher and psychologist William James demonstrates the mystical state to be a universal human attribute, available to all peoples and religions, and not the province of a particular set of beliefs. Though the prerequisites can differ, the experience is essentially the same for all: euphoria, the overwhelming presence of a supernatural power, a flood of revelations and insights, and feelings that cannot be described in words. The experience commonly lasts for an hour or two. Euphoria, ineffability, and a supernatural presence were strong characteristics of my Quonset hut experience, but I have no recollection of revelations and insights. Too bad – I would love to know now what was revelatory to my 17-year-old self.
James was never able to experience the natural mystical state. But he did experiment with nitrous oxide, which led him to conclude that “our normal waking consciousness . . . is but one especial type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”
Although a large subculture has experimented with psychotropic substances since the 1960s, the natural mystical state in America today seems primarily confined to practitioners of evangelical religions. The experience may be most accessible as a “calling out” within a group setting. Thanks to the televangelists, many non-evangelicals no doubt view the natural mystical state as temporary insanity at best, and fraud at worst. Others may have an elitist view: Mahatma Gandhi was a mystic, but Mrs. Jones down the street is merely out of her mind.
A dozen years after my natural high, I began experimenting with acid (LSD) and psilocybin mushrooms. These produced amazing states of mind, including a sense of contact with the supernatural. But it was not an experience of God, at least not in the Christian sense. Instead, I felt I had risen to a higher realm of awareness, of feeling, of being. The mystical state without pretext and preparation. But it wasn’t pure. Along with the experience of the supernatural were bouts with paranoia and episodes of fantastic images and perceptions – hallucinations – ultimately having little or nothing to do with a spiritual journey, at least for me. And the return to earth was often accompanied by a debilitating depression, opposite the feelings I experienced coming down from the natural high.
The closest I have come with chemistry to the natural high is with James’s vehicle, nitrous oxide. In the dentist’s chair. The first time was the most spiritual. I rose to a realm so high the worst imaginable thing was reconciled. For me in the early 1980s, that was nuclear holocaust. It was reconciled in an infinite place above the horror, where the universe always rights itself. As in the natural mystical state, I was aware of a supernatural presence that can be experienced but not described, except by metaphor. It is a realm where the urge to live is in the rocks, where life is the universe experiencing itself.
Every now and then I would descend to the dentist’s chair to see how he was progressing. I was so euphoric that I hoped he had plenty of work left to do, and in those days he did, as my mouth had become a silver mine of cavities, crowns, and root canals. With the prospect of more nitrous oxide, it was a struggle to take better care of my teeth.
* * *
In the experience, the supernatural presence is immediate, infinite, and unknowable. Call it God or not. Whatever it is, the mystical state has no doubt of its existence. The experience and its realm may be confined to us, but the experience itself argues the opposite.
The mystical state is a psycho-physiological capacity residing in all of us, a component of our being, like thumbs and laughter. It could have evolved from another purpose, another psycho-physiological function, the sexual climax, our most accessible path to a natural euphoria.
From my perspective, it took a lifetime to reach the maturity needed to write about these events. I am fortunate that aspects of the mystical experience feel as fresh now as when they happened. Roberta and I broke up before graduation, and never saw each other after high school. She married and had children, then died too soon in the late 1980s. But she is still in that long-ago memory, and somewhere we are in an eternal moment forever.
Richard LeBlond is a biologist living in North Carolina, where he worked for that state’s Natural Heritage Program until his retirement in 2007. He continues his biological research, and has added travel, photography, and writing. Since 2014, his essays and photographs have appeared in numerous U.S. and international journals.