Spirituality in and out of focus: the 'Marsh Chapel Miracle' (i)

The ‘Marsh Chapel Miracle’

One cold and extremely windy evening in October 2007 I found myself in Boston University’s Marsh Chapel during an inter-disciplinary conference on the work of Olivier Messiaen whose proceedings were published last year by Ashgate as Messiaen the Theologian. In what was one of the most stimulating moments of the weekend, we were treated to a screening of Paul Festa’s extremely thought-provoking Apparitions of the Eternal Church. This film, an extraordinary exercise in musical phenomenology, consists of the reactions of a very colourful selection of participants to the experience of hearing Messiaen’s organ work Apparition de l’Eglise éternelle through headphones (the piece being unannounced and only heard at the end of the film). Although Festa’s interviewees included a fair number of musicians, such as organist Albert Fuller, violinist Robert Mann (first violin of the Juilliard String Quartet) and the electro-acoustic composer Richard Felciano (a pupil of Messiaen himself), there are also intriguing appearances from luminaries such as Harold Bloom on one hand and on the other avant-garde film makers, drag artists, a Korean-Jewish rabbi-cantor and a fire-eater. As you might imagine, this cast came up with a bewildering range of comments on the piece (played by Olivier Latry of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris) ranging from the extremely perceptive to the outrageously obscene or downright deranged. Without doubt the spookiest came from a character known as ‘Squeaky Blonde’ (second left on the poster below), about whom Paul Festa’s highly informative website says:

‘Not much is known about the performer, club personality and substance abuser Squeaky Blonde. Her MySpace profile says she is a 102-year-old female in Los Angeles, among other questionable claims not suitable for inclusion on a family-oriented Web site.’

Apparitions is nothing if not deeply provocative, and perhaps understandably engendered some opposition from more conservative Messiaen enthusiasts as demeaning to the composer’s memory.  However, it also garnered extraordinary praise from Alex Ross of the New Yorker and in the pages of the Village Voice; indeed, the leading Messiaen scholar Stephen Schloesser, SJ went as far as to call it “One of the most amazing musical/artistic/religious experiences of my life.” The film’s genius lies in its portrayal of the capacity of Messiaen’s music, and by extension any music, to affect human consciousness at an extremely deep level; although I at moments found it both aesthetically and ethically repellent, it is undeniably gripping, at times hilariously funny, at others highly disturbing, and all things considered ranks as one of the most penetrating studies of the nature of musical phenomena that I have ever seen. I have actually viewed it twice, the second time being at a Messiaen symposium in 2008 at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and on both occasions Apparitions was followed by the excellent, substantive and responsible discussion that this compelling piece of (adult) cinema undoubtedly merits. “A knock-out Messiaen-on-acid documentary”, wrote Chicago Sun-Times music critic Andrew Patner in The Year in Review in 2008, which I guess comes fairly close to the mark.

At the 2007 conference one representative of the Boston media jokingly remarked that the film confirmed his long-standing contention there was an intimate connection between Messiaen’s ecstatic religious music and drug use. This is not so outlandish as it may at first seem. Messiaen himself appears to have been fully aware of the parallels between his own frequent references to synaethesia (his famous habit of associating chords with colour-combinations) and drug-induced visions. In an interview with Claude Samuel he for example discussed the physiological synaesthesia of his friend, the Swiss painter Charles Blanc-Gatti (who saw colours on hearing music) and their close promixity to the effect of ingesting peyote. Although elsewhere Messiaen would emphasize that his own colour-chords were neither the result of actual vision or the ‘dangerous and monstrous phantasmagoria’ provoked by mescaline [1], it is clear that he was well-informed both as to the drug’s derivation and its religious use in ancient Meso-America:

‘I can add that one can contract Blanc-Gatti’s disease quite simply, though expensively, by going to Mexico and swallowing a toxic beverage named Mescaline, a drink which comes from a small cactus, Peyote, which was a sacred plant in ancient Mexico and which still grows – the priests and Mexican initiates used it for religious or prophetic ends related to the myth of the sun.'[2]

What I did not realize at the time of the 2007 Boston University Conference screening of Apparitions in Marsh Chapel was that five years prior to the publication of Claude Samuel’s interviews with Messiaen, in the basement of the chapel in which where we were watching chemically-influenced responses to his music, an infamous epoch-making experiment had been carried out into the correlation between religious, musical and psychedelic experience. A consideration of this complex and ambiguous conjunction is critical to our subject in this series of posts, i.e. an understanding of the underlying spiritual trajectory of 1960s counter-culture.

In this experiment, which came to be known as the ‘Marsh Chapel Miracle’, a group of theology students were subjected to a double-blind clinical test in which half of them were given the drug psilocybin (derived from ‘magic mushrooms’) and half a large dose of Niacin as a placebo. The participants were then observed for their reactions to the 1962 Good Friday liturgy in the church above led by the renowned African-American preacher Howard Thurman, Dean of Chapel. The idea for the test came from Walter Pahnke, a graduate student at Harvard, who conducted the experiment  in order to see whether psychoactive substances could engender religious experience as part of his doctoral research project in History and Philosophy of Religion which issued in the thesis An Analysis of the Relationship between Psychedelic Drugs and the Mystical Consciousness. The theological consultant to the project – one of the group given the psilocybin – was none other than MIT professor and ordained Methodist minister Huston Smith, who was already well-known for his classic The World’s Religions published in 1958.[3] Pahnke’s thesis advisors were two Harvard psychologists who at the time were respected academics but who would later acquire great notoriety in America for other reasons in the years after their subsequent expulsion from Harvard: Richard Alpert (who later became the Hindu-influenced spiritual teacher Ram Dass) and Dr Timothy Leary …

The idea behind this experiment may seem to us totally bizarre, but was part of a broader investigation centred at Harvard on the effects of mind-altering substances[4] conducted in the wake of the publication of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception in 1954. This small book, titled after a phrase in William Blake’s gnostic text The Marriage of Heaven and Hell [5], would prove to be of immense historical significance; Huxley’s heady and intensely controversial metaphysical interpretation of his experimentation with mescaline as ‘without any question the most extraordinary and significant experience available to human beings this side of the Beatific Vision'[6] would effectively light the touch-paper for the whole psychedelic explosion of the 1960s (for instance being the direct inspiration behind Jim Morrison’s The Doors, all four of whose members read it). In the process Huxley would unleash a philosophical and theological furore which will be the subject of our next instalment.

Page from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1794


[1] ‘Il ne s’agit pas d’une vision oculaire, dans le genre de ces fantasmagories dangereuses et monstrueuses que sont les hallucinations colorées provoquées par la mescaline (alcaloïde extrait d’un petit cactus mexicain, l’Enchinocactus williamsii ou Peyotl’ (Anik Lesure & Claude Samuel, Olivier Messiaen: le livre du centenaire (Lyon: Symétrie, 2008), 157. In Volume 1 of Messiaen’s monumental compositional treatise, he quotes Alexandre Rouhier’s Le Peyotl. La Plante qui fait les yeux émerveillés (Paris: Doin, 1927). The composer concludes that ‘mescalinic visions bear a family resemblance to those of ‘Synopsie’ [i.e. synaesthesia]. My coloured dreams were of the same order’ (‘les visions mescaliniques ressemblent comme des soeurs à celles de la Synopsie. Mes rêves colorés étaient du même ordre’ (Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie, vol. I (Paris: Leduc, 1994), 68). Given that Charles Baudelaire was one of Messiaen’s prime poetic influences, it is unthinkable that the composer would not have read Baudelaire’s famous words on drug-induced synaesthesia: ‘Sounds take on colours, and there is a music contained in the colours. The is nothing more natural than this, one might say, and any poetic brain in its normal healthy state, easily conceives these analogies’ (‘Les sons se revêtent de couleurs, et les couleurs contiennent une musique. Cela, dira-t-on, n’a rien que de fort naturel, et tout cerveau poétique, dans son état sain et normal, conçoit facilement ces analogies.‘ (Les Paradis Artificiels: Opium et Haschisch (Paris: Poulet-Malassis et de Broise, 1860),50).

[2] ‘J’ajoute qu’on peut contracter la maladie de Blanc-Gatti de façon assez simple quoique coûteuse en allant au Mexique et en avalant un breuvage nocif qui se nomme la Mescaline, lequel breuvage provient d’un petit cactus, le Peyotl, qui était une plante sacrée dans l’ancien Mexique et qui pousse toujours – les prêtres et les initiés mexicains s’en servaient à des fins religieuses ou prophétiques en relation avec le mythe solaire‘ (Claude Samuel, Entretiens avec Olivier Messiaen (Paris: Pierre Belfond, 1967), 36).

[3] The now 91 year-old Smith’s recollections of the Good Friday experiment can be watched on video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OE0_kHP7QME .

[4] The psychedelic experimentation in Harvard in the early 1960s has recently received a book-length treatment in Don Lattin’s Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America (New York: Harper Collins, 2011). A 50-minute presentation by Don Lattin outlining the thesis of his book can be viewed at http://fora.tv/2010/01/07/Don_Lattin_The_Harvard_Psychedelic_Club

[5] ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narow chinks of his cavern.’

It is important to note that Huxley had already quoted the phrase ‘the doors of perception’ in his Perennial Philosophy of 1945. In this work he had revived the notion, traceable at least as far back as Augustinus Steuchius in the sixteenth century but attributed by Huxley to Leibniz, of a philosophia perennis which he defined as:

‘the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being’ […] ‘Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions’ (Aldous Huxley, Perennial Philosophy, London: Chatto & Windus, 1946)

Although Huxley is able to quote extensively from Christian sources, it is evident  that his concept of ultimate Reality differs from that of the classical Abrahamic framework, being essentially monistic. This can clearly be seen in his introduction to  Bhagavad-Gita of 1947, in which he includes among the principles of perennial philosophy the notions that
‘Man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit […] man’s life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground.'(Introduction to Swami Prabhavananda (The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita (London, 1946), 7, quoted in Johannes Bronkhorst, ‘The Perennial Philosophy and the Law of Karma’ in C.C. Barfoot (ed.) Aldous Huxley between East and West (Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2001), 176. The extent to which philosophia perennis can be synthesized with Christianity is a matter of debate, representing as it does a key issue in inter-faith dialogue. Among modern composers working within the Christian tradition, those whose positions most closely resemble those of perennial philosophy are Olivier Messiaen and John Tavener; if in Messiaen’s case, a bedrock commitment to Catholic orthodoxy remains indisputable in spite of his frequent references to Eastern thought, Tavener has been explicitly perennialist in his recent engagement with the work of the philosopher Fritjof Schuon.

[6] Aldous Huxley in a letter to his editor at Chatto & Windus after taking mescaline: “It is without any question the most extraordinary and significant experience available to human beings this side of the Beatific Vision; and it opens up a host of philosophical problems, throws intense light and raises all manner of questions in the fields of aesthetics, religion, theory of knowledge . . .”


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