Experiencing the Peyote Way Church in the Arizona Desert

United States Arizona Religion
by Pat Hennessey Jan 20, 2011

A soft but firm voice told me to open the door and enter. I saw an old, white-bearded man with frizzy white hair. He was seated up and surrounded by books and relics. His eyes were fully alive, bright, and curious.

But beyond what I saw, I felt the instant recognition that I had stepped into the presence of a wise man. I realized as we spoke that I’d been seeking this door and a wise presence on the other side for all of my adult life.

I instinctively asked if I could take his portrait with the camera that was always strapped to my side. He told me that such photos would be pointless and unnecessary.

He told me that as one of the founders of the Peyote Way Church, he had no time for priestly garments or silly sanctimonious pretensions. After I thanked him for providing such a beautiful place and experience, we wasted no time and spoke soul to soul.

I felt like we knew each other from a similar time or place. It was clear that this man had no breath to waste on small talk or nonsense.

He had turned over his life work and property many years ago to his loving adopted family tribe. He was now focusing his last moments on the life of the soul beyond all worldly preoccupations.

During our conversation he suggested that no matter where I was that I leave the city every 90 days and find a remote place away from all people and light a fire under the stars. During that evening he suggested I reflect upon what I had done during the previous 90 days and on what I proposed to do over the next 90. There was no need to plan the rest of my life — only the next 90 days. But he encouraged me to think big and only add what was worth doing as if it were my last 90 days.

Perhaps he had realized that once you stop fucking others you can focus on really knowing them.

This man — with only an 8th grade education — had never stopped learning and seeking knowledge. His wisdom was like flowing spring water for my thirsty soul.

He told me that he had maintained a vow of celibacy for 30 plus years, if for no other reason than to avoid distractions and complications. Perhaps he had realized that once you stop fucking others you can focus on really knowing them. I thought of how liberating celibacy could be.

I also thought of all the seekers who have visited the Peyote Way Church. Did they find what they were looking for? Or did most come for the trill of the drug and then merely pass through? What was I really seeking?

The old man said that he could only suggest directions. Then he suggested that the wisdom I was seeking was not at the end of his white beard but within myself and out under the desert sky.

Founder of the Peyote Way Church

This old sage had been generous in giving me so many of his last breaths. I thanked him from my heart for the privilege of meeting him. I left the room feeling that I should never waste any words or breath on what didn’t matter. From here on out I needed to live like I had rounded the last corner on my final dash.

Ironically though, he had reminded me that in the end the road stops and that I would be wise to slow down and not be in such a hurry to get to the end of it. Yes. Slow down, drive safely, and see everything along the way. What other way would a sensible person ever choose?

Note: I later learned that the family, out of concern for this man’s waning health, did not want visitors to enter this man’s private space. I apologized for the intrusion. For those who visit the Peyote Way Church, please respect his privacy.

I walked outside under the stars and through the trees back to my dying campfire. I came to realize that I would like to be the soft, reassuring voice on the other side of the door that encourages others to turn the knob and push on through. I was beginning to realize that it was time for me to leave the pretense of youth behind and aspire to become the old sage with a white beard and crazy wisps of hair.

I returned to my campfire alone and stoked the embers to stave off the cold, cloudless night sky. I put more logs on the embers and watched them burn. I imagined my ego burning up and peeling away like the layers of wood ringing each log.

camp in the Arizona desert

I stepped away from the fire and stood out in the desert. I slowly turned 360 degrees beneath the stars. The star-specked sky turned like a gigantic planetarium rotating on the horizon. l felt my place in the universe without gadgets, toys, or role playing.

Fasting had cleared away my bloated contentment and left me with the clear realization that, when life is stripped bare beneath the cold night sky, we hunger for our tribe far more than food. Under the vast night sky and infinite time that swallows us all, we are all just little Indians huddling by our campfires.

So we tend our fires to protect and care for those we love and for those we invite to come and find comfort. And hopefully that love extends beyond our small circle and ripples outward until it washes over this tiny fragile globe that is spinning somewhere in infinity.

I stayed up all night tending my fire. I thought of all my friends and family and what I would say to each of them if they were alone with me by the fire.

For most I would start by apologizing for not expressing my appreciation for them. I would tell them how much they meant to me and let them know that wherever my campfire burned they would always be welcome. I felt profound gratitude for them and for all life in this world.

Community Connection

What would the next ninety days mean to you, if you had to plan as though they were everything? What remains when all excess and distractions are stripped away from who you are?

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