Some of my friends—those of us who used to say things like, “Don’t trust anyone over 30”—now joke with each other that if you remember the 1960s, you weren’t there. Our memory gaps from the countercultural era have nothing to do with our encroaching senility.
As a college student, did I really run into a friend at a Grateful Dead concert, where, already high on pot and hashish, we did a line of cocaine for good measure? Did we really wear tie-dyed bandanas and our hair halfway down our backs as we wandered through a haze of incense and strobe lights set to the opening riffs of “Purple Haze”? Did we really take LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, and other hallucinogenic drugs to explore the outer frontiers of the cosmos, with its “deep” insights? Insights that produced deep responses like, “Far out, man”?
Our band of cosmic travelers was on a quest—to right the injustices of poverty, racism, and war, but also to fill the void of loneliness. We questioned authority; we questioned everything. The Moody Blues’ song “Question” described us perfectly:
Why do we never get an answer
When we’re knocking at the door?
With a thousand million questions
About hate and death and war?
’Cause when we stop and look around us
There is nothing that we need
In a world of persecution
That is burning in its greed.
I had not always been such a questioner.
I was raised in an upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago by nurturing, pious Catholic parents alongside a sweet, near-perfect sister. I went to a school where nuns administered doctrine and the occasional light corporal punishment. At age 7, I became an altar boy, learning to pray my Confiteor (forgiveness of sins) in Latin just prior to Vatican II. As an altar boy, I first experienced the love of Christ. During an Easter vigil, before the sanctuary light, I felt bathed in his warmth and peace. But by the time I reached high school, I had mostly forgotten that experience.
I chose a psychology/premedical college major, which would prepare me to become a psychiatrist. That’s when the trouble began. A heady mix of experimental psychology, left-wing politics, drugs, and Eastern religion became the elixir that would lead me to pursue utopia on earth.
I attended College of the Holy Cross, the liberal arts—and liberally minded—Jesuit school in Worcester, Massachusetts. Students and faculty held a strike against the Vietnam War; our ROTC building was bombed. With the Kent State shootings providing a backdrop, our school brought in “direct action” priests who expressed opposition to the war by pouring blood on Army draft records. I became a conscientious objector before my draft board and eventually joined the Revolutionary Students Union. I was arrested for participating in a sit-in protest at a federal building, but was soon exonerated by a liberal judge.
Meanwhile, college courses like “Mind Expansion and Self-Knowledge” exposed me to various states of consciousness and Eastern religions. I embraced Zen Buddhism and meditation, seeking a final answer to unlock the door to love, meaning, and purpose. But ironically, my Buddhism training taught that the quest was silly, without an answer, and that I must transcend such false dilemmas.
My friends and I also explored shamanism—the practice of reaching altered states of consciousness with the aid of peyote to get in touch with the spirit world. One night, we swallowed too many peyote buttons. There in the dark, I had a vision of Christ hanging on the cross. He looked at me with compassion, as though I had put him there.
I turned to a friend and said, “Jesus claimed to be Lord and Savior. Do you think he was right?” Despite being drug-induced, the vision proved to be a first step in the right direction.
A Broken Prodigal
The second step was a visit to see a high-school friend who had become a “Jesus freak” after a bad LSD trip. When my friend and I gave him the occult book The Morning of the Magicians, he said it was from the pits of hell. When we suggested that Jesus was a “reincarnated perfect master,” he rebuked us with John 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This exchange revealed how much my view of Christ had changed since high school.
The crisis hit a few months later. In his book Be Here Now, Harvard psychologist-turned-guru Baba Ram Dass taught how to transcend the illusions of this world and live fully in the “eternal present.” At one of his lectures, Ram Dass told me that I was the only person in the room who had the inner knowledge of the dimension he inhabited. He passed on something through his eyes that I took for light. Looking back, I believe it was a lying spirit appealing to my pride.
In the following weeks, I fell into a dark hole. I questioned my self-worth, felt that life was meaningless and relationships were shallow, and realized my elevated consciousness and Eastern beliefs were deceptions. I despaired of kicking drugs and worried about the future. I was no longer the guru’s devotee but a broken prodigal.
In the spring of 1973, I sat alone on the library steps of Holy Cross at 2 a.m. A dose of LSD taken several hours before had worn off. I “crashed” into a deep emptiness, feeling alone in the cosmos. I remembered my blessed childhood and realized how far I had stepped off the right path.
Then I remembered what my “Jesus freak” friend had told me—that during his LSD trip, the Holy Spirit had entered him, assuring him of his forgiveness in Christ and bringing him to new life. I asked Jesus to lift the weight of my sinful, self-absorbed life and enter my heart forever. It was as if a fountain of living waters rose from deep inside, pushing out all the junk that had built up within. The same glow of warmth and peace that I had experienced as an altar boy was back. The Hound of Heaven had recaptured me.
That summer I went on a silent retreat and learned of the centrality of Scripture. I attended charismatic prayer meetings and read my Bible in earnest. My parents noticed a huge change in my behavior. They and my sister joined Catholic charismatic meetings. My father credited his becoming a deacon to the changes he saw in me.
Since then, God has blessed me with more than I could have imagined, including a marvelous wife who is my godly example, four children who remain in the faith, six grandchildren, and a career in Christian publishing. Our family has gone through the gamut of Christian traditions, including charismatic, Calvinist, and now Anglican churches.
The world has had to endure the ups and downs of the baby boomer generation. From spoiled rebellion to materialistic acquisitiveness to self-preservation, we have shown more than our share of faults. But the “Jesus Revolution” of the 1960s and early ’70s brought true revival, and a Christian remnant arose from the ashes. At the least, it’s reason for the next generation to treat us kindly when we the “silver tsunami” flood the US health-care system in the near future.
James Stuart Bell owns Whitestone Communications, Inc., a literary development agency, and lives in Chicago’s Western suburbs. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.