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Ecstatic communion

Rob Clements

Working alongside heroin addicts in inner-city Dublin, Rob Clements recognised unexpected parallels with his own religious experience. Here he ponders how a good drugs policy must engage with liturgy.


The ritual unfolds with meticulous care. Like a priest preparing for communion, he lays out the paraphernalia of transcendence upon the table and begins to mix the elements. Instead of a cross, he removes the silver spoon hanging around his neck and heats the bubbling liquid in it carefully, purging it of all impurity. In place of a lavabo bowl and towel, antiseptic swabs ensure cleanliness before the consecration of the elements. Finally, with the tourniquet tightened like a cilice, he is ready for the moment when all boundaries disappear...

Liturgical practices appear in unlikely places. Before I began my own journey as an Anglican ordinand with a vocational investment in the theatre of the liturgical life, I worked with a project for low-threshold drug users in inner-city Dublin. I became fascinated by the parallels between their world and mine - the way we both sought transcendence through ritual, albeit in very different ways. On reflection, the link was not particularly surprising. Emile Durkheim argued that even 'the most bizarre and barbarous rites and the strangest myths all translate to some human need and some aspect of life, whether individual or social'1. Liturgy involves bringing into consciousness deep truths about human nature.

I don't find the link between religion and drug use particularly interesting or compelling, although there have been many instances of drug fuelled religious experience. The association feels like lazy spirituality; the property of those who want to experience the transformation of the self without the type of work that makes such shifts in consciousness authentic.

However, if patterns of drug use echo the liturgical and ritualistic practices common in the community of religious faith, this has implications for those working in drug services or those who support friend and family members experiencing addiction. It also has some bearing on how we interpret liturgy's relationship to human self understanding.

One of the groundbreaking studies into heroin use is Avril Taylor's study into the practices of injecting drug users (IDUs) in Scotland2. This involved the ethnographic filming of 30 injecting drug users whilst they injected at home and in outside locations. The images are difficult to watch. The aim was to examine the injecting practices of injecting drug users with a specific focus on Hepatitis C transmission - and the report significantly informed the Scottish Government's policy and harm reduction strategies. But Taylor's study also provides clear evidence of liturgical acts, seen in the nature of preparation, the reification of the host substance, and the cultic use of paraphernalia.

As with the religious use of liturgy, there is evidence of special language ('score', 'hit'), sacred space (the gathering around the table where the objects are placed, the necessity of privacy), special movements, gestures and gesticulations (the presentation of veins, the disposal of works), and even special roles (the more experienced drug user would go first or help others with the process of administration). Although there are often signs of desperation in the preparation and administration process caused by chemical withdrawal, liturgical exactitude and reverential care are regularly placed around the substance (host).

The paraphernalia required - such as preparation surface, acidifier, water, heat source, spoon, filter, needle, tourniquets and swabs - take on particular sacred properties, carrying meaning beyond its function. John-Paul Grund notes that observing parts of the drug preparation and administration sequence may elicit specific thoughts and feelings in the intravenous drug users3.  

Even the sight of disposed drug paraphernalia can have such effects. They are ritual symbols for a state of consciousness with meaning beyond their appearance or utility. Similar things may be said of the use of paraphernalia in the religious setting, for example the step-by-step dressing of the Eucharistic table has the scope to draw the believer into a state of spiritual consciousness in preparation for consumption. If the table is not dressed in a particular way, or without care or if particular objects are missing or misplaced, people's state of spiritual consciousness can be affected. And it may be functional to move the altar for the larger sound system, but at what cost to the sacred meaning of the worshippers?


This is not to say that all forms of liturgical expression are equal. Some forms of liturgical expression have the power to positively engage, inspire and transform those who participate in them. Other forms represent the demoniac whereby the human person is disrupted and negated. If what we do liturgically shapes us and how we engage with the world, then what we do liturgically matters.

If good liturgy is a foretaste of heaven; bad liturgy is a foretaste of, well … the other place. In the case of drug rituals, there is an absence of a divine being as the purpose of liturgical action. And yet the language of transcendence and mysticism is common in drug culture, for example, 'chasing the dragon'.

And drug users often identify the ritual of injecting (not just the drug itself) as part of their 'high'. Grund describes the experience of an intravenous drug user who goes through the entire ritual process of injecting, even though he is injecting a drug substance so weak that it has no chemical impact4. Likewise, although finer needles promote better vein care, practitioners may prefer needles that are less safe, because those needles are part of their drug use rituals.

Indeed, individuals who achieve drug free status often indicate that it is not only the drug that they miss, but the associated rituals. A common reason for relapse is the liturgical vacuum left through drug cessation. Intravenous drug users may expend as much energy in the liturgy of addiction as in the substance itself. In effect the ritual becomes as much a part of the addiction as the chemical.

So what are the implications of a liturgical interpretation of injecting drug use practices? Well, if the actions we perform in the realm of symbols have significant bearing on how we live, then a liturgical interpretation of drug use practice offers strategies for harm reduction and even for drug cessation.

If attention is given to the liturgical aspects of the 'whole event' of drug consumption, then strategies can be put in place to address aspects of intravenous drug use that are particularly harmful. A positive finding from Taylor's study is that there was little evidence of needle sharing, though certainly there were multiple instances of risky sharing of other paraphernalia, for example, water, filters, etc. This had significant risk for public health. To change behaviours, changes need to be made to the liturgical patterns used.

In the instance of needle sharing, a positive information campaign on the risk associated with needle sharing helped. However another key strategy was to make needle/syringes widely available. By making needles/syringes less scarce, and by taking possession of them from a select few and giving them to all who need them, the liturgical process is transformed as paraphernalia is universalised.

Rather than one person becoming the administrator (or priest) of the needle, all users are provided with the necessary instruments. Injectors are therefore empowered to use their own needles rather than rely on another needle that might carry infection.

A liturgical interpretation also challenges an exclusively medical model of drug detoxification. While it is necessary to address the chemical aspects of withdrawal, liturgical insights suggest that this is not adequate. Individuals may have their chemical withdrawals addressed, but still remain addicted to the drug use rituals.

Faith communities may have a pastoral role in facilitating access to new liturgies and rituals that address some of the needs met by the liturgical aspects of drug use. If liturgy as Arens suggests, is 'communal, world-dislocating, reality-ordering, and reality-changing'5, then are there rituals we can offer to people in detox when they feel the need to use?  

Lessons can be learned from Alcoholics Anonymous which uses quasi-religious forms for the well-being of its members. Are there symbols that can be used to foster positive group identity (like the circle and triangle used by AA), or prayers that can be specifically procured (AA uses the serenity prayer)?  Is there a litany for recovering addicts just waiting to find its way into our prayer book?  Might we put prayer beads in the ex-user's syringe case or develop a recovery Mass?  

This requires liturgical imagination, but then again, good liturgy should always be seeking to create.

1  Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (New York: Free Press, 1912), p2.
2  Avril Taylor, Alex Fleming, Jeanne Rutherford & David Goldberg, 'Examining the Injecting Practices of Injecting Drug users in Scotland', (Scottish Executive Effective Interventions Unit, 2004).
3  John-Paul Grund, Drug Use as a Social Ritual: Functionality, symbolism and determinants of self-regulation (DrugText: International Substance Use Library, 1993), downloadable at www.drugtext/Table/Drug-use-as-a-social-ritual/ p.71.
4  Grund, Drug Use as a Social Ritual, p.70.
5  Edmund Arens, 'Religion as Ritual, Communicative, and Critical Praxis', in Mendieta, Eduardo (ed.) The Frankfurt School on Religion: Key writings by the major thinkers (Routledge: New York and London, 2005): 387.

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