Céu de Maria: Flickr, Lou Gold

In a piece for the Financial Times John Paul Rathbone wrote about the murder of Glauco Villas Boas, one of Brazil’s best-known cartoonists. Glauco was a leader of the Céu de Maria church, one of the many churches in Brazil that treat hallucinogenic ayahuasca tea as a sacrament. The young man charged with murdering Glauco had partaken in the religious rituals of the church, and the murder provoked a heated national debate about the dangers of ayahuasca. While reporting the story Rathbone took part in an ayahuasca ceremony at Céu de Maria, which is described in the excerpt below:

Beatriz pointed me to a seat near the front and rang a captain’s bell to announce the start of the service. The congregation filtered in, some 200 people chatting easily among themselves. There were all types: young, old, fat, thin, black and white. Some looked like pirates, their faces etched with poverty; others like bank managers with the complexion that only a good diet brings. I was impressed by the social mingling and sense of community, so rare in Brazil, one of the world’s most unequal countries.

Beatriz nodded. To her left, four guitarists and a flautist, all men, began to play; to her right, a choir of women began to sing. The rest formed a queue at the back of the church where the tea was served in shot glasses. I knocked back an acrid brown mixture that tasted of rotten leaves and sat down again. The songs continued and a gentle lassitude filled my limbs. Two hours later we drank another glass. Some of the congregation sang; most sat quietly, absorbed in inner states. Occasionally, someone would go outside and I would hear vomiting. All the while the singing continued.

“I have had a dream,” comments Bottom when he awakes in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “past the wit of man to say what dream it was.” I remember a feeling of waves. Around midnight, Beatriz had handed me a book of songs that Glauco had composed. The room suddenly seemed to fill with energy and joy. A drum began to sound, joining the guitars, flute and falsetto voices of the girls, and I remembered a phrase of St Teresa, the Catholic mystic: “Words lead to deeds . . . They prepare the soul, make it ready and move it to tenderness.” I heard the music as if listening to stereo for the first time, and the high chorus of a song penetrated me with its words: “I pray to my holy Father with extraordinary joy, extraordinary joy . . . ”

Read the story