Holy bonding: 5 Questions for Episcopal priest Hunt Priest
Priest discusses his organization Ligare and the role of religion in psychedelics.
Scientists often joke about a concept called nominative determinism: the idea that people gravitate towards professions that fit their surnames. For Hunt Priest, the path towards religion felt divinely ordained, but it took a few steps to get there: before going to seminary at 37, Priest first worked as a copywriter and a marketing specialist. “I always knew in the back of my mind that it was the path, but I waited for the timing to be right,” he says.
In 2015, Priest was the rector of an episcopal church in Mercer Island, Washington, when he saw an ad for a study: university researchers were seeking religious leaders to take psychedelics. Hunt had never tried psychedelic drugs, and his curiosity was piqued. The next year, Priest underwent two psilocybin sessions as a research subject. (Editor’s note: Priest has requested we not name the academic institution where the study was conducted). He says the experience shifted his understanding of his personal and professional work — and as the year passed, he realized his true calling was to combine religion and psychedelics. In 2021, Priest founded Ligare, a Christian psychedelic society. The Microdose spoke with Priest about his psychedelic experience and Ligare’s work.
What was your first experience with psilocybin like?
It was in a study setting with two guides — I was very comfortable and well prepared. Honestly, I didn’t have any expectations — I knew it’d be interesting, but I didn’t expect to have a religious experience.
A year before, I’d gone on a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat, and after about four days of meditation, I experienced this electrical current spiral on my left thigh. It felt like an energetic field, and I’d never experienced anything like that, so it blew my mind. An hour and a half into my psilocybin session, I felt that same energetic spiral in the same place. That allowed me to let go, and as soon as I did, that current began to move up my spine in a dramatic fashion. It got stuck in my throat, and I thought my Adam's apple was going to explode, like whatever was in me needed to get out. The guides laid hands on me, as I have done with people in the hospital, and as soon as they did, the current moved through the top of my head. I began to speak in tongues and shake dramatically — two things that are often a part of the Pentacostal Christian experience, something that’s not part of my background. But with that dramatic, embodied reaction, I came to understand this part of scripture, where the apostle Paul says the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. I had always understood that intellectually, but experienced it in my body for the first time.
I learned something I can’t explain in words. I felt connected to a force, a presence beyond me: God. And I realized that the crippling anxiety I’d been carrying around was gone.
What does Ligare mean, and why did you choose that name for this organization?
Ligare means to unite or join together in Latin; it’s the root word of ligament, and also of religion. The way I think about this is that psychedelics are a way to rebond, or bind ourselves with God and the mystery of the universe. It’s binding us back to the holy.
There has never been a more exciting – or bewildering – time in the world of psychedelics. Don’t miss a beat.
How do you see Ligare — and religion in general — playing a role in the psychedelics world?
The core of the world’s religions are attempts to make sense of inexplicable encounters with the divine, and to make meaning out of mystical experiences. Christianity has developed ways of bringing about non-ordinary states of consciousness: fasting, meditation, prayer retreats. So religions already have systems in place for preparing people for and making meaning of mystical experiences.
We’re building a network of Christian leaders, practitioners, scientists, mental healthcare providers, and others who are interested in providing education, support, and resources for safe and legal use of psychedelics. We’re developing resources for spiritual directors and clergy to help people prepare and integrate psychedelic experiences, because even though those drugs are still currently illegal, people are going to be having these experiences whether they are legal or not. We think of that as a form of harm mitigation.
In Oregon and Colorado, there will soon be legal psilocybin service centers. How do you see Ligare or other religious groups fitting into this framework?
We’ve been developing a network of clergy and chaplains — people who are working hard to open service centers. We hope to be able to take groups of people there once it’s legal, and have Christian retreats. That would not be a Sunday morning activity, but a four to five day event; we’d do all the things you’d typically do on a Christian retreat, but midway through, participants would have a psilocybin experience. That way they’d have a few days to build community, have that experience, then make sense and make meaning out of it.
You first tried psilocybin in 2016, and founded Ligare five years later. Have you noticed any changes in those five years in how psychedelics are received by the religious community?
After I had my experience, I told a few open-minded friends, but got blank stares. People were not that interested. After Michael Pollan’s book came out, there seemed to be much more media coverage — the conversation opened up. By 2019, I began talking about psychedelics with friends much more openly. At that time I also took a break from parish work, and I was able to be more honest and open about it, and I had so many Christians and Christian clergy people saying they had those experiences too, and that it was why they went to seminary, why they were still in the church. I saw that people were desperate for healing, and often felt like they didn’t have a place to talk about it. I was just in Des Moines, Iowa, and did a presentation about psychedelics and Christianity there, and the conversation was rich, and multi-generational. We’re desperate for mental health healing, religious and spiritual renewal, a deeper connection to the planet and each other.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Interesting. This year I started attending church, but I later dropped out feeling out of place since I had the psychedelic mindset while others didn't. While the clergy there wasn't hostile about my stance, I also felt there was a big experience gap between us. I felt it would be best for us to part ways. It was nice getting to know the people there, though. That's what I miss the most. I wanted to learn more about Christianity... Well - about 'something/anything' - this was all rather unexplored to me. I was in a sort of seeker mindset. I wanted to belong. I still want to belong.
What Hunt Priest describes during his journeys is what I would call a Kundalini awakening. This happened first for me at age 16 from an intensive practice of yoga in a ashram setting here in the Bay Area. More recently, I have had other Kundalini experiences during psychedelic journeys and in day to day life. There is a Mighty Networks group called When Lightning Strikes that is a resource for people navigating this territory. Their YouTube channel has interviews and other material on this topic including a Member Highlight about my story. I can also recommend Brent Spirit for YouTube videos including an interview with me about this topic.
Thanks for sharing this interview with Hunt Priest.