An oddball sect has decided to mark the August 21 total eclipse of the sun by gathering inside the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Every day, the shrine welcomes believers and non-believers of all stripes. But on August 21, there is one group that is likely to be barred, because they have announced their plan to assemble in one of the basilica’s chapels, light a censer, and send up clouds of cannabis smoke.
Anne Armstrong, the group’s leader, and a long-time cannabis activist, is convinced the ceremony in the shrine will go off without a hitch. “It’s a big place, it’s a Monday afternoon,” she told Steven Nelson of U.S. News and World Report. “We don’t need the basilica’s permission to have a prayer service in a chapel.”
Weeeell, since the church is private property, actually they do need permission.
Armstrong has chosen the eclipse because she believes when the moon obscures the sun there will be “a lot of interesting astrological things going on.” According to Armstrong, her cannabis burning ceremony will, somehow, tap into whatever energy is being released into the universe during the eclipse. Armstrong’s group will be burning a weed-infused olive oil that is packed with THC, the factor that gets you high. “The holy chrism must have THC in it to be effective,” Armstrong explained.
Armstrong leads the Healing Church in Rhode Island, where she is known to her congregation as Deaconess Anne. Church members believe that the use of cannabis for physical and spiritual healing is rooted in the Bible, citing texts such as “And I shall raise up for them a bud of renown” (Ezekiel 34:29). They also believe that originally, the Catholic Church was a cannabis-positive institution, until later Church authorities suppressed the use of pot in the liturgy.
Armstrong is convinced that the shrine’s staff will respond favorably to her request to hold her ceremony in the church. She told Nelson she expects the rector to say, “Welcome, Deaconess Anne, and what room would you like?” She also mentioned that she’d prefer a chapel that had comfy chairs. And she added that if her request is denied, she will be shocked.
Lord knows why the Healing Church has chosen the national shrine as the site for their weed-burning. It is not in the path of the eclipse. In fact, for the full total eclipse experience, the spot closest to D.C. lies in the far western tip of North Carolina.
The basilica is not on the familiar tourist route in Washington. It stands on the campus of the Catholic University of America, nowhere near the National Mall (although you can get there easily enough by taking the Metro’s Red line?). It’s the largest Catholic church in the United States, so it is a landmark. But if Deaconess Anne and her friends wanted to honor this astronomical phenomenon, wouldn’t they have been happier at a location directly along the trajectory of the eclipse?
Thomas Venditti of Pennsylvania filed a request for permission to use a chapel in the basilica. He shared Armstrong’s optimism about the event. “Oh, it’s going forward, absolutely. We’re just working out the logistics,” he told Nelson.*
You have to wonder, are these people naïve, eccentric, provocative, or high?
But after speaking with the U.S. News and World Report, Venditti heard back from the administrators of the shrine: they declined his request.
Nonetheless, Venditti said that if Armstrong tries to hold her event inside the church, he would probably attend as a spectator. “I may just go to watch,” he said, “because that would be a pretty radical thing.”
A statement released by the basilica’s communications office reads, “An event such as the one suggested in the U.S. News & World Report article would not be given any consideration nor would permission be granted. [The church building] and its grounds are private property. Unapproved, unsanctioned or illicit events and activities are not allowed.”
So it appears the Healing Church’s plans were only half-baked.
*Editor’s note: An above paragraph has been amended to reflect the reported role of Thomas Venditti in Sister Armstrong’s planned event.