Sister Judy Bisignano, an Adrian Dominican nun and retired teacher, is a founder of Tucson’s Kino School and the now closed Cesar Chavez Middle School. She’s also the subject of the short film Sister Jaguar’s Journey and an enthusiastic advocate of ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca is used as a spiritual plant medicine in Amazonian Peru, but classified as an illegal hallucinogenic drug here in the United States.
Sister Judy had many past struggles with family, colleagues and fellow nuns due to her own, self-confessed personality problems. After consulting with Sandra Morse, a communications expert (and producer of Sister Jaguar), Sister Judy took a trip to visit the Achuar community in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest. It was there that she drank ayahuasca for the first time and, according to her, saw the world and people in a new way.
The Achuar now call her Sister Jaguar because she was the first visitor in 15 years to see a very rare black jaguar in the jungle or, more specifically, 20 feet behind her canoe pouncing on a white bird.
The Tucson Weekly talked to Sister Judy about the events that shaped Sister Jaguar’s Journey and her ayahuasca experiences.
Hello Sister Judy…or should I say, Sister Jaguar?
It’s Sister Jaguar, and don’t you forget it! (Laughs)
Got it! Okay, so you have taken the ayahuasca drink multiple times, right?
Oh yeah. I’ve gone to the Amazon, and drank ayahuasca five times. Sandra Morse has gone 15 times. She goes every year. I would do it every year if this old leg would make it down there and back. (Sister Judy broke her leg three years ago and it never fully healed)
Who is Sandra Morse?
Sandra is a communications consultant. She’s just and amazing human being in the way she communicates. She’s very honest. She had gone to many schools over the years to help them try to get along so I said, “Come and help us get along at Chavez Middle School.” She talked to every child in the school. Then she decided that I was the worst one in the whole group and I was the one who needed help. I was the one who wasn’t getting along. So she said “Why don’t you go into the jungle? I take people into the jungle with me?” I thought, well, okay, why not. I think she knew that ayahuasca was going to heal me before I ever knew it.
Tell me about the ayahuasca experience. The brew looks a little gross in the movie. What does that stuff taste like?
It’s like molasses. It’s real thick. People don’t drink ayahuasca for the fun of it, believe me. It’s not a social drink at all. People think “Well, let’s get high … it’s like LSD in the ’60s!” But it’s nothing like that. It’s a real serious journey.
You have to be prepared for it, huh? That’s why you have the shaman?
Yes, I never do it without a shaman. When you take ayahuasca, you don’t really determine where you are going or what you are doing. We call ayahuasca Grandmother for short, and Grandmother determines what you are going to learn and how it’s going to be. Often, it’s a difficult trip—and a peaceful trip—all in one trip. It’s not always just negative or just positive.
I know that there’s a major physical reaction to go with ingesting the plant, including intense vomiting and sometimes diarrhea. Do you ever build up a tolerance to it?
I don’t. I have the same physical reaction every time I take it. It’s part of the cleansing. It just sort of washes you out. Cleanses you. It cleanses you emotionally, spiritually … in every way. It gives you new insights.
The ayahuasca has given you “visions,” such as the one you describe in the film?
Yes, that was the beginning of my beginning, really. I had such a depressed way of walking through life. Everything that happened, the glass was half empty. That particular ayahuasca journey actually started bad. Suddenly, the sky opened up and every star became the face of a child I had taught in the past 50 years. That’s a lot of kids. Things just burst and their faces went flashing by me. I just knew that everything I had given them wasn’t all negative. I had given them a lot of good, and I became aware of that. It was the first time I had really experienced grace, pure delight, and pure joy.
You had a lot of turmoil early on in life, including a tough relationship with your mother, which drove you to the convent. Then, the convent was actually quite abusive, even institutionalizing you for weeks. I’m curious as to why you continued your pursuit of being a nun in the face of such hardship?
Well, I wanted to prove them wrong, I guess (laughs). I’m just kind of a bullhead. I knew I was a lot better than the church was giving me credit for and I was going to show them. I never really fit in anywhere. I don’t care if it’s religious, or social, or political, or educational, or financial. Wherever there is a power-down situation with somebody at the bottom suffering, I’m never going to really fit in. I guess I stayed with the nuns because I might as well try to fit in somewhere.
Did the ayahuasca help to heal bad feelings about your hard relationships with your family and colleagues?
I always thought everybody else was wrong. “Everybody else is mean and they don’t get me and they don’t get life and it is their fault that I’m so miserable … blah, blah, blah!” It wasn’t until after ayahuasca that I thought “I’m the one who is miserable. I am the one creating misery around me.” I don’t think I would’ve ever arrived at self-forgiveness without ayahuasca. As soon as I looked at what I was stirring into the pot, and I changed all of that, then all of their behavior changed. I guess that sort of awakening is ordinary and common but it certainly was new to me, that I was the instigator of all the hell in my life.
By “everybody else” do you mean fellow nuns, or family?
I mean everybody. Family, nuns, people across the counter selling me an ice cream. I could get into an argument with anybody at anytime with hostile, negative behavior. I just let it out at people. I would bring out the worst in people.
Well not anymore right?
Well, I hope not!
Being that I’m not Catholic, I’ve never really spoken to a nun in my entire life.
Oh my god, well today was your lucky day!
I have to say, this is nothing like I pictured it.
I know … I’m a little out of the box.
A little unorthodox for sure! Have you discussed ayahuasca with other nuns and priests? If so, what do they say about your journeys?
Yes, I’ve spoken with them, and there is a wide range of opinions. Some are shocked. Some won’t even speak to me. I don’t think nuns appreciate me. I’m afraid they think I am going to throw them under the bus, but I’m just trying to crawl out from under the bus, that’s all. I think the institutional church has a lot to be sorry for and a lot to ask forgiveness for. It might as well start with me. I’m sorry for the way I treated so many people under the guise of “That’s just the way nuns are.”
Did anybody at the church ever support your ayahuasca journey?
Yes, but unfortunately she died in a car crash about a year ago. Sister Donna. Sister Donna respected me as an individual and respected the journey I was on. She didn’t see it as that outrageous. Sister Donna was always about social justice, looking out for the people who are downtrodden. In the earlier days, you wouldn’t have found that kind of support. Now, I’m sure there are nuns studying Buddhism and Judaism in a way to become better at Catholicism. With Sister Donna, as long as nuns were on a spiritual path to better themselves, she supported them.