Utah-based church melds wine-making, sexuality and meditation

Saturday, April 27, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- Claude Nowell was a 30-year-old graphics salesman and practicing Mormon who says he was just trying to relax after work when the hairless, blue, otherworldly beings first came to him.

The 1975 visitation lasted about 10 minutes -- enough time to transport Nowell to a quiet place where an enormous pyramid stood on a green lawn under a blue sky filled with stars.

When he came to, Nowell immediately suspected his druggie co-workers had spiked his late-afternoon doughnut.

But then, Nowell claims, there were more visitations from the blue beings -- leading him to decide that he had been chosen to propagate Summum, a belief system incorporating winemaking, mummification and sexual ecstasy. His fledgling group of adherents now meet in a pyramid-shaped temple in Salt Lake City.

Nowell, who in the early 1980s changed his name to Summum Bonum Amon Ra and goes by Corky Ra, said that since Summum's establishment in 1975, 250,000 people have received its teachings -- though the movement is little-known, even among those who study new religions. No official membership rolls are kept, he said, nor does the movement collect offerings or accept donations.

Ra attended Brigham Young University and graduated from the University of Utah, where he majored in business and philosophy. He is a former Southern California aerobics instructor with tanned skin, clear green eyes and an 18-inch ponytail trailing down his back.

IRS decision

Ra said he never wanted the belief system to be called a church. There is no supreme being in his teachings. But when his group first applied for his nonprofit organization status, he said, the Internal Revenue Service designated it as a church.

"We have always felt it to be a philosophy, but the government has always called it a religion," Ra said. The designation has allowed the group to hold a state permit to make and distribute sacramental wine.

The pyramid temple, made of anodized copper over steel with sides 40 feet wide at the base, sits in a one-acre compound in an industrial zone just off an interstate in Salt Lake City. The temple is open to the public each Thursday night for meditation and philosophy instruction.

Three mummified animals encased in bronze sit in the entryway. Upholstered sofas and chairs form a discussion circle directly beneath the pyramid's apex, 26 feet overhead. The sacramental wine is fermented in a gleaming stainless steel vat set behind the furniture.

During the 77-day fermentation process, those who espouse Summum meditate for the wines so they will contain spiritual concepts. The wines are then aged from one to 15 years.

State law forbids shipment of the wine, so Summum adherents in other states have become licensed liquor distributors to ship the product.

Ra said at least 250,000 bottles have been given away to people who have undergone a screening process that involves reading about Summum and learning how to meditate.

Adherents use the wines, also known as "liquid knowledge" and "nectar publications," to enhance seven types of meditation, including the one serving Summum's paramount belief: the power of sexual ecstasy.

Summum's take is that copulation played a vital role in creation of the universe, and that all progression and evolution happens through sexual ecstasy.

Sex for meditation

With Summum, sexuality is not merely an avenue to enjoyment. "It's there for meditation," Ra said. "But when you have that ecstasy, that's creation itself. We call it the state of becoming god. It's not something you would do at a brothel or only for procreation."

The vital role of sex in Ra's beliefs is evident in decorations in the pyramid, including candleholders molded to look like sex organs.

Ra's assistant, Ron Temu, a licensed funeral director and embalmer, also does mummifications, which Summum prefers over burial. Comparing their beliefs to ancient Egyptian creeds, Summum teaches that even after death there remains an ethereal bond between body and soul.

Mummification costs about $8,000 for animals and starts at $63,000 for humans. None of the 147 people who prepaid have died yet, Ra said.

Douglas Cowan, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and an authority on new religious movements, said none of the major scholarly organizations that research such groups have a listing for Summum.

However, he said the Utah group has similarities to other new movements, such as the Raelians, founded about 30 years ago by a French racecar driver who mixes Judeo-Christian teachings with UFO experiences.

Ra also notes that Tantric yoga and portions of the Kama Sutra have teachings similar to Summum about sexuality. He estimates 5,000 people have moved to Utah to learn Summum.

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