I have been asked what I think about the OTO's Gnostic Mass in SLC. And while it has been many years since the one that I attended, my take on it hasn't changed. A friend who attended with me asked afterwards, “Was that Gnostic?” To which I replied, that depended on Gnosis, that I didn't see any evidence of it, but that didn't mean it wasn't there. She continued, “What I meant was it didn't seem to have anything to do with the [historical] Gnostics.” And I could only agree.
The OTO's Gnostic Mass is the work of Aleister Crowley, who I haven't found in my very cursory reading to have had a Gnostic world view, though he seems to have had a fairly Gnostic attitude. When I think of Crowley's reputation, I think of the beginning of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, where Ferris licks his palms before holding hands with his parents as a symptom of his pretend illness. He says it's juvenile and silly, but then, so is High School. Some of Crowley's antics seemed juvenile and silly, but then, so is the world: even more so, the Victorian world.
For example, “Let do what thou wilt be the whole of the law” is formulated to get your attention, it had to have been a real shocker to the Victorians. If you don't consider it, it is essentially meaningless. It seems juvenile and silly. But if you do consider it deeply, living the questions: Who is thou? What is will? What is the law? You can see how it could evoke Gnosis.
The way I see it, strictly from the outside, there are two major limitations with the OTO approach to Gnosticism. The first is that it cannot be said to represent a long tradition. As a Gnostic, I know that there is so much that I don't know, and I can turn for guidance to the tradition. As a Gnostic Priest, I know that my own Gnosis is the foundation of my ministry, but if that was all I had to offer, it would be a limited ministry indeed. It is our tradition that allows us to overcome our limitations and weaknesses and to still be able to be of service beyond them.
You could make meals from the content's of both Bilbo Baggins's and Ebenezer Scrooge's larders (if they weren't imaginary): from the one there will always be more than you can eat, from the other there may never be enough. A tradition is like a larder, a repository of the products of many souls in which you can find nourishment, and from which you can provide nourishment. Even if there are things in there that don't arouse your appetite, they may be just the thing a weary traveler has been craving. The connection the OTO ritual has to the larger Gnostic tradition seems tenuous, and through the Hermetic tradition only--a far richer tradition than most will ever have in this world, but a fraction of the larger Gnostic tradition.
The other limitation, seems to be one of mis-perception and perhaps a poor choice of terminology. The OTO ritual seems to be precisely what it was intended to be, a singular addition to a ritual magic path. Viewed in this light it is an interesting, and perhaps useful, symbolic/ritual exploration of a Gnostic experience. Since it only has ties to the Hermetic tradition, it seems “The Hermetic Mass” would have been more descriptive, but it already has its name now. And, when I started writing this I had to resist putting “Mass” in quotes, since it has almost nothing to do with the sense of Mass as the Eucharist. (From “Ite Missa Est,” it is done/released.) But then, people have been taking the central ritual of Christendom and running with it for over a millennia. (“Hocus Pocus” comes from Hoc Est Enim Corpus Meum, “this is my body.”) Yet, even should the ritual function as a Eucharistic Mystery for those attending, it would remain only one element of a Gnostic Ecclesia.
In general, I view the OTO's Ecclesiastical functions the same way I do other groups for whom being a Gnostic Church is a (perhaps, very) ancillary concern. To go back to the metaphor, it is like comparing an apple to two courses of a five course meal. We for whom this is a primary concern, cannot be said to provide all the Ecclesia that a growing Gnostic needs, so to speak, and those for whom it is a mere addition have even less to offer as an Ecclesia. This comparison in no way diminishes their value, nor exalts ours. It does point to the very real difference that a different focus makes, and the very real difficulties of trying to provide a Gnostic Ecclesia in the world: even if that is your only focus.
It has always seemed sensible to me when OTO folks have added the Ecclesia Gnostica to their Gnostic path. And clergy who are in the OTO, or have a background in it, is the general situation in most of our parishes to which we here in SLC are an exception. It is a pattern I can see repeating in other places, and has to do with the shadow of Christianity. In this area there is a monolithic Mormon culture, that casts a deep shadow. Those of us who have grown up here have generally felt compelled to identify with that culture or it's shadow. If you identify with it's shadow, it becomes your shadow. And the sense of the whole of Christianity being in people's individual shadow complexes here is very strong: painting all Christians and things Christian with the shadow, treating it all as though they were personal enemies. I was formed in that way, in this place. Shadow work is very difficult, yet is an essential part of the path of Gnosis. Fortunately, that aspect of mine is behind me, but I certainly understand.
The EG is definitely Christian, in the original Gnostic sense to be sure, but it can be very difficult to overcome the aversion to the entire milieu that the more fundamentalist among us have formed within so many of us. The same can, of course, be said of religion in general, which is probably the context in which Ritual Magic is perceived as being more palatable, as well. I have a nephew who won't taste something if he doesn't like the name of it. I hope he grows out of that, but even so, being picky, he won't like most foods he does experience. And, if it helps him if we call Broccoli, “little trees” what does it matter?
The important thing is to be supportive of each other on our individual paths to Gnosis. Offer what you have, avail yourself of whatever resources help, point to other paths when it seems appropriate, and always remember—we are all in this together.