Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Christmas with(out) Mystery and Magic

If, as Aleister Crowley states, a man sneezing is a magical act then this is the most magical time of the year, as they say.

What really makes the season magical in my experience is the celebration of the season grounded in ritual celebration. Sure, we have our secular traditions in which Christmas is a time of consumer sacrifice to the great god we call the economy. There are also a diversity of rich symbolic traditions, whose meanings we rarely consider, and which have primarily become a way of reaching back in time to connect in some way to Christmases past. They are a magical act in that they might conjure up memories and a feeling of breaking through the shackles of time towards an eternal longed-for moment.

I have no such traditions that work for me. No family or cultural traditions that work such magic. As a kid there were just too many expectations and obligations involved. Once I outgrew the Christmas morning toy seeking frenzy, there wasn't much that I liked about the holiday, at least as I knew it then.

For a number of years Christmas wasn't a religious holiday for me. It was a misplaced solstice celebration in worship of the consumer economy. Working in retail in a mall bookstore exposed me to the more gruesome aspects of the consumer act of sacrificial purchase. In ancient animal sacrifice the priest was essentially a sacred slaughterhouse worker: slit the throat, let it bleed out, slit the belly, toss the entrails on the fire. Working in a mall bookstore through the entire sacrificial season was somewhat similar in regards to the consumer version.

All of that was years ago (Deo Gratias), but for years after there just was no appeal for me, at least until I started attending Ecclesia Gnostica services. Even the first years of doing that, the EG didn't have its own space locally and so didn't offer a midnight mass on Christmas. So, I attended Roman Catholic services for a few years, then Eastern Orthodox. They were nice, and I appreciated them. The RC services at the Cathedral of the Magdalene were high production affairs with live music. The EO services I attended were intimate and meditative. Yet, for me they lacked, they weren't the celebration of the mystery that was closest to my soul, the form that was such an important part of my spiritual life.

After we started holding services in a century old deconsecrated RC chapel, we were able to hold midnight mass. By that time I was in advanced minor orders and had been serving for years. My dear friend and mentor Rev. Dr. Owens had a creche set up on the side altar and had us pause after the service and the homily to listen to Silent Night while contemplating the creche scene. After the deconstruction of the nativity stories, to have the myth brought to life like that was wonderful, full of wonder.

Midnight mass has since been the cornerstone of the season for me. The Sundays in Advent leading up to it, and the twelve days of Christmas ending with Epiphany are the foundations of the season. They are not merely rituals that take up a short time, they infuse the entire season with meaning, with spiritual aliveness. They add to everything. In them we encounter the timeless mystery of the Eucharist in the context of the mystery of the transcendent light, the mystery of each individual capacity to redemption, the divine spark of unimaginable potential that can be liberated within us. It is more than just having such ideas, it is seeing them come alive in symbolic form. And in this we can truly see how blessed we are to have had such a teacher and liberator as Christ among us, and to have even what little we do have of his teachings available to us.

In my conjuring up the memory of that mystery, the magic of the season returns to me. Illness may have robbed me of the ability to physically join in the timeless celebration, but the eternal is always now, always present. Even the echoes of memory can call us back to that transcendent joy and eternal gratitude, even when we cannot experience the mystery in its ritual form.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

How Dare We?

Ancient Gnostics clearly had ritual practices. We have some texts used in rituals, we have texts discussing rituals, and we have descriptions and references to ritual practices. Ancient Gnostics also had groups. We know of no Gnostic hermits, no solitary practitioners. These groups did distinguish between individuals, just not by outward incidentals like gender. Someone beginning the path wasn't considered as capable of helping others as someone who learned from a teacher who had spent many years in study and service and who has spent many years doing this themselves. (Obvious, yes, but somehow overlooked by some.) There were Gnostic groups who had members who were clergy in the Christian church, holding holy orders that included that of bishop. These clergy served in that capacity and celebrated the mysteries/sacraments of the Christian church. None of this is speculation or a minority opinion, it is well documented history.

Yet, with regularity, the EG becomes the target of attacks by individuals who consider themselves to be Gnostics. This is always someone who has never been to a service, and who never bothers to actually speak to someone involved before conjuring up in his imagination the unadulterated evil that just has to be any church be it Gnostic or not. That is because, in their view, obviously all organized religion is evil, and so any church must be evil. In general, such critics are very new to Gnosticism and yet know from their armchairs with a shocking level of certainty that those of us who have been involved in studying Gnosticism and engaged in spiritual ministry, actually serving others, within the Gnostic tradition for decades are evil mustache-twirling villains for having a church or for wearing the traditional vestments of Western Christianity, or pet peeve x or y. How dare we? We dare fine. How dare you?

As they seem to strain their imaginative capability in this situation in conjuring up their imaginary evil Gnostic church, I decided to help out with a little theme song ditty for them to use. To the tune of "Every Sperm is Sacred" from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life:

Every church is caustic,
Every church I hate.
If a church is Gnostic,
I get quite irate.

Every church is toxic,
Is evil unalloyed.
If a church is Gnostic,
It must be destroyed.

Such a view is plainly inconsistent with, if not contrary to, what we know from the history and texts of the Gnostic tradition. So, why are modern Gnostics who act like ancient Gnostics viewed as evil by neophytes who are self-identified as Gnostics? And, why are they so hell-bent to prosecute, and generally so arrogant, certain, and angered into near incoherence? We can understand it in different ways.

One way is to view it as a reaction, an hyper-vigilant self-defense. Few people get through early life without a negative encounter with a restrictive orthodox religion. In an over-generalized reaction, all of religion, or at least what reminds one of the negative encounter, becomes something to avoid and to warn others away from. Since this isn't a rational conscious process, it is an irrational unconscious one. Sure, the conclusions arrived at from this irrational unconscious process might be put forward with attempts at rationalization, but such are incomplete or incoherent—as they are added after the fact and only "convince" if one shares the prejudice.

Another way to view it is by looking at the issue of identity. When looking at identity the main psychological locus is the ego. There is an ego investment in whatever the ego identifies with. What is identified with is defended as if it were oneself. There is also a process more like ego divestment, anything seen as unacceptable to oneself is split off and projected onto something else. In depth psychology, this split off unacceptable part is called the shadow. Since the shadow cannot be accepted as a part of oneself, it is projected, like on a movie screen, and so seen as the evil or terrible other one cannot get away from because it is not an other but oneself.

This explains the choice of attacking the EG rather than any of the many denominations that might actually fit the bill as exclusive, authoritarian, and orthodox in structure. In regards to those, there is no element of identity, so the shadow is projected upon them, but there is no sense of urgency, no personal component. However, a Gnostic church has that personal component for someone identified with Gnosticism, and so it is personal for them, calling for urgent condemnation without need for any facts to support the condemnation. Seeing one's own shadow projected upon the other is enough.

Confronted with these modern heresiologists with some regularity, it is an interesting question of how to respond. Not responding is an option, of course. Since these individuals are fighting with themselves, literally shadow boxing, there is no pressing reason to become involved. Yet, having gone through this type of process myself, and having some wonderful examples that helped me free myself from vestiges of my own projections: I feel that if there is hope of aiding such individuals in a similar way, then there is an obligation to try.

Such aid should only be attempted if you are not yourself personally the recipient of the shadow projection. In that situation any direct action you can take will only make matters worse--if they can get worse. This is probably also the case when you are a member of a group that is the recipient of the shadow projection. So, I acknowledge that I have probably made a mistake recently in this regard. The only saving factor is that, as they were, matters really couldn't get any worse in that particular situation.

Radio Interview Tonight

Tonight I will be interviewed on Salt Lake City's KRCL RadioActive program from 6-7 PM. The theme will be introducing Gnosticism. If you are local, you can hear it on 90.9 FM. If not local you can hear it on They also make a podcast version available on that site for about a week afterward.

Update: I enjoyed the interview and the feedback has been positive. I'll include a link to the podcast when it becomes available.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Gnostcism and the gods

"I know this idea isn't central to Gnosticism and historically the gods of various pantheons (Zeus, Odin, Thor, etc.) don't play a part in Gnostic lore. But how would a Gnostic explain or interpret the gods according to their own mythology? I've been reading about aeons and archons, and it seems to me that most of them would fit in with the latter.

"From the various books and websites I've looked over, it sounds like opinions differ on whether the demiurge and archons are evil or just ignorant of what exists above them. If so, perhaps the more enlightened among the gods would be reaching for Gnosis as well?"
Aeons are emanations of the highest divinity, and so are aspects of that transcendent divinity, akin to Kabbalistic sefiroth. They often have allegorical names.

Archons are powers in the cosmos, and so are more like the classical understanding of gods and daemons. It is a distinction of genus, the nature and origin. In the generic plural form, Gnostic texts tend to view Archons as detrimental to liberation due to their ignorant exercise of power. However, in the texts that give accounts of the creation of the cosmos, there are individual archons who immediately recognize the truth when it is told to them by Sophia and leave the service of the demiurge. Even the demiurge may eventually give up his willful ignorance.

Abraxas is an interesting figure. He is described as an archon in the secondary literature, yet is a figure who unites the opposites of the cosmos and aids one in transcending the cosmos. So, there are powers in the world that not only recognize the need for Gnosis, but also aid humans in attaining it.

From a Gnostic perspective the figures of ancient pantheons are not theologically defined entities, but something that we experience as beings. They are not a matter of belief, but of encounter. We may encounter and experience what the ancient peoples who described these pantheons and deities encountered and experienced. All are not necessarily detrimental to us, and so may be beneficial to us in a limited way. The key factor is that they are limited. But this is the ancient view of such beings as well.

What are gods from a polytheist perspective may be archons from a Gnostic perspective--but they are the same beings, largely understood in the same way. The way of understanding this is similar to that in Tibetan Buddhism, in that the mission of conversion to Buddhism in Tibet is described as including the teaching and conversion of the individual deities there. And that these deities are still honored, they may even aid one in seeking enlightenment, but, they are understood within the larger framework.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

2009 Gnostic Calendar

Now in its fourth year, the first Calendar for Gnostics! Yet, it also appeals to others seeking spiritual liberation.

The calendar features the Liturgical Calendar of the Ecclesia Gnostica. Facing pages feature original art and commentary on Gnostic themes by a Gnostic Priest. This year's themes include a series on the Mystery traditions, Simon Magus & Helen, Lazarus, Psyche, Gnosis, and more. It also includes quotes from Gnostic texts and almost all the authors noted. It is truly a unique calendar with a great deal of more content than any other calendar.

Order your 2009 Gnostic Calendar here