The dark, gnarly side
Gnostic Mass transfixes, turns on
Carl Jung said that the way to light is through darkness. This is a comforting thought as I arrive at a dark house in Del Paso Heights where I’ll be attending my first Gnostic Mass, a ceremony celebrating the principles of the religion known as Thelema.
I knew enough about Thelema, founded by British bad boy Aleister Crowley, to dress appropriately for the occasion: black turtleneck and boots, and even some shadowy lipstick for good measure. And sure enough, the young man at the door has the gothic look down cold, complete with sable eyeliner and vampiric pallor. He shows me to a sitting room, where a heated debate is taking place over the occult roots of Thelema and Paganism. I sit quietly in an armchair until the man closest to me turns to introduce himself. He’s Robert, the local lodge master. He says that tonight’s Mass is the central public ritual of the Ordo Templi Orientis, which is “a religious and magical initiatory fraternity” dedicated to the Law of Thelema, the revelation Crowley received in 1904.
If you know the name Crowley, chances are you’ve heard some pretty gnarly rumors: An infamous hedonist who openly experimented with drugs and sex magick, he was dubbed “The Wickedest Man in the World” and called himself “The Beast” from the Book of Revelations. He was the first Westerner to write about yoga—which in Victorian England was enough to be considered a Satanist—and is viewed as prophet of the “New Aeon,” or the new age in spiritual revolution. His teachings emphasize discovery and pursuit of one’s true will, encapsulated in the phrase “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”
A long-haired Wiccan woman and various men still grapple esoteric mysteries when a robed man appears to ask me if I’d prefer wine or water for the Eucharist. I figure if I’m going to do this, I might as well do it right: wine. I follow 20 other attendees (including Robert’s 7-year-old son) into a backyard temple, where we sit in chairs lined against the north and south walls facing a candlelit room.
Anyone familiar with the Catholic Mass will notice similarities. The Gnostic symbolism, however, leans more toward taboo than tradition. A deacon opens the ceremony standing between a small altar of incense and a font, proclaims the Law of Thelema, and recites the Gnostic creed, ending with a resounding om. A guy in the audience beats out a primal rhythm on a hand drum as the Priestess and two acolytes, called “children,” enter from a side room and walk a serpentine pattern of figure eights until stopping before a veiled “tomb” situated in the west.
The Priestess (played by a bewitching Thelemite named Anna) opens the tomb and reveals the Priest. She brings him to life, purifies him with a mixture of water and salt, and crowns him. Kneeling, she begins the consecration of his lance. Very gently, very slowly, she runs her hands up and down the shaft, invoking the Lord. Up and down, up and down, 11 times.
I’m transfixed. I’m a bit uncomfortable. I’m … turned on.
The Priest and Priestess then trade roles, with him leading her to a high altar in the east and raising her up, both literally and metaphorically. The ceremony concludes with the consummation of the sacrament. One by one each congregant, accompanied by a drum beat, approaches the altar, accepts a “Cake of Light,” and drinks a goblet of wine or water. The drum stops, the individual turns to the audience, crosses arms over chest, and proclaims, “There is no part of me that is not of the gods.”
I am one of the last to go. I approach the altar with veiled self-consciousness and, placing a wafer on my tongue, face the Priestess. Her eyes glow in the candlelight. For a moment, I feel as though I am indeed gazing at a mystical embodiment of feminine power fit for adoration. Then the nervousness returns and, after downing the goblet of wine, I turn to the shadowed, candle-flickering room. The drum halts, and I declare my divinity.
As corny as it feels, I believe it.MUSIC