Exile in Godville 

Profile of a postmodern heretic

Thursday, May 19 2005

On May 7, 2004, as dusk was falling, a plume of black smoke as big and ornery as a Texas twister rose above Los Angeles. And though no one later raved on local talk radio that he’d seen the face of the devil in the ominous cloud, a knowing onlooker in a sufficiently altered state might well have glimpsed the Whore of Babylon, the face of the eternal Rome to which Philip K. Dick referred when he famously wrote: “The Empire never ended.”

The rundown, two-story building at 4516 Hollywood Boulevard, which for 27 years had been the peculiar home of Bishop Stephan A. Hoeller’s Ecclesia Gnostica, was in flames. No one was injured, and the vessels of communion were salvaged, but unbeknownst to most, a landmark of hidden Hollywood had been lost. In this tiny hole-in-the-wall of a chapel, to the streetside accompaniment of bleating horns, sirens and the occasional gunshot, the gnomish and erudite Dr. Hoeller had held forth most every Friday night on subjects ranging from Kabbalah and Sufism to the psychedelic sacraments of Eleusis. And on each Sunday, he’d lighted the incense, donned his vestments and conducted a mass that was Catholic in all but its subtly subversive liturgy, for Hoeller is a Gnostic, and the sole American bishop consecrated by the Duc de Palatine, mysterious bearer of the English Gnostic Transmission.

The word is gnostic(nah-stick), from the Greek gnosis (inner knowledge), and as opposed to agnostics, who claim to know nothing of the divine, Gnostics are privy to a secret both terrible and wondrous. It is a knowledge that has kept them underground for 1,800 years, tarred as heretics by the Christian orthodoxy. It’s hard to say whether or not Cardinal Roger Mahony has ever heard of Stephan Hoeller, but it’s not difficult to imagine that there are nights when he wakes to see a shadow on the wall, an elfin shadow with a Beat Era goatee and a round belly. Gnosticism is the dog that nips at Rome’s heels, the orphaned child tugging at its cuffs, reminding the Church of what — and whom — it left behind. For nearly two millennia, the family secret was safely in the crypt, but in 1945, as we shall see, the ground shifted, and in the early years of our new century, thanks in some ironic measure to the very mainstream success of The Matrix and The Da Vinci Code, the vault burst open. Stephan Hoeller is the counter-cardinal of an L.A. nobody knows, and until last year’s fire destroyed his church, he was the bishop of Hollywood Boulevard.

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In less than one hour, the L.A. outpost of what one Catholic apologist has called “the most dreaded foe the Christian faith has ever confronted” was in ruins. The size and fury of the blaze belied its humble origins, but may have been attributable to what the LAPD suspects was a methamphetamine lab operating in an upstairs apartment. A junkie and her boyfriend had rented the flat for years, and therein lies an irony that would not be lost on Gnostic sensibilities. The fire that gutted Hoeller’s sanctuary was not lit by torch-bearing fundamentalists or commandos employed by Opus Dei, but was the consequence of a modern affliction engendered by the sorrow of being “trapped,” to paraphrase comic icon Howard the Duck, “in a world we never made.”

Like the Adam and Eve of Gnosticism’s alternative Genesis (see sidebar following article), the recipient of gnosis awakens one day to the sobering realization that the world we live in is, in Hoeller’s words, “the flawed creation of a flawed Creator,” and that we are “strangers, lost in a world that is ill-fitting and absurd.” From that moment on, perception is altered, belief is cast aside in favor of experience, dogma is abandoned and the search for the True God begins. Oh, yes, Virginia, there is a God, if not quite the God of your Fathers. This God would not bar you from the priesthood, or seek to keep you barefoot and pregnant, but this God also might not be invoked by a Tori Amos song. This God takes some getting used to.

If it’s not apparent how dangerous such an altered worldview is, and why it once led straight to dungeon and stake, consider this: Just as you can’t smoke a joint and take a politician seriously, you can’t experience gnosis and take the business of the world — producing and consuming — to be of terribly great consequence. Gnosticism embodies the eternal counterculture, and as with expansion of consciousness by any other means, it has always been a grave threat to the established order. In the Gnostic Genesis, not only is Eve the heroine and the serpent in effect her fairy godmother, but the tyrant of Eden is none other than Jehovah, the Old Testament God who would “have no others before him.” The Gnostics know him as the Demiurge — the “Half-Maker” — or Ialdabaoth. So who or what, then, is the God of the Gnostics? It is both aeons away, and closer than we think. It is, to quote Hoeller’s liturgy, “that whose name not but the silence can express.”

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