By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
We are through the looking glass, and the disorientation can be profound. But to attend a Sunday mass at the old Ecclesia Gnostica, you’d have been forgiven for not noticing right away. Most of the liturgy would be familiar to any Catholic, as would the vestments worn by Bishop Hoeller and his clergy. Only the place, and perhaps the parishioners, would make you feel you had picked the wrong door and wandered into a catacomb art-directed by David Lynch and populated with extras cast by Tim Burton.
There were no flying buttresses or gothic arches at 4516 Hollywood Blvd, only a low-ceilinged, rectangular room barely 24-by-12-feet, appointed with images of the Babylonian prophet Mani and the psychoanalytic pioneer Carl Gustav Jung, a draped flag bearing a Templar cross, and an array of chivalric symbols and Christian icons suggestive of a mode of worship far removed in time. For a resident of daylight Los Angeles, arriving with Starbucks cup in hand, the very act of crossing the threshold could seem both furtive and daring, like entering a graveyard after midnight for a rendezvous or crashing a very private wedding party. But heads never turned to regard the trespasser, either with false welcome or slit-eyed suspicion. One could enter and leave for months, as I did, without getting busted. It was a genuine sanctuary.
The parishioners, in those days never more than the room could accomodate, were as off-center as the locale. Generally over 30, almost invariably unaccompanied, they were the people of the periphery, those you glimpse in the rearview mirror. The people whose names you never learn: the tall Asian gentleman whose mystique was undiminished by his frayed collar; the pretty, pensive young woman, her jaw tight with some concealed anguish; the spinster in the high-collared dress who had probably read every book in the library. Quiet people, but not conformists. They had two qualities in common: They were introverts in an extroverted culture, and thereby misfits, and they had faces that spoke of a somewhat endangered species of intelligence.
The Hollywood Ecclesia Gnostica filled with incense and plainsong as Hoeller entered, wearing his lavender skullcap and preceded by the cross, just as it does now each Sunday morning in its new (and considerably more spacious) digs in Atwater Village. The Mass proceeds as it has for centuries with a Collect (the call to worship), a Lesson, a reading from the Gospel, at first glance distinguished from the ritual of Saint Peter’s Church only by the presence of both male and female clergy. But if you listen well, odd things begin to present themselves to your ears, as if the well-known liturgy were mutating in the heat of the sacrament.
Here, for instance, is the Gnostic take on the prayer known to all Catholics as the Hail Mary (“Hail Mary, full of grace . . .”):
“Hail, Sophia, filled with light, the Christ is with Thee. Blessed art Thou among the Aeons, and blessed is the liberator of Thy light, Jesus. Holy Sophia, Mother of all gods, pray to the light for us, Thy children, now and in the hour of our death. Amen.”
On any given Sunday, such new strains of liturgical DNA emerge from the Mass, with an effect that’s a good, working definition of subversive. Today, four Sundays after Easter 2005, Bishop Hoeller opens the service with a whispered invocation that might almost slip the radar of an inattentive Grand Inquisitor:
“In the name of the unknown Father of the universe, in truth Mother of us all.”
Some 40 congregants have assembled, nearly two-thirds of them female. Bishop Hoeller’s flock has grown, and although the numbers are small, it seems quite reasonable to think they’ve been debited from Cardinal Mahony’s side of the ecclesiastical ledger. It’s also impossible not to wonder how much of this spiritual gender gap might be owed to what Timemagazine will sooner or later dub “the Da Vinci Effect.”
The scriptural reading is from the Gnostic Gospel of Saint Philip, and the passage concludes this way:
“God created man and man created god. So it is in the world. Men make gods and they worship their creations. It would be more fitting for the gods to worship men.”
In a brief homily following Holy Communion, Hoeller, seated against the deep, star-sprinkled blue of the chapel’s rear wall, offers his take on this blasphemous bit of scripture, quoting Voltaire’s “God created Man and Man returned the favor,” and arguing, from personal experience, that no greater proof of mankind’s knack for blind worship exists than the events of the “Centum Terribilis,” the 20th century. As a child, Hoeller watched the demiurgic forces of Nazism and Stalinism come head-to-head in his native Hungary, and has not forgotten.
Stephan Hoeller grew up in wartime Budapest, the only child of an Austrian baron and a Hungarian countess, soon to see their ancestral estates appropriated by the Soviet cyclops. As Hoeller tells it, his devoutly Catholic parents were tolerant of his youthful fascination with the outlaw philosophies of Simon Magus, Valentinus, Basilides and others whose visions had gathered like vapors in the cauldron of second-century Alexandria. “Ah, well,” he says, conjuring his father’s voice. “So the boy is interested in an obscure heresy . . . let him explore. Perhaps one day he’ll write a book about it.” Indeed, Hoeller’s spiritual rebellion remained mostly academic through his teens. He went on to study for the Catholic priesthood in Austria and, briefly, in Rome itself. It was the conjunction of a chance personal encounter in postwar Belgium and a momentous discovery in Upper Egypt that fanned his own heretical spark into flame. Both events convinced him that the Gnostic tradition had withstood both the test of time and the slings and arrows of its persecutors.