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The availability of the Nag Hammadi scriptures fueled Hoeller’s own epiphany, but gnosis, in his words, “originates in an experience of the psyche,” not the intellect. You can’t read your way to enlightenment. As a refugee in post-war Belgium, still not yet 20, he encountered “live Gnostics” affiliated with a revived French sect. These mysterious mentors, living in a Europe that still branded them heretics, befriended him and opened the door to the spiritual kindred he found when, in 1953, he was admitted to the USA as a “stateless person” and placed in the city of Los Angeles.
In 1958, Hoeller was ordained a priest of the American Catholic Church by the bishop of the Church of Saint Francis in Laguna Beach. The ACC was a schismatic branch, and decidedly not on the Vatican’s party list. A year later, Hoeller founded his own parish at Melrose and Western and christened it Ecclesia Gnostica, drawing a small congregation from attendees of his frequent lectures at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Feliz. In 1967, while down the street the Doors held court at the Whisky, a visiting British Gnostic prelate known as Richard, Duc de Palatine, dubbed Hoeller a bishop of the Pre-Nicene Gnostic Catholic Church. It was the Summer of Love, and as Hoeller puts it, Gnostics “looked with great interest on the consciousness-raising endeavors of the counterculture” for signs of a genuine revival of their tradition. He knew by then what to look for, for only a few years earlier, Hoeller himself had broken on through to the other side. His faith was now beyond belief. It was a matter of experience.
The vintage Beachwood Canyon apartment Hoeller has occupied for most of the 51 years since his arrival in Los Angeles is as paradoxical as its tenant. Scholarly but unstuffy; modest, yet adorned with emblems of a noble birth and memorabilia indicative of a nostalgia for vanished royalty. The living room is a library stocked with old, hardbound books that reflect a lifelong devotion to Jung and a youthful embrace of Theosophy and Freemasonry. In a room that honors French existentialists, psychedelic pioneers and even the institution of gay marriage, it is nonetheless not entirely surprising to spot a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker curled in the nut bowl, but for reasons as unconventional as David Lynch’s purported admiration for Ronald Reagan. You don’t find standard left-right polarities in the home of Gnostics: They are the quintessential contrarians, and Gnosticism transcends any convenient category. Wherever there is a too-easy consensus, the Gnostic in the room can be counted on to take exception. Then, too, there is the fact that young Stephan Hoeller saw his father shot point-blank by Joseph Stalin’s goons and left lying in a pool of his own blood.
In any case, a good Gnostic sees the world as the province of a bumbling, idiot son who mistakes himself for the real thing, so political affiliation may be a matter of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. These days, the word gnosticis on the wind, and on the sometimes windy breath of pop-culture pundits, so it seems a good time to learn from this learned man about the weirdly beautiful and unsettling worldview that gave him his calling.
I ask Hoeller about the recent revival of interest in Gnostic themes spawned by popular phenomena like the Matrixfilms and The Da Vinci Code,as well as Hollywood’s continuing dance with literary Gnostics like Philip K. Dick. At 73, Hoeller’s awareness of such things is keen, and he answers, “Well, I think that we need to remind ourselves, as Jung did, that pop culture is still culture, and that it reflects whatever is churning in the collective unconscious. Things got a bit muddy with all the millennium hubbub, but there are authentic expressions of the tradition out there. It’s a matter, as always, of separating the wheat from the chaff. One can only hope . . .” A rabbinical tilt of the head, a lifting of brows and a barely audible sigh follow, suggesting that Hoeller’s heavenly hopes are tempered by a worldly fatalism. If there is a Gnostic among A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Poohcharacters, it is most certainly Eeyore.
But then, beneath the bushy brows, there is a gleam in his eye, and when talk turns to The Matrix,it grows brighter. A scenario in which our everyday reality is a digitized illusion projected by malevolent overlords of AI.Shades of the Demiurge? “Yes,” Hoeller affirms. “The outlines are there. Especially in the first film, where this notion of a counterfeit reality in which we’re trapped, and a dark, manipulative will behind the veil, is clearly expressed. Neo seems to be a classic Gnostic seeker.”
There is something akin to the Hindu concept of mayain all this talk of veiling and illusion, and I ask him if it’s simply a matter, as the gurus say, of our failure to see things “rightly.” “Yes and no,” he answers. “As with Hinduism, the ‘righting’ of our perception comes with a change in consciousness. A jnana,which we call gnosis. But, in general, the Eastern religions don’t acknowledge that there are malign forces whose interests lie in maintaining the illusion — so well that most people never see it.”