by ☩ Stephan A. Hoeller
Regionary Bishop, Ecclesia Gnostica
The Mass, or, as it is sometimes called, the divine liturgy or the Eucharist, is the most solemn of all the Christian sacraments. Through it we are led step by step to the purpose of our earthly lives — union with the divine — for at its climax the faithful are made one with God and each other by receiving the body and blood of Christ under the earthly forms of bread and wine.
Although these mystical aspects of the Mass have been known and proclaimed by all the branches of Christendom that have not abandoned the ancient sacramental system (including the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and, with some ambiguities, the Anglican), the rationalistic tendencies that have arisen since the Second Vatican Council in the Roman Catholic Church are robbing the Mass of much of its numinosity and psychospiritual utility.
Similarly, many in the occult, metaphysical, and New Age movements have little appreciation for the magic and mystery of the time-honored sacramental system of Christianity and within it for the supreme sacrament of the Mass. The older of these movements bear the imprint of nineteenth-century thinking, which was hyperintellectual, moralistic, and at times materialistic. The groups that have sprung up since the 1960’s are a bit more favorably disposed toward ritual than their predecessors, but their appreciation of the sacraments is still small. Much of alternative spirituality is thus in danger of losing touch with one of the most valuable aspects of the mystico-magical heritage of the West.
To be sure, there are valid objections to ritual. Its practice has often been accompanied by blind superstition. Still, it must be remembered that a lack of consciousness will regularly turn meaningful and transformative practices into superstitious ones. The fault is not with the ritual, but with the practitioner. Ritual, provided it uses authentic symbols, is no more or less than what H.P. Blavatsky called “concretized truth.” This may be covered up by superstition, but the hidden truth is always discernable beneath the covering. Gnostic studies of the sacraments are intended to free the kernel of truth from the accretions of unconsciousness and misunderstanding that have been permitted to obscure it.
In the following we shall deal with several separate approaches to the greatest of the Christian mysteries. Some of these may contradict each other, while others tend to complement one another, and still others will restate truths present in other approaches.
Dogmatic and Rationalistic Views
The non-Gnostic church after the third and fourth centuries A.D. regarded the Eucharist as a commemoration of the meal Jesus is said to have shared with his apostles, where he is said to have blessed bread and wine, admonishing those present to do the same in remembrance of him. Christendom made it into dogma that Jesus mystically changed these substances into his body and blood and gave authority to his apostles to perform the same sacred miracle until the end of time. The mystery of the Eucharist was thus transferred to the mental realm of belief, although mythic elements continued to subsist under the façade of dogma. Protestant Christendom gradually came to deny this mystically inspired and mythically reinforced dogma. The Eucharist became a mere memorial meal, a sign rather than a symbol.
Today, the Roman Catholic Church is undergoing an internal reformation whose effects on the Mass are not unlike those produced by the revolt of Luther and Calvin. Twenty-five years ago one could still observe nuns herding their small charges to the communion rail while admonishing them, “Don’t chew the Baby Jesus,” while today almost all awe and reverence for the Mass and the consecrated elements seem to have evaporated. Kneeling for communion, receiving the sacrament on the tongue, and other ancient rules reflecting numinous dignity have gone by the wayside. A traditionalist-inspired pun declares that the present Mass ought to be spelled “mess,” and this writer tends to agree.
The trivialization and desacralization of the Mass are but a natural outcome of the intellectualization of this mystery, which in essence began at the time Constantine established the church and the church established its dogmas, while casting out the Gnosis. The mind is the slayer of the real; numinous myth and transcendental mystery cannot survive rationalism, whether in the form of Aristotelian theology or in the shape of the modernism of Hans Küng and his fellows. Dogma is the murder of mystery, even if it takes centuries for the victim to die.
The Mass As Sacred Mystery Drama
The mysteries in the pre-Christian era were elaborately devised ritual dramas contrived to intensify the spiritual transformation of the initiate. They were usually patterned after the mythic life, death, and resurrection of a particular deity to whom the mystery was dedicated. The candidate was usually made to symbolically undergo certain events in the life story of the hero. This is still evident in the initiation rituals of Freemasonry, particularly in the sublime degree of Master Mason, where the candidate undergoes the death and rising again of the Masonic hero Hiram Abiff.
It does not take much imagination to see in the Christian Mass the elements of the same ritual drama, wherein the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are symbolically reenacted by the priests and worshippers. The fact that the Eucharist is a mythic dramatization of the career of Jesus has been recognized by the church for a very long time. As Pope Innocent III stated, “The Mass is arranged upon a plan so well conceived that everything done by Jesus Christ or concerning Him, from His Incarnation to His Ascension, is there largely contained either in words or in actions, wonderfully presented.”
The Gnostic would contend that this is undoubtedly true, but that the reenactment of the drama does not concern the historical Jesus alone, but involves the Divine Man resident in each human being. Myth is truer and more powerful than history, and the events in the life of Jesus are elevated to mythic significance by the symbolic relation of his drama to the drama of the transforming human spirit. As Joseph Campbell said, the Mass is “a metaphor open to transcendence,” and as such it is capable of miraculous effects in transforming not only bread and wine, but the human personality as well. The great fault of non-Gnostic Christianity has always been to reduce myth with a meaning to history with a moral, and this is what happened to the Mass at the hands of the theologians.
The pagans of antiquity were convinced that humans could undergo apotheosis, that they could become gods and goddesses. The Mass is closely connected with this process, since in its mysteries earthly substances are transmuted into divine ones, and, more important, humans may be similarly transformed in their psychospiritual natures. The ancient Gnostics for the most part seem to have held that Jesus was a human being who, very much like a hero in the pagan tradition, became divine as a result of his spiritual virtue. Jesus the hero became Christ the God. (This event is said to have been finalized, as it were, on the occasion of the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, which was called the Epiphany, or the manifestation of Christ to the world.)
The imitatio Christi, when understood as copying the moral qualities of the Christed Jesus, borders on absurdity. How could a fallible mortal imitate the Divine One descended to earth? On the other hand, the main body of the liturgical work of the church is involved in an imitation of a different order. In the church calendar the events of the life of Jesus are relived, from Christmas to Ascension and beyond. The four-day cycle of Easter (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday) is an intense reliving of the core drama of the Passion and resurrection. And the celebration of the Eucharist is a daily reenactment of this same drama, fortified by the mystical communion one may partake of with the hero himself. The imitation of Christ is the deification, the transformation, of the human being, and the Mass continues to be the most efficacious means of that transformation, at least as far as the Christian tradition is concerned. Only Gnosis, experienced within the Gnostic tradition, discloses this fact to us in all its promise and wonder.
The Mass As Magic
Ritual that reenacts authentic mythic themes always possesses a magic of its own. While magic may be anathema to the rationalist, it is an old friend to the lover of myth and ritual. The magic of the Mass is the operational effect of the lived myth upon the participants. People can have visions, experience expansions of consciousness, undergo healing, and engage in effective prayer during the Mass. Still, to overemphasize the magical element of this rite would be inaccurate, and would put one in the same league as the person who defined the combustion engine as “noise, speed, and stink.” It is wise to have a balanced attitude toward this issue and to refrain from any attempt either to rob the Mass of its magic or to turn it into ceremonial magic pure and simple. (The much-publicized but rather infrequent phenomenon of the Black Mass is an example of the latter.)
The magical aspects of the mystery are acknowledged in the very liturgy of the Eucharist itself: Prayers are said for the living, for the dead, for particular intentions. It has always been considered legitimate for persons attending the Eucharist to pray for private concerns. On the other hand, one ought to participate in the mystery of the Mass for its own sake, and not in order to “get results” of any particular kind. If one comes only to obtain specific favors from the deity, this would interfere with the nature and amount of grace received. Eventually one would miss the true significance of the Mass entirely. A mystery of such magnitude should never be allowed to degenerate into a forum for airing petty concerns in the face of transcendence.
C.W. Leadbeater, the theosophist and Liberal Catholic bishop, in his work The Science of the Sacraments, made some fascinating observations on the magic of the Mass. With his paranormal faculties Leadbeater perceived certain recurring patterns of forces not ordinarily visible that manifested at each celebration of the Eucharist. The pattern seemed to organize itself into a form that described as a sort of structure resembling a spire or cupola.
Personal experience of the writer may be of interest in this connection. About 1948 or 1949, the writer acted as a part-time assistant to a Roman Catholic prelate in Austria, Abbot Alois Wiesinger, O.Cist., who was writing a book on occult phenomena. While perusing the abbot’s files he discovered a drawing prepared some years before by a rural seer, representing a form clairvoyantly perceived by the seer every time the Mass was said in the village church. Some six or seven years later the writer discovered a representation of the “Eucharistic edifice” in Leadbeater’s book. It matched the Austrian one in eerie detail! Moreover, the chances of an illiterate Alpine peasant ever having encountered Leadbeater’s book are very small. That two persons of such different characters should have perceived the same structure of magical forces in the Eucharist is evidence that cannot be easily dismissed.
But this magical attitude toward the Mass must be kept in bounds also. People may be tempted to participate in it in order to take a sort of “astral shower bath” while neglecting the devotion that is required to receive sacramental grace.
C.G. Jung and the Mass
That great modern representative of the Gnosis, C.G. Jung, had a great interest in the Christian sacraments, particularly in the Mass. He repeatedly stated that he considered Catholicism a far more complete religion than its Protestant counterparts. The mystery of the sacraments, said Jung, had great value, and produced a degree of psychological health among Catholics that was not found among Protestants and atheists. (One wonders whether he would have made the same statement about the post-Vatican II church, with its folk Masses and burlap vestments.)
Jung contended that the Eucharistic sacrifice contained a vital mystery that was not entirely negated by the dogmatic structure in which it was veiled:
The ritual act [of the Mass] consecrates both the gift and the givers. It commemorates and represents the Last Supper which our Lord took with His disciples, the whole Incarnation, Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. But from the point of view of the divine, this anthropomorphic action is only the outer shell of husk in which what is really happening is not a human action at all but a divine event. 1
Jung emphasizes that those involved in the celebration of the Mass are ministering causes of the divine event. The priest does not cause the mystery; he is merely a minister of grace and power. The same is true of the congregation and of the seemingly inert substances of bread and wine. The Mass is not an action executed by humans, but by divinity.
To revert to magical terminology once again, there are two main categories of magic. Low magic is personalistic and egotistical: It envisions its operators as the causes of magical acts. But when humans become the ministering agents of divinity, having mystically sensed that divinity wants to manifest itself through humanity, then we are dealing with high magic.
According to Jung, the Mass, when properly understood, is best treated as an act of high magic. In this regard he wrote:
Wherever the [low] magical aspect of a rite tends to prevail, it brings the rite nearer to satisfying the individual ego’s blind greed for power, and thus breaks up the mystical body of the Church into separate units. Where on the other hand, the rite is conceived as the action of God himself, the human participants have only an incidental or “ministering” significance.2
Jung does go on to state that the lesser, human consciousness, symbolized by the priest and the congregation, is confronted with a situation that is independent of human action. Divinity and its sacrificial mystery exist on a plane that is timeless and transcends consciousness as humans know it. It impels the human being to act as a minister of grace by making him an exponent, in time and among humanity, of an event that is timeless and divine.
Jung’s attitude differs, commendably, I believe, from the prosaic, humdrum interpretation offered by rationalizing theologians, who reduce this sublime mystery to the trivial proportions of their own thinking. It also differs from the arrogance of some New Age teachers, who insist upon humans “creating their own reality.”
Humility in the face of transcendence; this is Jung’s great characteristic as a man, and it is also his advice to us. “The hammer cannot discover within itself the power which makes it strike,” as he remarked in the essay quoted above. What seizes the human being in the mystery of the Mass or in any other mystery is something outside humanity: a sovereign power, as free from limitation as light is from darkness. Ordinary human consciousness cannot find anything within itself that would cause humans to perform a mystery. It can only do so when it is seized by the mystery.
The human soul is at once near and far from the divine. On the one hand we are all suffering from the great alienation, the great estrangement; yet there also dwells within is a portion of the free and eternal one who is forever united with all that is holy, great, and good throughout the aeons of aeons. The dazzling spark of the divine lives in the outermost darkness. When viewed from without, it appears clothed in darkness, having assumed some of the likeness of this darkness. The Gnostic myth declares that the sparks of our indwelling divinity have come forth from a central flame, and that they partake of two aspects: They have the quality of “sparks” (separateness) and of “flames” (union) at the same time. (This recognition is in fact the central idea behind the much-discussed Gnostic “dualism.”)
In addition to the views of the mass discussed above, there is also the notion that this mystery is of the nature of a sacrifice. The sacrifice, in its Gnostic sense, involves the return of the alienated spark to its original flame. Neither philosophy, metaphysics, nor dogma can accomplish this longed-for union, for it is not a matter of concept but of experience. If we wish to join our shining twin in heaven by removing the dichotomy, we must do a work, an opus, as the alchemists of old would have called it. We must offer the bread and wine of our lesser nature to a power from above, so that this human self may be transformed into the likeness and indeed the substance of the wholly other, the alien God, the One beyond and above all the aeons, who in some utterly mysterious way is still our own, true, inmost Self. God in man returns to himself in the sacrificial mystery. As Jung expressed it:
The dichotomy of God into divinity and humanity and his return to himself in the sacrificial act hold out the combbforting doctrine that in man’s own darkness there is hidden a light that shall once again return to its source, and that this light actually wanted to descend into the darkness in order to deliver the Enchained One who languishes there, and lead him to light everlasting.3
This return is not an act that can ever be performed by the lesser human consciousness. This lesser self can only offer itself as an instrument, an offering on the eucharistic altar of Gnosis. Words cannot describe, thoughts cannot penetrate, senses cannot perceive the true character of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (awesome and bewitching mystery) enacted on the altar. Only the still mind, the reverent emotion, and the pure will directed toward the goal of divine union can bring us closer to the secret that blazes forth at the center of the mystery. Myths may bring us nearer, magic may illuminate, philosophy may elucidate, but the mystery remains, as it must, for it is in us and we are in it.
This article originally appeared in Gnosis: A Journal of Western Inner Traditions, (Vol. 11, Spring 1989).
- C.G. Jung, “Transformation Symbolism in the Mass,” in Eranos Yearbooks, Vol. 2: The Mysteries (New York: Pantheon Books, 1955), p. 314.
- Ibid., p. 314.
- Ibid., p. 317.