The Gnosis of the Eucharist

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).

NOTES

  1. C.G. Jung, “Transformation Symbolism in the Mass,” in Eranos Yearbooks, Vol. 2: The Mysteries (New York: Pantheon Books, 1955), p. 314.
  2. Ibid., p. 314.
  3. Ibid., p. 317.

Introductory Reading

A Gnostic Catechism

REVISED EDITION AVAILABLE NOW

by Stephan A. Hoeller

A compendium of instruction of the Gnostic framework, tenets and mythos, arranged in question and answer form. A Gnostic by definition is a knower, which carries no implication of dogmatism, as intuitive knowledge and direct experience supersede belief.

The Mystery and Magic of the Eucharist

REVISED EDITION AVAILABLE NOW

by Stephan A. Hoeller

Outlining and “explaining” the liturgy, the ritual phases and the mystic and symbolic elements of the Gnostic Holy Eucharist, a profoundly moving religious rite, the sacrament central to 2,000 years of Christian practice and worship.


Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing

by Stephan A. Hoeller

The history of Gnosticism as an unfolding drama of passion, intrigue, martyrdom, and mystery. Dr. Hoeller traces this fascinating story through time, showing how Gnosticism has inspired such great thinkers as Voltaire, William Blake, W. B. Yeats, Herman Hesse, Herman Melville, and C. G. Jung.

The Gnostic Gospels

by Elaine Pagels

Landmark study of the long-buried roots of Christianity, a work of luminous scholarship and wide popular appeal. First published in 1979 to critical acclaim, winning the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

A Gnostic Book of Hours: Keys to Inner Wisdom

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A recasting of the wisdom found in these texts into a book of hours, the traditional framework for an ongoing meditative practice, inspiring an awareness of the presence of the divine mystery within the everyday world.

Renewal of Life

A Homily for New Year’s Day

by Bishop Steven Marshall

The New Year’s holiday is part of the progression of the Christmas season. Occurring subsequent to the winter solstice, Christmas and the New Year have similar significance as the rebirth of the light and the renewal of life at the darkest time in the semester of the sun’s waxing. The birth of the new year, like the holy birth of Christmas, is symbolized as a child, the birth of the infant light. Many old European customs and celebrations reflect the symbolism of the child during this beginning of the new year. One such custom is the election of the Children’s Bishop (episcopus puerorum). The elected child would dress up as a bishop, journey in children’s procession to the archbishop’s palace, and from a window in the palace, give a pontifical blessing upon the entire gathering.

New Year’s Day occurs in the Christmas cycle as one the twelve days of Christmas, the period between the ending of the lunar calendar and the beginning of the solar year, a time betwixt and between, a time of misrule when the usual rules and authorities of the world are suspended. It is a time of temporary chaos, confusion, celebration, and breaking down of old established forms to make way for a new light and new resolutions, the eternal new-born child of the year. These twelve days represent an opportunity for a psychological and spiritual renewal as well.

The Children’s Bishop was also called the fatuorum papam, the Fool’s Pope. At this time of the new year people would celebrate the festum stultorum (feast of fools). During this feast, a servant at court or, more often, the court fool would serve as the Lord of the Misrule in place of the usual head of the manor. The Lord of Misrule would rule for the one night of the feast and entertain the assembled guests with the making of foolish and madcap rules for everyone to follow. In the reversal of the relationship of the ruler to the ruled, a reversal of conventions and values also occurred.

The Lord of Misrule has a function similar to that of the medieval fool, whose task it was to mock authority and give a humorous and compensatory perspective to the convention of rulers and rulership. His task is also to point out the absurdities of convention by poking fun at the head of the court and keeping the conventional authorities from getting too puffed up with themselves.

The Gnostic in the world has a role similar to the role of the fool in medieval society. The role of the Gnostic is sometimes to reverse the conventional view of reality, to turn the wisdom of the world on its head, like the image of the Hanged Man in the Tarot with his radiant nimbus and beatific smile. The Gnostic writings often point out the absurdities of the conventional figure of Jehovah and reverse the interpretation of the Old Testament myths. The values of the world and the spiritual values of the Gnostic are often contrary. Even so, the values of unconscious are often polarized to the values of the conscious persona as well.

The “Time of Misrule” provides an opportunity for entering into the unconscious, so that something greater may come into consciousness, so that a greater consciousness might come to birth. The writings of Hermes Trismegistus describe a technique for bringing forth this birth of consciousness. “Your consciousness is in God; draw it into yourself, and it will appear; will, and it takes birth; suspend the senses of the body and the birth of the Godhead takes place.” Suspending the senses of the body breaks down the world that the lesser self (ego) has built up. The breaking up of the ego’s conventional structures for obtaining information allows consciousness to bring in and assimilate the birth of greater consciousness. This is the way of the birth of the Divine Life within. As stated in a Valentinian homily, “Those who dissolve the world and are not dissolved themselves are lords of all creation and destruction.”

The ego in the psyche has a function similar to the Gnostic Demiurge, which means “architect.” Like an architect, the ego creates an ongoing stream of worlds and ideas, but they are artificial creations. There is a difference between an artificial creation, lacking life and consciousness, and a creation to which we have given birth. The process does not so much involve a dissolution of the ego itself but a dissolving of the world that the ego has artificially created out of error and ignorance. Consciousness must overcome the four functions of the ego: sensing, thinking, feeling and intuition; it must overcome the power of the four elements in order to enter the stillness and silence of Midwinter where, in the hush of the night, in our own soul, the spiritual birth takes place.

The Hermetic writings state that the body of Gnosis is built by an inner purification through the mercy of God. “But first you must purify yourselves from the mindless torments of matter, one of which is ignorance, though there are many others, which force the man who is confined to the prison of the body to suffer by way of the passions. But these at once depart from him on whom God has had mercy, and so the body of Gnosis in man is built.” The ego persona can not manufacture the body of Gnosis by way of its own creations. The process of giving birth to a greater consciousness within us is not under our ego control; it requires the grace of God for the miracle of spiritual rebirth to occur. Yet it also requires an act of will on our part, a fervent intention, a desire for this change to occur.

In interpreting this passage, we must meditate on the rising above or transcendence of the passions of the body. This is not at all the same as the repression of the bodily appetites with which most of us in our Puritan culture are well acquainted. In many ways the path of rebirth is the reversal of the Puritanical repression of the bodily passions. In repression we are exerting the control of our lesser wills; in transcendence we are invoking and receiving the grace of a higher Self within us, that takes us to a still place where, like in the hush of midwinter, the new birth comes about in us. “This is the way of true rebirth. And now my child be still, and keep solemn silence; and thus will the grace from God not cease to come upon us.” Kyrie Eleison. “O lord, pour forth thy grace upon us.”

As in the Hermetic Literature, C. G. Jung was also very much inspired by the subject of rebirth in Gnosticism:

“When a summit of life is reached, when the bud unfolds and from the lesser the greater emerges, then as Nietzsche says, “One becomes Two,” and the greater figure, which one always was but which remained invisible, appears to the lesser personality with the force of a revelation. He who is truly and hopelessly little will always drag the revelation of the greater down to the level of his littleness, and will never understand that the day of judgment for his littleness has dawned. But the man who is inwardly great will know that the long expected friend of his soul, the immortal one, has now really come, “to lead captivity captive”; that is, to seize hold of him by whom this immortal had always been confined and held prisoner, and to make his life flow into that greater life—a moment of deadliest peril.”

In the above quote we hear echoes of the insights contained in the Hermetic writings about rebirth. Here Jung describes the rebirth in relation to a summit of life. This suggests the transitions and passages that we experience in our lives. It also implies the need to transcend the “little will” and the “lesser personality” to make this transition from the lesser into the greater life. These changes and transitions are often painful and entail a letting go of a previous state in order for a new state to appear. In such a fashion, there is a mystical death before the interior and spiritual rebirth. How this spiritual rebirth differs from many life passages is that the aftermath of our suffering and loss transports us to a place of greater consciousness where the pain and sorrow is transcended. As promised in the Revelation of St John: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes and their shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be anymore pain.”

In order for all things to made new, the former things must pass away. The consummation of Gnostic rebirth gives us a way to transcend the sense of loss and pain, and to make the transitions and passages in our lives occasions for renewal and joy. We can consummate this rebirth by becoming the dwelling place for the interior God and the greater life. The Revelation of St John proclaims, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.” According to Jewish mystical writings the Tabernacle of God is dwelling of the Shekinah, the feminine presence of God. In the Gnostic writings She is Sophia, the Holy Spirit, the Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem. She is described as a city, a community of people not built by human hands, a fellowship of knowers. The fifth Gnostic Mystery describes this mystical fellowship in terms of a new birth of the light within our hearts.

“Behold a small star from the heavens descends to earth with light more brilliant than the sun. It comes to dwell in the hearts of the children of men and women, and these hearts are the foundation upon which is built the Eternal City, New Jerusalem.”

So this renewal in which there is no more pain, comes through the hearts of those in an invisible fellowship of Gnosis and in community with each other. If we care for each other through the passages, we can make them occasions for renewal and joy. Consciously will, desire and intend with inner resolve and the birth of the Godhead takes place within the tabernacle of our hearts. As we go into the New Year let us make our resolutions not on the basis of worldly expectations but on the true grace of insight and resolve that comes from the divine light within us. So may we prepare a place in our hearts and in our community for the mystical rebirth to take place. Then we shall proclaim with our Indwelling Divinity, “…for the former things are passed away. Behold, I make all things new.”


Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.