Today I went to mass. I don’t usually go to masses unless someone I love is either getting married or being buried, but today was different. There’s a Gnostic sanctuary not far from where I live, and a friend of mine from Texas was in town today and wanted to meet there for mass, so off I went to meet her and check out the new Sanctuary.
A Gnostic mass is very different from the Catholic mass. For one thing, this Gnostic church celebrates wisdom, Sophia, from all sources, not just the Gnostic gospels. For another, symbolism of the Sacred Feminine is everywhere here. Below is a photo of the altar: not only is it beautiful with its candles and flowers and lovely plants with living ivy draping everywhere, but hanging above it is a painting of the Madonna and Child. There’s also a small statue of the Black Madonna below the painting, giving great resonance to the presence of the sacred Dark Mother in Her form as Mary Magdalene.
This tradition of Gnosticism isn’t mine, so I didn’t know the prayers or sing the songs. I sat in respectful silence in the darkened chapel and just let the beautiful singing and chanting wash over me. The whole setting was perfect even though just outside the doors were an industrial business park and a railroad junction. It was, it is, a small space of honoring our Holy Mother in the midst of a great, bustling, masculine world.
But perhaps I should go back a bit and explain things. I met my friend at the Sanctuary and we chatted for a bit before being allowed in to the Sanctuary. They had been having a singing practice prior to today’s Eucharist, so as we caught up and did our lady-chatting thing in the foyer, there was this ethereal background chorus of gorgeous voices drifting in from down the hall. Oh, and that’s another thing about this Gnostic Sanctuary: everybody sings. They’ve all got the most gorgeous voices, and it adds to the ceremony in ways that I’ve missed since leaving Catholicism behind. There’s a way that prayer drifts through the air differently when it’s sung than when it’s spoken, or maybe it just seems that way to me because I’ve never been able to carry more than three notes in my very limited vocal range. I’m loud, yes, and god bless the volume. I just don’t have melody or any sort of subtlety so I notice it when others do, especially when the surroundings are of the sacred sort.
The Sanctuary itself is cave-like, which is so perfect it’s almost ridiculous. When entering sacred space, one is basically entering the womb of creation into which intention is generated and supported. When one leaves sacred space, that intention or experience is “birthed” into being in the physical world of manifestation and we carry it with us when we leave. I remember first hearing this idea with regard to indigenous American practices with sweat lodges, and in pagan practices when casting circles. I’ve just never experienced it in a church of any denomination. Churches are built to have these great expanses of light, even during midnight masses with acres of lit candles everywhere. It’s almost as if the darkness must be banished from every corner of the church. But not in this sanctuary. It’s small with walls painted in dark shades of brick and brown, but the light shining on the altar and flickering from all the candles is softly gorgeous and creates an atmosphere of beautiful, quiet contemplation.
Tau Rosamonde Miller was the celebrant today. She is a soft-spoken bishop of the Gnostic church, and the Spirit flows through her in gently lilting, passionate language. She delivered a homily first, a quiet speech about what it means when we ask, “Who is God?” or “Who is like God?” It stuck with me most profoundly when she said that the idea isn’t to answer, but to sit with the mystery of that question, possibly because it sounded like such a Buddhist thing to say: do not reach for the answer. Do not grasp at words or language or discernable ideas, but instead, sit with the experience of the question. Sit in the mystery, and just be. The Divine in this instance, or rather, this instance of the Divine, may be the Word, but S/He is not knowable via the word. Perhaps this is where those who interpret the Bible in a literal way get lost: they think that because Jesus is known as the Word, and the Bible is a book of written words, Jesus must be the Bible and therefore to respect each Word is to respect Him. But that misses the point, if I am presuming to understand Tau Rosamonde correctly: Wisdom, the Great Sophia, She of the Darkness who is breathed into being, is experienced, not learned. And once we have that experience, once we have felt and known the Divine moving within us, we are called to share that experience with others, not by telling them about it, but by being it, by being love.
I was torn during the rite as to whether or not to take communion. As it happens, I was at a funeral mass yesterday for a dear friend who died of ALS in August. In that instance it was easy for me to decline to accept communion, not because I’m a “rebel” or anything, but because I try not to be a hypocrite. It would have been wrong for me to take communion even though I’ve received all the sacraments up to that point that would have allowed it (except I haven’t been to confession for decades and I hadn’t fasted that morning, so that should have let me out of it right there even if I’d wanted to receive communion). But Tau Rosamonde said that all were welcome to receive the sacrament at the Gnostic mass today, no matter what their background. So I went up and participated, ate the Body, drank the Blood. As I sat down, I experienced a moment of panic that the other Gods I worship would be offended that I had reached out in this way to the Christ, the One in whose name so many of them were driven underground and away from their Ancestral lands. I do a great deal of work with Odin these days, and have felt myself to be under His guardianship most of my life, so He was the main One I was afraid I had offended by receiving the Eucharist. I sat down and reached out to Him to check and see. Right at that moment crows began cawing back and forth to each other in the office park outside the Sanctuary, and in that moment I felt better. I did not feel His presence in that Sanctuary the way I do now as I sit here at my desk and write this, but I did feel that I had not given offense, like what I had done was sincere and an attempt to experience the Mystery as perhaps Jesus had intended it to be experienced before it became what it is now, a sort of corporate, fossilized, intellectualized shell that once used to contain something precious and beautiful.
As I left the Sanctuary after the rite was over, I felt almost drunk or high with the space of it (and here’s where I try to explain the inexplicable and end up sounding like a stoner doofus, so apologies for that) like I was a chubby space shuttle drifting through the space in the hallway and out into the Foyer where everyone had come to sit and chat and nibble on fruit and pastries that the Sanctuary members had brought for after the rite. Cakes and ale are always gonna be cakes and ale no matter what religion you’re in, right? And in true stoner fashion, I brought my chubby shuttle in for a landing in a tight wicker chair and helped myself to a handful of gorgeous red grapes that were the best friggin’ things I’d ever tasted in my life. You know how being high gives you the munchies (or so I’ve been told 😉 )? Well, apparently being sacred-space-high makes me really hungry for fresh red grapes. As I nibbled and listened to Tau Rosamonde talk about Sophia and mice and St. Francis and shoes and a hundred other things the group conversation touched on, I thought about Divine experience and how perhaps as a poet, it’s my job to try to give words to the inexplicable, that that’s what poets are for, and that’s what the gift of the Mystery is for.
But then again, this gift isn’t one we give, it’s one we live, and by living it, we give it.