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“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 Time magazine 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.
As a boy, Hoeller’s own access to unfiltered Gnostic writings was limited to the three “codices” then in existence. One of these, the Askew Codex, includes the famous Pistis Sophia, the story of how Sophia (Wisdom), a distinctly feminine emanation of the godhead, was drawn into the dark sea of chaos by a reflection of her own radiance, ultimately conceiving through the error of self-desire the misshapen Ialdabaoth (Childish God), also known as Samael (Blind God), or Saclas (Foolish God), creator and Chief Archon of the Lower World. This, not the sin of Eve, is the Fall that Gnostics mourn, and Sophia herself went to great pains to reverse it. The revelation of God’s feminine face in this alternately tender and harrowing myth would have been enough to rock a Catholic boy’s world. But there was more to come.
Due to suppression and concealment of authentic texts, would-be Gnostics like Hoeller had been left for more than 17 centuries to comb through the anti-heretical screeds of early Church fathers for shards of meaning, an exercise which may explain the Gnostic knack for finding truth in opposites. Then, in December of 1945, it all changed. A fortuitous find in Upper Egypt brought Gnosticism home to Jesus.
On a cold, moonlit night, Mohammed Ali al-Samman and his brothers sheathed their knives and set off from the desert village of Nag Hammadi to avenge their father’s murder, stopping en route to fill their sacks with mineral fertilizer from the great caves at Jabal-al-Tarif, a mountain honeycombed with hiding places. While digging through the soft soil, they dislodged an earthenware jar a meter tall, and the rest, as they say, is history. Once Mohammed’s lust for booty trumped his fear that the jar might contain a jinni, he took a hammer to it and found 13 papyrus volumes, bound in leather, comprising 52 Coptic translations of sacred texts from the early Christian era, including “previously unreleased” gospels attributed to the apostles Thomas and Philip, and, most surprisingly, abundant references to the special status of Mary Magdalene. Once these fragile manuscripts had made their way through the black market into the hands of biblical scholars and archaeologists, there was no question of authenticity, only of orthodoxy — with an edge of shock and awe.
The Gospel of Thomas opens with the enigmatic line, “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down.” You can almost hear the text’s first translator, Gilles Quispel, take a gulp. None of these “secret words” had been allowed into the canon we now know as the New Testament, yet it’s possible they were recorded before Matthew, Mark, Luke and John put quill to papyrus.
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