My Right Foot, or the Potentially Awkward Issue of Inappropriately Adoring Body Parts

There has been a bunch of activity around the notion of a Queer Gnostic Mass lately. The notion seems to be that the Gnostic Mass is not currently LGBT friendly because of particular policies, but that it should be. There is a book, Priest/ess: In Advocacy of Queer Gnostic Mass by Michael Effertz, that has been privately published and distributed. There was a review of the book by Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus. And, there was at least one widely mentioned post attempting a rebuttal to T Polyphilus’ review.

As an aside, I have to point out there’s always something. There seems to be some kind of law of conservation of energy at work around Ordo Templi Orientis. What I mean is that I’ve observed that there seems to be a constant background noise of complaint that remains constant no matter what actual rational issues may exist. There are for every issue that comes up, and every side of those issues, a mob of people who seem determined to get attention and validation from taking particular sides in any conflict they find, and seem to have little actual interest in the issues. Around any authentic issue there seems to be a busy buzz of annoying flies that actually ends up drowning out that issue with other agendas. So, as much as possible, I explicitly refuse to entertain or validate the meaningless constant background distraction from this issue with any more notice than this notice that I take no notice of the noise. (One diabolical beauty, of many, I’ve observed of the law of complaint conservation in action is that those buzzing will take refusal to entertain them as rejection of the core issue, because, of course, it’s all about them and their agenda, and not the actual issue; pro and con doesn’t matter for or to them either. The actual issue is just the delivery mechanism for the steamy, stinky payload of their pathological need for validation around which they can happily buzz angrily biting one and all.) And with that, hopefully, I’ve sent those people off on a spiraling tizzy so the rest of us can talk like adults.

Instead, I hope to focus on considering, in solidarity, what I do hear as actual and authentic dissent on this particular issue from LGBT members of the Order and body of the EGC, and try to be an ally to them. The thing about dissent is that it is difficult to hear, but that difficulty is often in direct proportion to the need to hear it. The thing about oppression is that it so often falls to the oppressed to educate the oppressors. The place of an ally and friend is to help create understanding and raise attention for those directly affected. I think I hear something authentic from my LGBT brothers and sisters, and have heard it enough that I think there must be something important there, though it may be hard and may require some more effort to hear. That the LGBT brothers and sisters are speaking out suggests that those of us who are not should redouble our effort to listen to their story.

What I hear is that LGBT brothers and sisters are feeling they are being treated unfairly and unequally within the Order generally because they specifically do not feel they have equal opportunity to take part in roles within the celebration of the Gnostic Mass that relate to their own lives. I hear that they want to take active part in the ritual, in a way that speaks to them, but feel that they cannot and moreover that they are not being heard.

With that said, I’m really only an ally here, or at least attempting to be one. I am particularly unqualified to make any definitive statements one way or the other, and am not a direct voice on this specific issue. On the one hand, I do not identify as queer or gay, and so I am not a member of the group who might legitimately claim to be affected by the issue, except that, in solidarity and community, to harm one is to harm us all. I am also not clergy in Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, though I have been active in other roles in celebration of the Gnostic Mass. Nor am I part of the government or any governing body (than my own self, of course) of Ordo Templi Orientis. I am also not privy to the Supreme Secret of the Sovereign Sanctuary (though, let’s be honest, like everyone on born on this planet, and their dog, I do have some suspicions about which I’ll hold my tongue).

But, hey, I’ve got a blog, and some thoughts … and my aunt has a barn, so maybe I’ll put on a show! But, seriously, that’s all this post is: just some thoughts, that people can take or leave, consider or not. I’m just another student of the Mysteries recording my own current thoughts at this place and time.

Basically, this is an ideal opportunity to make a misstep by which I can alienate absolutely everyone involved by sticking my foot in my mouth about the issue, or, you know, something even more entertainingly anatomically awkward. Well … yay, and tally ho, I say! Once more into the breach! YMMV. Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball.

 

The Complaint

The issue is that, for public celebrations of the Gnostic Mass, the officers enacting the role of Priest and Priestess must be gender appropriate. The Priest must be of male gender and the Priestess must be of the female gender. For the purpose of this, a public celebration is any where non-initiates are present. For any celebration using the script of the Gnostic Mass which is gender-bent, or otherwise changed, it must not be public and moreover cannot be called a Gnostic Mass in public announcements.

The current policy prohibits certain kinds of participation. A person whose gender is male, whether queer or not, cannot enact the role of Priestess in a public celebration of the Gnostic Mass and a person whose gender is female, whether queer or not, cannot enact the role of Priest. Someone who is sexually male or female, but is gender identified as something else, however, can enact the role appropriate to their gender. The policy is about gender appropriate officers in the role of Priest and Priestess.

I think it is important to now introduce a distinction between what I’d call a “gender bent mass” and what I would understand to be an actual “Queer Gnostic Mass” but I think these two are getting as conflated as are gender and sexuality. To be clear, I will try to keep the term “gender bent mass” for a celebration of the rubric of the Gnostic Mass by officers in these roles which do not match their gender. I will also try to keep the term “Queer Gnostic Mass” for something which intends to be publicly celebrated with queer officers in roles and celebrates some, as yet unknown, mystery and symbolism of queer sexuality.

Thus, I suspect that there is already a serious confusion in the complaint as I’ve heard it because it conflates gender and sexuality, and conflates “gender bent mass” and “Queer Gnostic Mass”. But, I think there is something being talked about that reveals important things about the nature of the Gnostic Mass relevant to the discussion.

But, this specificity about gender for the roles of the Priest and Priestess means that for a public celebration of the Gnostic Mass, a queer male cannot act as Priestess and a queer Female cannot act as Priest. And, if one were not able to identify with one or the other in the gender binary, then one would not be able to be either.

The Gnostic Mass

The Gnostic Mass, which is the the central ceremony for public and private celebration of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, which E.G.C. is in turn the ecclesiastical aspect of Ordo Templi Orientis, is a eucharistic ritual written by Aleister Crowley in 1913 while in Moscow, Russia (interestingly this was on “The Ragged Ragtime Girls” music and dance theatrical tour). The ritual includes a great number of symbolic and structural influences, but it serves a bold and ambitious purpose:

“In composing Liber XV, Crowley attempted to uncover the hidden Gnostic tradition concealed within the ceremony of the Mass, to liberate it from bondage to the Scholastic theories and dogmas of Christian theology, and to demonstrate the fundamental continuity between this ancient tradition of Wisdom and the modern revelations and liberating philosophy of Thelema.” — T Apiryon [via]

Additionally, the ritual, while being esoteric in nature was also to be precisely specific to Nature:

“I resolved that my Ritual should celebrate the sublimity of the operation of universal forces without introducing disputable metaphysical theories. I would neither make nor imply any statement about nature which would not be endorsed by the most materialistic man of science. On the surface this may sound difficult; but in practice I found it perfectly simple to combine the most rigidly rational conceptions of phenomena with the most exalted and enthusiastic celebration of their sublimity.” — Aleister Crowley [via]

The Secret

There is a great deal of writing about the Gnostic Mass and various aspects of the rite, which is understandable since it has such a central place for EGC and OTO, and one can research much of that at the Hermetic Library. But, what should be clear is that the Gnostic Mass has a purpose in existing in a particular way, and in presenting certain symbols intended to reveal particular ideas. One of these ideas is the IX° secret contained in the system of the OTO:

“Liber XV, the Gnostic Mass, is the central public and private ritual of the OTO and EGC, being itself a IX° operation. All of the secrets of the Order are contained within it, in symbol and ceremony.” — Fr V.I.T.R.O.L. [via]

While the secrets of the Order are contained in this ritual, they are at least veiled to some extent in the rite. The secret is enacted symbolically within the ritual, when it is celebrated properly. Theories about this IX° secret are like assholes, but that’s actually a different degree and, at any rate, the secret is above my pay grade. I’ve been privately assured by at least one person I believe to be in a position to know that, in fact, not all the material is out there in spite of how much is that has been revealed. However, I also noted the curiousity that, in his extensive biography about Aleister Crowley, Perdurabo, Richard Kaczynski points out that Crowley’s own understanding of the secret held by OTO continued to evolve as he experimented with it, even after the time when his scholarly and instructional libri about the secret were written, to the point that those libri “were obsolete even as they appeared” (Kaczynski, 275). So, anyway, who knows? Who knows and when did they know it? “And who with And how many times.

Anyhow, the point is that there is something there which is being demonstrated by the celebration of the ritual which is of central importance to the EGC and OTO, and the secret that is revealed by the initiatory system.

The EGC Manual

The EGC Manual in use by OTO makes clear in many ways the attention to detail that is given to the proper presentation of the rites so they are “rightly performed with joy & beauty” [Liber AL II 35], especially the Gnostic Mass. Specifically related to this discussion, from the EGC Manual (rev jan 20 ’97):

Section III A 2 a: “A public celebration of the Gnostic Mass is one which is open to members of the pubic; or which is noticed in any official OTO publication under the name “Gnostic Mass”, “Gnostic Catholic Mass” or “Liber XV” or equivalent names. A private celebration of the Gnostic Mass is one at which the individual participants are all initiate members of OTO of at least 0º. Private celebrations of the Gnostic Mass may be held for initiates of higher degrees as well.”

Section III A 2 k: “For public celebrations of the Gnostic Mass, the role of Priest shall be filled by a man, and the role of Priestess shall be filled by a woman.”

So, from these two, if an event is called a Gnostic Mass, even if open to 0°+ only, it would still be public. So, simply calling it a “Mass” or “Gender Mass” or something similar even if publicly announced on a calendar or newsletter would be okay. Also, if not actually announced on an official OTO publication, calling a gender switched Gnostic Mass a “Gnostic Mass” appears to be fine as well. Also, that III A 2 k specifically details gender for public mass celebrations clearly does not prohibit gender bent private celebrations.

My recollection is that there is also a comment somewhere, perhaps in a newer revision, which further clarifies the definition of “man” and “woman” to be something like “living as …” but that may have been something from my Bishop, since I don’t see it in the copy of the manual I have at hand.

The manual specifically states (at III B 1) that modification to the rubric must be approved by the Patriarch, whether for private or public celebration. But, I think, on the topic of a gender bent mass, as a potential change, the permission is implicit without further being sought.

My current reading is that for serious changes to the rubric of Liber XV, one is better off simply writing one’s own eucharistic ritual, and not using more than the structural outline of Liber XV or the text as inspiration and not source material. However, my reading is still that a gender bent private celebration does not reach the level of a “modification” of the rubric, and so, as long as the other issues around performance and how one publicly talks in official publications are followed, gender bent is not just well-contemplated by the manual but completely kosher under the circumstance mentioned.

Also, I suppose, that the Bishop(s) supervising the various participants would have some say as well, in regard to the participation of each individual they supervise. So, that might be a thing.

The Note in the Rubric

There is a note that exists in the rubric, from even the very initial publication of the Gnostic Mass when it appeared in the International, about the officers other than the Priest not taking communion during the ritual:

“The PRIESTESS and other officers never partake of the Sacrament, they being as it were part of the PRIEST himself.” [via]

I find myself coming back to this note often in my thinking about the mass. For me this note makes it absolutely clear that the ritual is a symbolic representation of the work being done within the ceremonial magician, and seems to be a dramatic demonstration of an internal process. If all the roles are part of the Priest then the person enacting the ritual is doing so from the perspective of Priest, and that the role of Priest is in fact an internal aspect of the ritualist. Each role can be seen as an aspect of a single person.

Thus the Priest represents male gender of the ritualist. The Priestess represents the female gender of the ritualist. During the rite, there is an interaction between these two internal genders that takes place. It seems self-evident that these two genders are particular and specific, exist within each person, and are necessary for the ritual to have effect; and that this necessity seems to me to be the reason for the policy around gender bent public presentations of the ceremony. In order to not confuse those attending a public celebration of the Gnostic Mass about the drama being presented, E.G.C. requires the role symbolically representing the male within the Priest is enacted by someone whose gender is male, and the role symbolic of the female within the Priest is enacted by someone whose gender is female. This necessity may also suggest some particularly specific nature to the “sublimity of the operation of universal forces without introducing disputable metaphysical theories.” It seems to me that one element of the symbolism reflects certain natural and scientific facts about the requirements for human reproduction, facts which are necessarily true no matter whether those humans are of any particular gender or sexual orientation. Without the operation of these two gender roles within the ritual and the ritualist, the ritual is not the same, and may, in fact, no longer represent the operation of the secret.

Sexual Polarity from a Male Perspective

In a note about The Saints collect of Liber XV, Helena and Tau Apiryon offer a quote from Hymenaeus Beta, current OHO of OTO:

In his address to the Women’s Conference in 1996 (see The Magical Link, Fall 1997 e.v.), the Patriarch Hymenaeus Beta described the Gnostic Mass as a ‘celebration of the sexual polarities and their cosmic and natural interplay’ from a male perspective, having been written by a man. With regard to the list of Saints, he said, ‘It is a list of the small handful of men and man-gods who, in the opinion of the author of the Mass, understood the divinity of woman. […] Someday, perhaps not soon, but who knows, a woman adept of the Sovereign Sanctuary will manifest the genius to compose a Mass in which the female takes the more active role, and the male the more passive (as with siva and sakti in Hinduism) — in which the Deacon, speaking for the Priestess, can claim communion with the women in history that have perceived the divinity of man.'”

The point here is that the Gnostic Mass is a particular ritual demonstrating particular things from a particular perspective. Other rituals are not only possible but, perhaps, even anticipated, that might offer a different perspective on that ‘cosmic and natural’ sexual polarity.

 

The Metaphor

I’m going to introduce a metaphor. It’s not perfect, but for my purpose it seems useful even so. If all the roles in the Gnostic Mass are “parts of the priest” then one might talk metaphorically about the roles as specific parts. One might talk about the Gnostic Mass as the Left Hand adoring the Right Hand. If one were left handed, one might want to use the Right Hand to adore the Left Hand, or the Right Hand to adore another Right Hand. But, the actual story of the Gnostic Mass is that the Left Hand is adoring the Right Hand. It is certainly possible to write and celebrate a ritual in which the Right Hand adores the Left, or the Right adores the Right, or even the Left adores the Left; but, that isn’t the same story. These changes change the narrative into something else, to varying degrees into a different story.

Now, it may be that in casting the roles in the story of Left Hand adores Right Hand, that the person cast does not for some reason have use of their Left Hand. For example, in the case of Christy Brown, dramatized in the movie My Left Foot, whose only controllable limb was his left foot, it might not be possible. (Gadzooks, but I can already hear the peanut gallery shouting “Are you saying gay people are disabled?!”) In less extreme cases, one might find it interesting to use one’s Right Hand in place of the Left Hand as an experiment in casting against character, or any number of other reasons one might make various modifications to the presentation of the story Left Hand adores Right Hand.

But, the important thing in telling the story Left Hand adores Right Hand is that the narrative not be modified so much that the message is lost. One might put on a performance where a Right Hand is used in the role of Left Hand, but the audience might get confused if the poster didn’t make clear that the performance was intended to be experimental, or they may assume that the story is actually Right Hand adores Right Hand instead, and misunderstand completely.

Moreover, one could write rituals where the Left Foot adores the Right Hand, and so forth, where one specifically means that the Left Foot adores Right Hand, but how does one tell the difference between the ritual Left Foot adores Right Hand from the ritual of Left Hand adores Right Hand where Left Foot is used in the place of Left Hand for some practical reason? The audience is likely to be confused, especially if they are not savvy to the original story, and, really, since the original story is a secret, that’s most people; but also for the person who wanders off the street, and has heard nothing about the ritual at all, there must be a lot of potential of confusion and then consternation at the obfuscation of the intended narrative.

Another Gnostic Mass

It seems like there should be a story about the ‘cosmic and natural’ sexual polarity from other perspectives, and I’m not sure why no one is writing it. Maybe there is, as yet, no one within the Sovereign Sanctuary able or inspired to do so. But that is, again, different than a Queer Gnostic Mass.

For a Female Gnostic Mass, one “in which the female takes the more active role, and the male the more passive […] in which the Deacon, speaking for the Priestess, can claim communion with the women in history that have perceived the divinity of man,” I have found myself idly wondering if such a thing might needs must be written by a queer female writing about the perceived divinity of man from a female perspective, just as Aleister Crowley wrote the ceremony about perceived divinity of woman from a male perspective. For a truly Queer Gnostic Mass, maybe such as thing could be written by a straight member of the Sovereign Sanctuary … or maybe I’m taking my perception of the creative formula a bit too far and strictly, but it amuses me to consider it natheless.

Perhaps there needs to be more LGBT membership in the Sovereign Sanctuary, because from my almost completely limited perspective that body, about which I know very little except for hearsay, seems to be sorely lacking in diversity beyond white hetero-normative committed couples. Does that body match the formula of the Gnostic Mass by chance or design? Is that demographic the chicken or the egg for the issue of LGBT feelings of being treated unfairly? I don’t know about this beyond idle speculation. “Shove me in the shallow waters Before I get too deep.”

I’m not sure what the magical and natural formulae are that would be represented in Queer rituals because there is a specific formula involved in the existing Gnostic Mass, which, while veiled, seems pretty clearly demonstrated. After all, perhaps quite specifically, “I confess one Baptism of Wisdom whereby we accomplish the Miracle of incarnation” in the Creed. If not told well or if the ritual were modified that formula might be obscured beyond recognition. If the Gnostic Mass is a ritual that has a particular narrative built around a central secret, then changing the narrative might start with a different central secret. It seems the narrative should be informed by the source, not the other way around. So, the first thing that might happen is the central secret needs to be interrogated by someone (that knows it, who is a cunning linguist, and is also a prodigious prestidigitator) to figure out if another narrative can be told. And, if there are other related but different Queer formulae, whether different narratives can be told about those different central secrets well enough within the structure of the Order. Or, maybe some of this has been worked by those in a particular degree outside the general plan of the order, but I could only speculate on that.

“… recent researches into the mysteries of the IX° have compelled me to add an XI°, to illustrate a scientific idea which has been evolved by the results of recent experiments.” — Aleister Crowley [via]

A matrix of ritual might be possible which would offer an array of rites to satisfy anyone’s curiousity or general proclivities. But, even a drama queen like Aleister Crowley only wrote the one ritual from the male perspective on the perception of female divinity, and kept it as the single core ritual of OTO. So, it may simply be that there is only that one narrative possible within the structure of OTO and from the secret at the core of the Sovereign Sanctuary; because to change these too much would change the story into something else, or would be to make up a story that is completely fictional and not based on a real secret held by the Order.

Honestly, after so much time no one’s come up with anything, I’m not holding out a lot of hope. If Aleister Crowley didn’t, and no one that’s raised the issue has since, come up with something … but, like so many things, raising an issue and hoping that someone else will solve it is the exact opposite of the fact that raising an issue is really an opportunity to self-volunteer to write original eucharistic Queer ritual rubrics and organize public celebrations of them, and eventually why not a Queer ritual-a-thon? Even if an official Queer Gnostic Mass isn’t available, there’s plenty that could be done. It may not be possible until there is enough LGBT presence in the Sovereign Sanctuary, assuming that there isn’t already, for there to be someone able to make an actual Queer Gnostic Mass, as opposed to just a Gnostic Mass told differently, possible, so perhaps that just means that those who identify as LGBT should redouble effort to advance in the Order so they can seduce the project to fruition by building a firm foundation first.

In other words, there may be ways to celebrate the ritual of Left Hand adores Right Hand using one’s right hand in the role of the left, for practical reasons, though it may appear awkward; but maybe it just ruins the narrative to use one’s left foot and that’s not even to mention using one’s right foot in the role. Further, when the My Left Hand poster advertising the event says the ritual is one thing, to tell an entirely different story of My Right Foot seems definitely not correct, and would be right out of order.

Secret societies, societies with secrets, and societies with spoilers

When thinking about secrets and mysteries in practice, I’ve long tossed about the idea of a difference between secret societies, societies with secrets and a society without spoilers. Especially in this day when so much is being made available online, but that really is just a matter of scale when there are plenty of historical examples of similar things, such as Aleister Crowley revealing the initiatory rituals of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn as serialized in the pages of the Equinox, the varied publication and exposé of so much Freemasonic ritual, and so forth.

There are still some pretty legitimately secret societies, which while well-known to exist are not revealed, such as the Skull and Bones society, and recently breaking the Copiale cipher seemed to tantalizingly promise that there might be still some complex and completely unknown societies, at least until it was revealed the material was pretty clearly Freemasonic in nature. But for the most part, I object that when people talk about secret societies they are engaged in flights of fancy about group about which not only their existence but much of their particulars are known. Quite often, of course, such wild imaginings are part and parcel with an agenda of fear mongering, but even still there are otherwise sane and rational people talking about certain societies as if they were actually not completely or almost completely public. Certainly Freemasonic tradition and ritual cannot rationally be called secret anymore, and the membership is in the habit of parading around, not to mention things like having decals on their cars and fobs on their keychains, and thus it cannot be called a secret society. Even traditional boogeymen like Aleister Crowley and Ordo Templi Orientis can only by the slimmest margin come anywhere near being called a secret society, with websites, public spaces, public event calendars, and so forth. There may indeed be legitimately unavailable secrets still, for example within A∴A∴, but that’s not enough to call these fraternal orders by the name of a secret society. In these cases there’s perhaps some legitimate secrets, but there must also be a practical recognition that most material related to these groups is available, outside the structured system of the society itself, somewhere, if one wants to find it.

Of course, just as much as one can avoid spoilers for movies and books and other things sequentially revealed, it is possible to avoid, for the most part, much of that material. It is not that there are no spoilers. Rather that spoilers do very much exist. Which is to say, the existence of spoilers requires one to decide to avoid the spoilers in order to fully enjoy the reveal. This is quite different from a society that pretends it doesn’t exist to outsiders, or a known society with things that it keeps secret.

 

There are modern examples of working with secrets within esoteric systems, and there’s clearly something interesting going on around secrets. There is smoke pointing to something important and useful at the source. There’s a tension, perhaps much as it ever was, between the urge to make information available and the various efficacies of secrets. T Thorn Coyle wrote a bit about the division in Feri between what had been called the “Mystery tradition” and the “public religion” factions, at “The Sundering of Feri“. Thorn, of course, also runs an online Mystery School. I was trying to find a quote where I recall her saying something about how paganism needed to have a Mystery tradition as part of it, but can’t find that right now.

Generally, when I talk about such things to people who ask, I suggest that initiation ritual, especially, is like a good book or movie with a savoury plot twist or two. You will only ever get a single chance to experience the participatory drama without knowing how it develops; that’s if one goes through it the first time not having read the materials. One and only one chance. Ever. So why throw that away by reading ahead? One can always read the materials afterward, as many times as one likes; but to read the spoilers is to waste a wonderful opportunity that cannot ever, barring soap opera amnesia tropes, be experienced once the reveal has been spoiled.

Whether one “gets” it or not (either initially or on subsequent viewings of a ritual or readings, of material) is another question entirely. And, it seems to me, in my experience, what constitutes “getting it” will likely evolve and change over time no matter what else is a consideration. When given the opportunity, I like to point out that one can go to many stagings of a play by Shakespeare and get new things, new depth of understanding and new enjoyment, as well as savour slightly different interpretations, so to me the re-play value depth of meaning of a work or body of work is something that is a different question to the idea of seeing something for the first time without spoilers.

But, still, people freak about things unknown, and try to minimize and control things by figuring things out ahead instead of being comfortable with being uncomfortable as a thing itself. Seems to me the still prevalent modern desire to conquer Nature and the pervaisive post-modern existential nausea about information overload and slavish ‘inbox zero’ mania are examples, perhaps symptoms, of where the ability to just relax about not knowing, not being in control, would be useful for people to practice in specific so they can have skill in applying it in general.

 

Another aspect that always comes up around secrets is the idea that somehow no matter what is revealed, the real secrets are impervious to such petty concerns. Seems to me blather about mystery being unspoilable is semantically empty jazz hands (or worse self deception (or worse-worse deception of others) about “spiritual” exceptionalism), and misses the point of initiation as orchestrated stressful situation intended to create a kind of imprint vulnerability, an altered state, in the initiate, and attempts to diffuse that stress and that experience before experiencing it is an attempt mitigate and in some form to not have the experience at all. The efficacy of secrets in a system are not just about the information, true, but the information is interwoven into an experience, and the experience is changed by the quality and obscurity of the information on which the experience is built. If one knows the rollercoaster has a blind drop at the end, one still experiences the drop in and of itself, but the surprise in and of itself is changed into anticipation, and that’s a different thing entirely which not only changes the experience of the drop but distracts from the experience of what occurs before.

For me, when I talk about “reading ahead” (spoiling) I mean that as a placeholder for activity the diffuses the effectiveness of initiation and mystery, whether written down and read or spoken and heard or whatever and whatevered. For me, being a candidate in initiation and mystery is to be an improv actor stumbling into a rehearsed stage play, and both savoury and exciting. One tends to think all kinds of things about structure and likely scenarios, if nothing else than a rite of passage (exit normal, experience liminal, re-enter normal changed) but it is the actuality, specifics and plot twists, the things that can be spoiled, which I think should be avoided and, yes, allowed as a personal experience.

 

To bring it around, my point of wondering about classification of societies is that there is a kind of society which is not itself attempting to pretend it doesn’t exist, and which has essentially much of its material revealed or potentially could be in future somewhere, but that points out there is a reason not to “read” ahead as a practice of discipline in and of itself; that there is a place for not knowing as a thing, and experience, to be embodied through ritual, especially dramatic ritual like initiation.

The trick of improv is to have characters and bits of business prepared and figure out ways to fit those into any circumstances, so perhaps the corollary is to become good at mystery and a good initiate prepared by building the foundation of skills, whatever those are in one’s tradition, that make the personal experience of the unknown richer.

If an initiatory working is in some form or another purely ecstatic, then perhaps more than one person will have no prior exposure. That seems quite different than a mystery tradition where something is being revealed. But, whether there is an actual script or not, a mystery tradition will have participants who have experienced or developed a relationship with the mystery who are inducting others. If those others have exposed themselves or been exposed prior to some element meant to be revealed, then they have failed to avoid spoilers, they have whatevered the whatever.

Maps certainly won’t always apply, especial when applied outside their intended scope. Just add as given to any structural approach “except where this doesn’t apply”. But, to be clear, there are other structures, but I’m primarily talking about a mystery tradition where something is being revealed. But, whether there is an actual script or not, a mystery tradition will have participants who have experienced or developed a relationship with the mystery who are inducting others. Here the word ‘mystery’ in a religious sense comes from Greek mysterion “secret rite or doctrine,” as in a thing to be revealed to initiates, whether, additionally as previously stated, those are “written down and read or spoken and heard or whatever and whatevered”, a secret doctrine passed on or a secret rite enacted.

Which begs the question: without a mystery (neither secret rite or secret doctrine) to be revealed, whither the mystery cult? Further, without a mystery, one might even be tempted to ask how can there actually be an initiation at all?

 

Perhaps, one might say of a modern non-mystery that an “impromptu ecstatic divinatory rite” took place which offered UPG, such that a previously unknown rite is enacted or previously unknown doctrine is developed. But without the secret rite or secret doctrine, which would have to have previously existed to those initiated few inducting others, there’s nothing to pass on that was previously held sacred, no previously held in secret doctrine or rite, tautologically.

“Nothing to pass on that was previously held sacred” may offer another name, perhaps more tripping, instead of “society without spoilers”: a “sacred society”, a society with things held sacred as in separate, something bound, enclosed and protected.

Unfortunately, one can follow the etymology of ‘secret’ to essentially the same place, the difference being one implies holiness and the other does not, I suppose, which “holiness” seems, to my mind, just a special case of any of the others three terms I suggested.

 

I suspect the apparent failure of the modality of a “mystery cult” in the modern world has to do with modernity, modernism and existentialism, and the lack of acceptance of shared concrete and coherent gnosis, thus the ground on which a modern mystery cult would be built is unsuitable for lavish neo-romantic structures, except for those already conditioned to such things, such as lapsed Catholics and such. Which is to say, perhaps any mystery cult would seem too superficial to a modern person to have the same religious and social impacts, simply because the assumed rich foundation is missing.

So, the feeling one might have that a mystery cult or tradition in the modern age has lost its luster is due not to the mystery cult but rather due to the overall modern age. There is still a lingering notion that something may be missing for rootless moderns which a mystery cult can offer by way of a more structured ritual, initiations, and a focused mythic basis for ritual; more robust spiritual meaning which then, in turn, offers deeper experience of life in general. But, I find myself wondering if the project of modern mystery traditions is undermined by a general lack of cultural foundation, those foundations of community and cohesion being so efficiently eroded in our public, political and even private lives. Not to mention the lack of what is still called a “classical education” with the broad base of and relationship of familiarity with languages, myths, archetypes and so on. This, then becomes a chicken and egg, which can only be resolved by realizing the false dichotomy that one must be completed before the other, and that the development in general is aided by development in specific, and visa versa, synergistically.

One possible route out of the morass, for moderns and post-moderns, I sometimes come to is the suggestion that situational certainty is a tool for meta-cognition. By this I mean, that the ground on which a mystery cult could be built, the solid ground of structured ritual, initiations, and a focused mythic basis for ritual is sufficient when internally consistent for its purpose and held to be true for the time that it is necessary. But, that threatens what is perhaps an entirely different discussion.

 

But, to bring it back around again, a ‘mystery cult’ is a cult with a mystery. A ‘cult’ is the external activity enacting a religious metaphor, a ritual behaviour. A ‘mystery’ is a secret rite or secret doctrine (to be revealed). Therefore, a ‘mystery cult’ is specifically ritual behaviour that involves a secret rite or secret doctrine. ‘Tradition’ is shared belief or behaviour through time. Therefore, ‘mystery tradition’ is belief and ritual behaviour that involves a secret rite or secret doctrine shared through time.

I’m so strongly reminded by this of something. I believe it was something by Karl Kereny (but it might be form Van Gennep or Turner, I can’t recall right now) which I paraphrase: “Ritual enacts Myth and Myth explains Ritual.”

 

It seems possible to conflate a general meaning of “mystery” as more of a kind of ‘gnosis’ or noetic experience with how I understand it is used in the specific sense within the term “mystery cult” which is more what I am talking about here. When speaking of the idea of whether a ‘mystery cult’ within modern systems would be useful in order to ground the work in structured behaviour, I’m assuming that we’re actually talking about ‘mystery cult’ not general unspecific noetic experience or so forth. This of course somewhat ironically points out a possible initial critique of paganism as a generalized, syncretic, eclectic system which lacks the benefit of what a mystery cult offers and hence the possible utility of that structured influence, offering specific external ritual behaviour around a secret rite or secret doctrine.

If you want mystery without mystery cult, that already exists in various forms of wild and wishy-washy moments of gnosis within the ecstatic traditions of modern life; but, why not try adding an actual ‘mystery cult’ back into the cultural mix? In fact, I could easily argue that there already is ‘mystery cult’ in various places within neopaganism, with a facile example being initiatory orders like OTO and others, which are perfect examples of mysteries for which spoilers exist and which spoilers therefore can be intentionally avoided.

A very salient point for this modern information age is the value an experience of not knowing, so that one can and must do less thinking prior to events, not more. Perhaps the suggestion contained within the experience of not knowing is that one should do one’s thinking after: praxis before theory, so that theory is informed by praxis without prejudice. If this is the case, why not work toward maximizing the possible experience instead of minimizing the probable damage of knowing by seeking after spoilers of any kind, even the mundane accidents surrounding specific quanta and quality?

Indeed, I would suggest that one approach an initiatory experience within an mystery tradition not as a result of successful prior thinking or a seal on attainment, like we are so often familiar with from diplomas, certificates and honors; but an invitation to view the world through a particular lens for a particular period of time, determined by the particulars of the ritual and tradition in which the initiation takes place. In other words, the initiation is really the beginning, suggested by the word itself, of an pervasive life experience.

The full experience of a mystery event intended to involve surprises, plot twists or situations unknown can be self-evidently spoiled by prior knowledge of those circumstances. Especially if part of the trigger for the full experience is the stress of not knowing. Certainly, I don’t mean that these things are binary (and it may be possible to salvage some part of the experience even if spoiled, but why not go for the whole thing instead of the tatters?), but that avoiding spoilers is a discipline that seems worthy if one is serious about that experience, and looking to have it be as rich as possible.

And, that this, in specific, will inform one’s general life as well.

 

And yes, one can point out that for completely ecstatic visceral events and such that are not within a mystery tradition, there’s mostly nothing to spoil by prior knowledge, per se. Except that maybe even still, for example, having that ecstatic visceral experience is based on a not knowing, in some fashion; for example, there’s only one time for the first such experience. All subsequent such experiences are informed by prior such similar events; but also, there may be circumstances around how the experience is induced that involve some fashion of not-knowing the mechanisms being used, which after the initial experience become less effective in themselves and experienced practitioners then rely on other means more, such as anchoring past experience to ease induction subsequently.

Also, for purely personal experience based on involvement in a mystery cultic practice, the former requires the latter, so saying the former can’t be spoiled is only true on the former level but it’s a logical typing fallacy to presume that spoiling the more primary function of mystery cultic practice can’t spoil the dependent personal experience of it. Mystery rituals are built around some kind of surprise, a revealing of the secret practice or doctrine at least. One could try to criticize the practices of mystery traditions by bringing up features of non-surprise ritual is not a feature of surprise ritual merely because they participate in the prior category of ritual. But, still the one is not the other. Noetic mystery is not mystery cult merely because the English word mystery is in both. But these are mostly different topics than suggesting the efficacy a mystery cult with structured ritual behaviour involving a secret doctrine or secret rite to a previous practice of generalized, syncretic, eclectic practice.

 

So, for my own part, I have come to prefer the discipline of having structured ritual events with their reveals unspoiled so that I can experience them with as little prior knowledge as possible, because it’s the only time I will ever get that experience in that way, ever. Of course, you go about your experiences however you like, but I suspect if the initial spoiler free experience is not preserved you’re not actually experiencing ‘mystery cult’ anymore, but rather just, one might say, an extended re-enactment of a transcript of someone else’s dramatized experience. And, if you want that, just watch reruns of some reality television program, or another, instead.

Discovering the Occult Landscape

Over on my (even and ever still) experimental unbook site, I posted “Sigils of Imagination” where I explore my engagement with personal territory, my own landscapes. Inspired in part by the coursework I had at the time and my own outside reading of John Brinckerhoff Jackson, including Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, I developed a narrative of my personal travel and compared that with various representations of the landscape where that engagement occurred. Within that paper I suggest an addition of “imaginal landscape” to go with the set of “political landscape” and “vernacular landscape” developed in the work of Jackson.

In the essay “A pair of ideal landscapes,” Jackson, in addition to talking about odology, articulates a distinction between political and vernacular, or inhabited, landscapes. According to Jackson, the distinction must be made that the term landscape implies a place that has been changed by humans, a collection of “improved” lands. Once this distinction has been made, then the landscape can be further understood to be comprised of both those shared spaces that are political and those that are vernacular, or inhabited.

“… the political landscape is deliberately created in order to make it possible for men [sic] to live in a just society, the inhabited [vernacular] landscape merely evolves in the course opf our trying to live on harmonious terms with the natural world surrounding us.” (Jackson, 1984, p42)

I suggest further that there is also an imaginal landscape. Indeed Jackson appears to recognize not only the existence of the imaginal landscape but also the possible need for this landscape to inform and enrich a sustainable human relationship with the more than human. Jackson explains the way in which the imaginal informs the human relationship with the landscape:

“Any firmly held belief in the invisible, it seems to me, must somehow affect our attitude toward the visible world, and that might have been little more than a random plundering and destruction of the nearby wilderness became an exchange of benefits: those things which men took from the forest for their daily needs were repaid by our helping and protecting and loving the small, invisible creatures who lived there. They served as intermediaries, they reassured us that we were taking part in the natural order and were not entirely alien to it.” (Jackson, 1984, p53)

The political landscape is the realm of roads and sidewalks and crosswalks and monuments and historical markers. The vernacular landscape is the playground of worn grass paths, dérive, parkour and shortcuts. The imaginal landscape is the interaction the landscape has with us, territory with an agency of its own and place that is in relationship with us and our lives; places populated by a genius loci; offering liminality, twilight and borderlands. Certainly and likely these together could be the very model of a modern proper Popper fan.

 

Connecting with the link from the notion of an imaginal landscape to the dérive of Situationist International is Guy Debord’s Psychogeography which was to explore “precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals” [via, also].

The way that we engage the landscape is matched by the effect the landscape has on us. This relationship could also be subject to the method of engagement and our intentionality for the engagement. This relationship can also have synchronic and diachronic dimensions.

The method of engagement changes the nature of one’s engagement. A simple experiment around this is to travel the same route via different modes of transport, first via automobile, then via bicycle and finally by foot. Each reveals new and different features and obscures some previously seen, felt, heard and so on.

A way to view intentionality is as an answer to the question, “to what end?” The purpose, and the strength of that purpose, for which one is engaged in a particular landscape will likely and sometimes radically determine what one is able to plan for before, signify during and remember after.

Take for example the work Widdershins by Hermetic Library anthology artist The Psychogeographical Commission, which is a particular method of engagement for a particular purpose: “This recording documents the inner circle of the Glasgow Subway system which travels in an anticlockwise direction (widdershins), a constant banishing ritual performed daily upon the whole of the west side of Glasgow.” [via]

Connecting the past with the present and the future is to explore the diachronic dimensions of our explorations. For example, there are numerous projects which attempt to share images from the past of a place compared to the present of a place, such as Esoterica London which attempts “to draw connections between London now and London then, illuminating the correspondences between the city’s past and present.” On the other hand, objects like walls of clocks with times across multiple timezones and wistful thinking about what friends and family are doing, including connecting with them through now nearly instantaneous communication creates strong synchronic relationships that seem to span and shrink distance between places.

 

Recently, Rik Garrett, a frequent contributor to the Hermetic Library visual pool, who also created a blog specifically about Occult Chicago, started Occult Guide, “an interactive mapping website dedicated to locations of occult interest around the world”, and an attempt to develop a community around those activities.

Other projects that come to mind related to cataloging and creating community around wondrous, strange and occult places along our various landscapes are Altas Obscura, and the annual Altas Obscura Day; Julian Cope’s The Modern Antiquarian [HT catvincent]; and perhaps more imaginatively The Museum of Lost Wonder; to name a few.

 

There are numerous examples of personal pilgrimages and travel plans based on a desire to engage landscapes that participate in the wondrous, strange and occult; the sacred and religious, and transgressions of these same. Of course, there’s pilgrimages to holy sites, such as well-known and logistically boggling huge migrations to Mecca and such as small and lesser known places like the Well of the White Cow at Tara in Ireland. There’s also the profane and dark pilgrimages to places of iniquity like Las Vegas and those places in the world visited by the seedy sexploitation tourists. There’s also pilgrimages of personal liberation and inspiration, such as the flight of asylum seekers and those hopefuls who travel toward the bright lights of Broadway and Hollywood.

Specifically people choose how to engage various landscapes, and sometimes seek out the wondrous, strange and occult places where they can create for themselves personal narratives about themselves and those places. For example, Rodney Orpheus has a photo gallery of “Monday April 13 – the occult tour of London” in which is recorded for personal history some ephemeral moments along a group’s path of travel with notes narrating these now static stations. Consider also the personal narrative at “Occult Tour of London” that came from following the plan given in “An Esoteric guide to visiting London“. (Note that the personal narrative of that last tour points out a number of difficulties following the plan offered by the esoteric guide [also], which, I suppose, is quite a good reason to have such things in a community maintained dynamic guide instead of an individually maintained static one.)

 

Personally I’ve been flirting with the notion of trying to engage myself in writing about “travel, pilgrimage and magical retirement to far-distant countries, in exterior, interior and liminal landscapes” as part of what I hope to develop as a group blog, a collective of personal narratives, at Pilgrimage to Far-Distant Countries. (If only saying made it so, but the idea is still one I have in mind; one of a number of projects that require me to develop different and serious writing habits which may turn out to just not be in my nature.)

 

Do you know of any examples or have personal narratives of these things I’ve mentioned?

Societies with secrets, security culture and online social media

There’s a post about a new Social Media Code of Conduct for Massachusetts Freemasons [PDF] (HT @Masonictraveller) over at Freemason Information, part of The Beehive series by Fred Milliken. This document mentioned is particularly interesting to me because it touches on some issues I think are important; and the reactions to the document are also interesting. (I’m also more amused than I should be that the date on the original document is May 1st, International Workers’ Day, due to the frisson between seemingly oft conservative Freemasons and the ideas of the, frankly quite often more broadly fraternal to my mind, international workers’ movement; and, also because of the connection between the ideas I’m going to talk about and the direct and indirect history of May Day.)

I should also say that I’m intentionally using the term “society with secrets” here to mean not just Freemasonry, but really any group with secrets that is publicly known. Freemasonry is not a secret society, really, after all. But, like everyone sharing a book or movie recommendation who doesn’t want to reveal the important points of the plot, let alone the ending, Freemasonry does have secrets. (I’ve been meaning to write about my thoughts around “society with secrets vs secret societies” for a long time, but, I suppose the fullness of that topic will remains one of my own secret for now.)

 

The “code of conduct” document itself offers a number of specific directives about how the Freemasonic Grand Lodge of Massachusetts wishes its members to behave online, not just in social media though that’s what the title suggests is the scope.

 

“As a Mason, he must be aware that his postings are a permanent record; therefore, his conduct may influence the world with a positive or a negative opinion about him personally and also about any organizations to which he belongs.”

As the librarian of the Hermetic Library, I can say I’ve received email from people several times wishing my help to remove, alter or obfuscate content they wrote that still appears online.

In some cases, people want their names removed. In some cases, people want the content to go away. In others, they want links to archives of their content removed so that Google stops indexing the linked to archive. In even other cases, people have contacted me to let me know they’ve removed previously written content from their site due to a new role they’ve taken in which those comments aren’t now appropriate, as if the whole of one’s history is merely, and must conform with, the current accidents of the moment (which ironically requires history to constantly be changed to make an illusion). In some cases, it’s clear that the person contacting me is embarrassed by something they’ve written in the past and wants to distance themselves from that; which motive I personally find revolting and pathetic and deceitful. In other cases, the motives are more or less clean, such as needing to manage how others might use past writing as a weapon, how others might twist and misrepresent the past to impune the present person. (You might, or not, be surprised at how much vitriol and willful harassment there is out there, sometimes hidden in back channels and sometimes not, in which cases managing access to one’s information becomes important as a defensive measure against evil, unscrupulous or stalker-y people.) So, there’s a whole gamut of reasons why people seem to want their previous work forgotten.

Interestingly, there may seem a serious disconnect in my own views on this matter. For example, I am viciously adamant about my own right to remove content from services like Facebook, but I am relatively lassez-faire about my content being permanently on display in various revisions at the Wayback Machine. Of course, the primary difference is that Facebook, and corporations like it purporting to offer a service, is in fact constantly and expansively trying to enclose and encumber not just the works of our minds but every hour of our lives in order to control and monetize both; and to that my resistance is very consistent and internally consistent.

 

“Do not identify any Freemason as a member of the Craft unless he has provided his consent, or has already identified himself as such.”

Another of the points in this code of conduct is not to reveal the identity of a member unless they’ve already done so. This point is a big one for many sub-cultures, and is an important one. “Outing” another person is a serious breach of security and etiquette. But, it should also be considered a serious breach to reveal information about not just the identity but also the location and activities of another member, especially to strangers. (This point is a hint at why personally I almost universally refuse to broadcast my future whereabouts or add instant, or even relatively contemporaneous, geolocation data to my content. I also do not participate in any service which is either dedicated to showing my instant location data or where I cannot hide that, even from “friends”, even so far as to eschew instant messaging services in favour of asynchronous email.)

Anyone with any IT security experience should be able to share strong reasons not to succumb to social engineering, revealing important details to not only strangers but even well-known people who should not have some bits of information. Anyone who’s worked in retail or the service industry should be able to confirm how dangerous it can be to reveal personal information or work schedules of co-workers, both about their time at work and their time away from work. Loose lips not only sink ships and breach internal security, but lead to things like stalking and other antisocial behaviour.

I can hardly begin to tell you the times I’ve gotten strange looks and had eyes rolled at me when I’ve tried to educate people about the dangers and dimwittedness of revealing information about not only others but about themselves to strangers. I cannot count on my fingers the number of times I’ve tried to shush someone who’s speaking on the phone to some random stranger who’s just called and to whom they are revealing all kinds of privileged information about someone else’s schedule and whereabouts … It’s just shocking and disheartening to have people I know, or moreover people I’ve cared about, be so dumb about such things. Really, the Pavlovian desperation to respond most people have to phone and electronic communications, and moreover the ease with which most people reveal information (passwords, account information or even just random particulars) to some unknown person as if merely by being on the phone or online imbues some Milgrim-like authority, is something both breathtaking and bizarre to me.

Developing security culture is not just about the security of groups, but is also protecting individuals. I hope those people prone to such information breaches are never in the situation where they learn the hard way by ending up pursued by a stalker, pursued by someone so mentally stunted or backward that they cannot understand the meaning of “no” or even the basic social contract of consent, and then to have information about their activities and whereabouts revealed by themselves or others simply because they didn’t know better. And if that ever happens I hope that nothing seriously harmful happens as a consequence other than learning to be more careful next time, though so many worse things are possible.

Just one more story, of any number of others, about this: At one of the really big Occupy marches in Portland, OR, I have to tell you I cringed every time someone yelled out another person’s name to get their attention. Really? Serious protest foul, that, people!

But, really, the lack of awareness about security culture is a symptom of not having one in the first place. How’s that for a tautology? No, seriously, the adoption of a general security culture could be helped by having serious security culture in subcultural groups, and thus pushing out the wave of adoption by having smaller groups educate and inform their members who then end up bringing that awareness to larger groups and the overall culture in which they each participate. (So, now that you’ve read this, go and find out more so I can pretend I’ve been effective in widening the general awareness of security culture …)

 

The commentary in the post itself, and the comments by readers to that post, over at Freemason Information are interesting to me as well. Primarily the reaction is focused on how some of the points in the code of conduct are just common sense ideas about protocol and etiquette, but there’s also a perception that the code of conduct is an overreaching attempt to control the actions of members. I think this code of conduct document, while not perfect, seems to me a good first step toward building a meaningful and reasonable security culture. The worth of that, at the very least, is as a catalyst to considering and talking about meaningful and reasonable security culture for any subcultural group of people, whether that’s in, to name a few, a fraternal organization, social club, workplace, or, yes, even in one’s own home environment. But, recognizing that such ideas can be seen as unreasonable attempts to control behaviour suggests how important it is to reveal and share the reasoning behind them, and the reasons why they are being suggested.

 

There’s a lot of useful thinking and writing that’s been done on creating security culture, and this post is merely a few initial words on the topic. I wrote a setup document for GnuPG, aimed at members of a society with secrets in which I am involved which has a mandate for the use of encryption which is not supported by a culture in which use of encryption is easy for non-technical users or even has much use in spite of the mandate. In that document I tried to include some background and links to further information about security culture, by way of saying how important it is to at least think about such things in any social group with secrets. In the same way that the encryption requirement by the US Grand Lodge of Ordo Templi Orientis is essentially and largely mooted by the apparent lack of implementation among the membership, the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts has started down a pretty slippery slope of creating mandated behaviour and requirements that it cannot hope to maintain ahead of breaches of conduct, but rather only after the fact in selective punishment against those who happen to get caught. Without a security culture, these rules are mostly meaningless as far as stopping behaviours from happening and are really only rubrics that can be used to evaluate behaviours that have already occurred. In other words, it seems to me, these kinds of guidelines need to be part of a program of proactive education instead of taken as proscriptive measures to control behaviour, and where they are merely the later they should be transformed into the former. Guidelines like these need to create a culture in the implementation not create criminals in the breach.

But really, I think the exposure to the ideas of, and how to create, security culture can offer an essential and necessary set of skills for people in this modern day information age to understand and implement the many overlapping circles of information scope in our lives. (Just as I believe thinking about and deconstructing propaganda models and theory offer essential skills for resisting the influence of not just canonical propaganda but also in resisting the influence of pervasive and invasive marketing and advertising in this Western culture.)

For a general primer, I’d encourage you to check out check out a few documents which stand out in my memory as good initial surveys: Towards a Collective Security Culture, Affinity Groups and Why do you need PGP?.

For further reading, you may be interested in Activism and Security Culture, Security Culture, and Security Culture. Beyond those, I commend you to your favourite search engine for further study.

As a last note, I can’t help but suggest and recommend two works, in no small part because these two are on the list of works that appear in my own thoughts consistently, which I think connect to this post and the broader subject of resistance culture. First, both for the history of the resistance of but also the resistance to the international labor movement, I’d like to suggest an excellent history of Industrial Workers of the World, The Wobblies: The Story of the IWW and Syndicalism in the United States by Patrick Renshaw. And, secondly, for the history and role of Freemasonry in the resistance culture of colonial and early American periods of United States history, Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840 by Steven C. Bullock.