Notes on the performance of the Gnostic Mass

By Anonymous | November 13, 2001

Numerous considerations go into the successful performance of Liber XV. In this short essay I will present a number of both general and specific suggestions for the effective working of this ritual. However, it must be understood from the outset that the exact mix of factors required to succeed varies widely with each unique combination of officers and, indeed, with each individual performance. It is hoped that the suggestions offered here will assist both officers and people in celebrating, understanding, and appreciating the Mass. It is not my intention to lay down any canon law. If any of these ideas strike you as wrong, meaningless, or superfluous, just ignore them and do your own will. I am greatly indebted for any small understanding that I may have of the Gnostic Mass to virtually everyone I know, but especially to the following O.T.O. brethren: Sor. Bast and Fra. Odysseus of Heru-em-Anpu Oasis; Sor. Phoenix a nd Fra. Shaitan of Thelema Lodge; Sor. Meral of 418 Lodge; and above all, to Bro. Grady L. McMurtry, late Father of the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica-in-Ordo Templi Orientis, who made it live for me and many others. In addition, I must thank Sor. Ishtar in advance for her almost infinite patience with my obsessive speculations, and all of you other readers for allowing me this opportunity to wax so very verbose.

Before proceeding to specific suggestions it may be useful to consider which general guidelines should govern our attitudes to the particular details. There are at least four different factors that strongly influence the effectiveness of a Mass performance: the Environmental conditions, the Theatrical preparations, the Conceptual understanding, and the Ritual energization. If we strive for excellence in these four areas our sanctuaries (or temples or pantheons or whatever you choose to call a place where a Gnostic Mass is performed) can become real centres of fruitful worship and love. However, we must not let the Perfect become the enemy of the Good; even a Mass poorly performed is more likely to inspire than no Mass at all. Most of the successful officers I have known first performed their roles long before they were “ready”; if you wait until everything is perfect you may well wait forever! If you do your best despite any constraints then success of some kind must result.

By environmental condition I mean among other things the space in which the ritual is to be performed. The appropriate size varies depending on how many communicants are ex pected to attend, but any area smaller than, say, 156 square feet is suitable only for the subtler forms of the ceremony. Many small O.T.O./E.G.C. groups can only afford to rent a small space, or use the residence of a member. Regularly scheduled and well-performed Masses tend to eventually create crowd problems, especially in these smaller venues. Removing all but the ceremonial furniture and providing pillows for the parishioners can somewhat alleviate these space problems. The exact shape of the tem ple i s often dictated by circumstances, but in any event try to avoid a narrow or l-shaped room unless it is the only alternative. A square or widely-rectangular space works best because the audience can be placed on the North and South sides of the ceremonial “corridor”, and thus be able to view the action before both the tomb in the West and the altar in the East. Try to avoid having seats that prevent their occupants from viewing certain parts of the ritual; people in such seats often tend to get bored or fru strated, which feelings, if expressed, can easily detract from the enjoyment of everyone else. This battle for the attention and involvement of the communicants is important to success, and forms the rationale for many of the suggestions in this essay. The people themselves are, in a certain sense, one of the environmental conditions of the Mass. Putting them in a receptive frame of mind is in fact the goal of most of the theatrical preparations described below. Another environmental consi deration derives from the necessity for the officers and people to kneel at various points in the ceremony. The use of carpets and/or small cushions is advisable to prevent both actual damage and the distraction which often accompanies physical discomfort. Finally, the environment of a Mass performance often includes telephones, doorbells, restless children, and many completely unexpected disturbances. You may prepare for these things by disconnecting the phone, bolting the doors , and setting age limits for attendence, or, you may prefer to have one or more Blackguards standing by to answer any “alarums”, burp borborygmic babies, and catch clumsy candles. In many sanctuaries the Deacon is customarily the officer who appoints and directs these Blackguards, employing them to usher communicants, educate the profane, or run odd errands as occasion requires. The Mass is, on one level, a play. The things which make for an entertaining evening at the theatre – strong acting, good staging & costuming, dramatic effects with sound & light – all these are immensely helpful to create a sacramental atmosphere. Acting is more decisive in creating this atmosphere than all the other theatrical devices put together. To act implies an attitude, a characterization, a part that is played. Officers who read their lines in muffled, monotonous, yet tense & halting, voices, who miss their cues, who talk to themselves, who grin with embarrassment, such officers may find their faults easily overcome by the application of a few simple acting techniques. For most North Americans, appearing before an audience, even of close friends, is a nervous and uncomfortable experience. Two things will serve to overcome this handicap: repetition, and memorization. Take every opportunity to perform before an audience. “On-stage” experience is essential to gain enough familiarity to relax with the situation. Try to rehearse with other people as much as possible. Full dress rehearsals in the actual sanctuary are of cours e best, but in any event it is good to always pra ctice the movements as well as the lines. Even solitary rehearsals should be done aloud along with all the physical movements of the officer you are preparing to play. Reading your part aloud in practice lets you play around with different accentuations and intonations. Try to identify the various emotions you think each line might reasonably express. Look up all the words you aren’t certain of, and consider that some words have more t han one meaning. Once you have begun to develop some personal interpretations of your role’s motivation then you must start developing an acting style to convey your interpretation. What style to adopt is largely a matter of individual taste and intention; styles of Priesting, for instance, may range from the calm understatements of Cronkite or the dramatic intensities of Brando all the way to the histrionic artificialities of a cross between Winston Churchill and Bela Lugosi (believe me, I’ve actually seen such a rendition)! There is no accounting for tastes; just find the portrayal you are personally most comfortable with at any given performance (this will probably change as your understanding of the ritual grows).

Whatever style you choose, try to be conscious of your breathing; make it slow and deep, without hyperventilating. Practice projecting your voice from the diaphragm until your words are loud and clear without being shouted. Opening your mouth wider than usual will also increase volume and clarity. Memo rization is very difficult for some and very easy for others. I ha ve found that it can help to outline the ritual in your own words, describing the actions and speeches in brief phrases. Once you’ve memorized this outline you have the sense of knowing where you are in the ceremony at all times; memorizing the actual wording of the individual speeches is much easier when you aren’t worried about forgetting what actions come next. A truly top-notch Mass officer will perform from memory, but don’t let the fact that you haven’t yet memorized the Mass keep you from doing it publicly. An expressive and clear reading will usually top a tentative and mistake-filled attempt at recitation from memory. And much confidence can be gained through the experience of public performance.

Though Crowley did provide theatrical suggestions for set design, costuming, props, and music he still left a great deal of room for creativity. Specific details of these aspects will be discussed later, but the general topic of lighting is appropriate at this point. Most officers prefer soft lighting fo r indoor Masses, and many insist on using candlelight only. The practice of using only candlelight has a subtly striking effect upon the communicants, and it offers no problems to officers who have memorized the Mass, but those who rely on scripts should realize that overly large numbers of candles placed all over the temple can be a major fire hazard. Certainly a fire extinguisher and/or fire-proof blanket are wise items to have on hand anywhere candles and incense are burned regularly. In some instances i t would be safer to designate a Blackguard or even the Deacon to hold a light by which the officer(s) may read. When using incandescent or fluorescent lighting the amount of illumination can be varied by rheostats, globes, lampshades, etc. The use of coloured lighting, spotlights on specific areas or actions, ultraviolet lamps, even strobe lights, are all available for endlessly unique experimentation. But remember that such efforts will only succeed if you’ve assembled a requi site staff of technical assistants; the officers of the Mass should be free to concentrate on their performances.

In developing your dramatic interpretation of your role you must reach some emotional understanding of the part, but if you wish to imbue a characterization with the richness, symbolic suggestiveness, even contradictions, which these roles inherently display then you must achieve a conceptual understanding of the Mass as well. Commenting on the concepts conveyed b y the Mass is the trickiest part of my current task. Though it may be arguable whether Liber XV contains every secret of the Order, it is certainly beyond doubt that it uses symbols which if properly understood describe some of the most essential secrets of Ordo Templi Orientis (the absolutely essential secrets are, fortunately, impossible to express in words). What is a responsible initiate to do in these circumstances? I have decided that I shall in this paper boldly and openly declare the meanings of the Gnostic Mass’ symbolism to the best of my meagre ability. I do this in the resolute certainty that they will be completely ignored by everyone who would misuse such power as they contain (and also by most of those who wouldn’t!). The fact that the Roman and Orthodox Masses also reveal the same secrets (albeit heavily disguised) is proof that most everyone would rather not believe them (or perhaps it’s just my filthy mind). In his reworking of the earlier Christian rituals Crowley made the truth much plainer and elaborated many technical points previously left unmentioned, but the basic idea is there all along. This enabled A.C. to adapt many lines (in English and Greek) directly from the “black” rituals of the Christians. Rather than present here a straightforward explication of the Gnostic Mass from this one limitless perspective I shall pepper my remarks throughout the following pages (thus making it harder for the paranoid editors of the future to catch them all!). I will also present a few simple bits of information, misinformation, Gematria, and panarchist political lobbying, where it seems appropriate. Numerous supplemental readings in the Crowley “oeuvre” might be recommended to help illumine the concepts underlying the Mass. Here I will only list some of the many I’ve found particularly invaluable:

THE BOOK OF THE LAW (all, without question or answer),

THE BOOK OF LIES (all, but especially caps. i-v, viii, xi, xii, xv-xix, xxi, xxiii-xxix, xxxii, xxxvi, xliii, xliv, xlix, li, liii, lvii, lx-lxiv, lxix, lxx, lxxv-lxxvii, lxxxii, lxxxvi-lxxxviii),

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THE BOOK OF THOTH (especially Trumps 0, III, V, VI, IX, XI, XII, XIV, XV, XVII, XVIII), LIBER ALEPH (all, but especially caps. xviii, xxii-xxiv, xxvii, lii-lviii, lxiii, lxv, lxxi, lxxxii-xcvi, ciii, cvi-cxiii, cxx, cxxxv-cxxxviii, cxl, cxli, cli-clxiii, clxxiii-clxxv, cxci, ccv-ccviii),

LIBER ARTEMIS IOTA (first published in original edition of MAGICK WITHOUT TEARS),

LIBER STELLAE RUBEAE (first published in EQUINOX, Vol.I, No.7),

ENERGIZED ENTHUSIASM (first published in EQUINOX, Vol. I, No.9),

MAGICK IN THEORY AND PRACT ICE (all, but especially caps. 0-v, vii-ix, xii, xv, xviii-xx, and in Appendix vi, GRIMORIUM SANCTISSIMUM, a Latin version of the mass),

TWO FRAGMENTS OF RITUAL (first published in EQUINOX, Vol.I, No.10),

THE VISION AND THE VOICE (all indeed, but especially the 9th Aethyr and beyond).

After having laid the foundations for a dramatic and meaningful presentation we finally come to the problem of making the Mass operate on a magical level. Certainly there is magick in a ceremony which pleases and teaches i ts audience, but we know that there is also another kind of magick possible. Could the officers but perform these prayers and invocations with their wills as well as their mouths they would experience an explosion of power, imparting reality to the blessing of the sacrament. The trick is the same as with any other ritual: devotion expressed in intense concentration, forgetfulness of doubt, and lastly, complete identification with the energies invoked. Success in these practices leads through various stages of trance; complete success is rewarded with samadhi. There will also be increased health and prosperity for the officers and communicants at a ritually effective Mass. Keeping a record of Masses you perform, how they go, and what results, is a good way to track your progress as magicians. A couple of other issues of minor ritual significance should be discussed here. Most sanctuaries perform one or more banishings before beginning their Masses. Though Crowley did not, as far as I know, explicitly suggest this practice, he did often do an LBR before partaking of the sacrament, and it does seem advisable. But keep in mind that an improperly performed banishing will often be more disruptive to your Mass than no banishing at all. Avoid using people who are unsure of their ritual to perform the final banishing before a ceremony. There is another ritual custom which has grown up in some sanctuaries. It is the practice of publicly “dedicating the energy of the Mass” to some particular object. While I woul d not wish to prevent anyone from doing these dedications they should keep in mind that the activating power which channels the “energy of the Mass” is Will. Any strong opposition on the part of officers or communicants can vitiate or destroy the ceremony’s magical effectiveness. So if you do openly declare a special purpose for your Mass then you’d best choose it by discussion and unanimous consent. Also remember that the Mass has its own explicitly stated purpose (best sum med up by the Priest’s triple blessing of the congregation after they have communicated); hence, if you choose some conflicting purpose you’ll certainly achieve nothing or much worse. You could, of course, rewrite the Mass for some specific object (thereby outraging a lot of silly people), but I personally think it best to let public performances be dedicated to the aims which Crowley wrote into the ritual, and to reserve specific objectives for more intimate and adaptable performances.


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