If you drive up and down Vermont Ave., you can find pop-up Taco Stands, trendy cafes, grocery stores, bus stops, family-owned businesses and churches — lots of churches. One of these churches is the Gnostic Confraternity. Sitting in the shadow of a Ralphs's grocery store, congregants gather here on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. to explore the esoteric world of Gnosticism.
I went to the church on a cool evening to check it out. I had been interested in Gnostics for a while and was excited to see the church while walking one day down the street. However, beyond a mention on Yelp and an ill-developed Facebook page, I had a hard time getting ahold of anybody who could tell me when and where they meet.
Finally, after two phone calls and getting hung up on twice, I found out that they meet on Wednesdays and only speak in Spanish.
The church operates out of a storefront and looks more like a classroom. With a total of sixteen desks, the Confraternity has a limited space to fill. However, there seems to be no seating issue.
Upon my first visit to the Gnostic Confraternity, only one man stood in the back due to the limited seating. The pastor also stood, and a young girl, who I assume was one of the member’s daughters, pulled her homework out of a pink backpack and worked quietly on a futon at the entrance.
The service began and a friendly woman sitting behind me gave me a pencil and a paper before I could pull out my notebook. It felt like middle school and I really hoped there wasn’t a test because I hadn’t studied.
The man at the front of the room gave an hour-long sermon about the nature of contemplation as the congregation and I nodded along. The sermon was winding and confusing at times. He claimed that “contemplation begins in the heart,” “bad ideas in our brain should always be cast out” and I meditated to his rhythmic “inhale/exhale.”
Everyone was brown, every mind attentive and pencils scribbled notes.
After the service, I spoke with the Pastor who was from El Salvador. He told me that most of the congregation was from Central America, mostly from Mexico. He explained that the “sermon” was but one component in a series of larger lectures about the mysteries of contemplation. The Clerical makeup of the church seems to rest on the shoulders of about six leaders, one of whom is a woman and all of whom are immigrants.
I left the service unsure if I was any closer to understanding what Gnosticism was all about. But, I wondered if that might be the point. While the congregation was friendly, the speaker was kind and the content was certainly compelling, I left without a clear comprehension of what I had learned.
For me, Gnosticism has always been a mysterious faith. The preeminent scholar and religious studies celebrity, Elaine Pagels, made her name studying the rise of Gnosticism in the 20th century. Since then, however, there have been very few studies about how modern Gnostics go about practicing.
Gnosticism has unique historical roots. In the hours before Muhammad ‘Alī al-Sammān and his brothers planned to avenge their father's murder, they discovered an ancient jar filled with a collection of thirteen papyrus codices. A few weeks later, the three brothers carried out their murder, eating their victim’s heart as the “ultimate act of blood revenge,” after which ‘Alī, in an attempt to cover his tracks, turned the codices over to a local priest. The books made a vacation to the black market before eventually ending up in the Coptic Museum, where the 52 manuscripts were archived and previously unknown Gospels, myths, magic, and philosophical cosmologies emerged.
No Gnostic church is unaware of this history, but, of course, each community incorporates this information uniquely. My experience in a Gnostic church in USC’s backyard was humbling. These people have little money, but a lot of faith in the power that Gnosticism might bring into their life.
While the Gnostic canon is not widely accepted, it acts as the sacred text of a select group of Angelenos. This is a minority religious group made up of minorities, a group that finds strength in their quest for knowledge and meaning in their learning. I don’t know what the message was on the Wednesday night I visited, and I couldn’t tell if others understood either. Regardless, everybody was trying their best to figure it out.