The room is dark, despite the noonday sun. Thick curtains have been pulled across the windows. Several people are lined in two columns at the north and south. They comprise the only branch of the Ordo Templi Orientis in Oklahoma. I’m joining them for their Gnostic Mass, a ritual created by the infamous 20th century occultist Aleister Crowley. Some might call them Satanists “We are categorically not Satanists,” says the head of the Oklahoma City chapter of the OTO. “Neither was Crowley a Satanist. We do not ‘worship the devil’ or cast evil spells or any such nonsense.”
The OTO, however, are certainly not Christians. For Christians, it is Easter Sunday; but for this gathering, it is Sunday, April 9, 2001 era vulgaris.
In the center of the makeshift temple stands a small altar that bears the tools of magic: the wand of fire, the dagger of air, the cup of water and the disk of earth. To the east, an opalescent veil hangs between two black and white pillars, obscuring a throne on a black- and white-cubed dais and a large painting of a Tarot card above the altar. The deacon, a man in his fifties dressed in a long white and yellow robe, stands at the altar reciting the first section of the mass, invoking the esoteric deities of the order:
“I believe in one secret and ineffable LORD; and in one Star in the Company of Stars of whose fire we are created, and to which we shall return; and in one Father of Life, Mystery of Mystery, in His name CHAOS, the sole viceregent of the Sun upon the Earth; and in one Air the nourisher of all that breathes.
And I believe in one Earth, the Mother of us all, and in one Womb wherein all men are begotten, and wherein they shall rest, Mystery of Mystery, in Her name BABALON.
And I believe in the Serpent and the Lion, Mystery of Mystery, in His name BAPHOMET.”
He chants in a forceful, barreling baritone that vibrates throughout the room, causing my chest to resonate like I’m leaning against a transformer.
When the deacon completes the first invocation, the Priest and Priestess enter from the west. The priest is plainly robed, his garments open at the chest to reveal a colorful tattoo of interlocking circles and a six-pointed star. The tattoo is etched directly above the thin skin of his sternum, and I try to imagine how much it hurt as raga music plays and the priestess begins a serpentine dance. She is festooned in bright jewels and veils, the costume of the infamous seductress Salome, her hips gyrating seductively. The priest remains motionless while the priestess places a red robe about his shoulders, a crown on his head and hands him a shining lance. By the end of her dance, he looks like a Babylonian king.
At this point, I realize I’m not in Kansas anymore. I don’t even feel like I’m in the continental United States. It’s like something out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel — I feel like John Carter, transported to Mars in the passing of an instant. All sense of rationality quickly escapes me as the priest escorts the priestess to the dais. The veil has been lifted momentarily, and, as she takes her place on the throne, she pulls it closed.
The priest and priestess perform a call and response play, acting the roles of the male and female principles of the universe. My head swims as I try to remember all the myths and symbols they invoke. As I focus on the ritual, I stop struggling to make sense of everything and just drink it in. The priest ascends the steps of the dais. When he reaches the top, he uses his lance to part the veil once again, revealing the priestess on the throne, looking positively feline. I’m somewhat shocked to see that all of her veils have fallen away, as well. Her milky breasts glisten with perspiration from her exertions, her nipples blushing and brazen. Her green eyes blaze under desultory brows and her hair is a sweeping auburn fire. A regal austerity, a selfless sense of presence in the moment, elevates her posture.
I’m reminded of the infamous sequence depicted in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, when Dr. Bill Hartford steals into a secret ceremonial orgy, only to be discovered and forced to strip naked in front of the whole congregation for his subterfuge. Fortunately, I’ve gone through the proper channels, so there is no sense of illegitimacy on my part, just growing wonder. This is what happens when the veil is lifted. The ceremony culminates as first the priest, then the deacon and then the other lodge members including myself approach the priestess and consume the Eucharist of the mass, the cakes of light.
These small baked morsels are made of flour, honey, red wine reduction, a combination of cinnamon, myrrh, galangal and olive oils and a final, most controversial ingredient: human blood collected from the officiating priest and priestess. There is an entire dialogue among concerned people about the appropriateness of this last ingredient, and apparently there are those who use substitutions. In fact, the official recipe for the cakes of light requires that the blood be burned, the ashes rendered to powder, and finally added to the mixture. I have been assured prior to the ritual that there is no unrendered blood in the cakes, but it doesn’t concern me much. I enjoy a medium rare steak, why should baked goods be a problem?
The only issue I have with the cakes of light is that they are extraordinarily chewy, or maybe it was just mine. It’s very mealy and absorbs every drop of moisture in my mouth as I chew. I spend a good two minutes at the top of the dais, in front of the whole congregation, trying to swallow the host. I consider drinking the entire goblet of wine used in the ceremony to wash it down, but that would be rude. Someone stifles a laugh at my noticeable difficulty. But finally, the cake goes down and I recite, “There is no part of me that is not of the Gods,” just as the rest of the members had.
The ritual is ended, and the temple is no longer a temple. It is the same unassuming one story suburban home that I had incredulously approached on my arrival roughly two hours ago. The drapes have been pulled from the windows, and the bright springtime sun shines into the breakfast nook, where I sit and chat with the others. The ritual chamber itself is actually the living room. All of the temple furniture is modular and quickly removable. This allows the two heads of the lodge, to get back to doing what most others do — live a normal life.
The lodge members are, for the most part, financially successful and well-adjusted individuals. Among the participants that day, I meet an investment banker, a computer tech and a financial advisor, as well as a couple of students. Some of them hold positions in other orders, such as the Masons, and one of them talks excitedly about his attainment of a new degree.
I mention that it happens to be Easter Sunday and get some laughs. One woman makes light of it, completely comfortable with the schism.
“Oh I have to make it to my mother’s Easter dinner in an hour,” she chuckles. “If she only knew…”
Speaking of Easter, I have my own family function to attend, so I say my thanks and goodbyes and head out into the sun. I pass the stone cherub in the front garden, which the priestess half-jokingly chided houses a protective spirit. I guess I’m in the clear, because I pass unscathed. The suburbs of Oklahoma City are quiet and calm. As I prepare for the drive back to Tulsa, I get a sense of vertigo. I get back in my car, driving back into the world of traffic cops, muffin tops, Big Macs and box-office flops. It’s mid-April, but the wind is biting and cold. Oklahoma spring never comes on time. The landscape is a brown and red blur outside.