“Where is the true Church of Christ?” This is a question that has plagued Christians since the time of the apostles. For millions of believers, the Roman Catholic Church remains the ‘One True Church’ led to this day by the successors of the apostle Peter. Other Christians are convinced their particular church is equally ‘true’ and faithful to the ‘original teachings’ of Christ.
Beyond all the apparent confusion and division, what unites the overwhelming majority of professing Christians is a shared acceptance of doctrinal statements drawn up back in the fourth century. The story of Jesus as the unique Son of God, born of a virgin, who died and rose again on the third day, only became Christian dogma thanks to the Council of Nicea which convened in 325 CE in an attempt to unify the diverse Christian communities under Emperor Constantine. Bart Ehrman, professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, describes the process that brought this about:
Back in the early centuries after Christ there were also many Christians who did not accept the Christian ‘orthodoxy’ that was fast becoming dominant thanks to the patronage of the Roman Empire. These Christians had their own sacred writings and distinct traditions received from the apostles. One significant group of these early Christian ‘dissenters’ are identified as the ‘Gnostics’.
Gnostic Christians distrusted the surface manifestations of the orthodox Christians: the deity piously on display, officially worshipped and within everybody’s easy reach. The Gnostics spoke of a hidden God, the true and nameless One, who goes unperceived by the materially minded mob. Only through the experience of the Gnosis – that is through the gift of profound spiritual insight – can human spirits approach the Secret of Secrets.
The Gospels record Christ’s sayings which point to this path, rather than tell the story of a god-man sacrificed for the sins of the world, as the orthodox Christians believed. Christ was the cosmic teacher who took on the form of the man Jesus to impart His gnosis to the apostles, but only gradually and not to all of them in equal measure. Mary Magdalene and St. John the Evangelist were held in particularly high regard by Gnostic Christians. It was to these disciples, rather than the apostle Peter, that Christ had imparted His profoundest ‘secret teachings’.
With the triumph of the Roman Catholic Church in the fourth and fifth centuries, Gnostic Christians suffered persecution and were forced underground. The Gnostic tradition could not be exterminated and it survived to resurface throughout history in various movements. This is the story of Christianity’s other tradition, the hidden one.
HIDDEN CHURCH OF JOHN
In the Gospels it is the apostle Peter who openly denied Christ Jesus, while it the ‘beloved disciple’ John to whom the dying Jesus commended His mother Mary (symbol of wisdom). The Gospel of John speaks more about the Holy Spirit than the other Gospels. Gnostic Christians invoked the mystical and apocalyptic St. John as the source of their authority. The twentieth century mystic Omraan Mikhael Aivanhov explains in his book Aquarius:
Unlike the church of Peter – the church of empire, the exoteric, involved with law and power – the church of John is an underground church of the esoteric, concerned with transcendence. It is the ‘Secret Church’ whose only law is love. The Johannite church of Love (Amor) is decentralised, shamanistic, free and eternal; the church of Rome (Roma) is centralised, hierarchical, complex, and worldly. The battle between the two churches is the Old Testament battle of the prophets with the priests. Mystic vision versus organised religion. The church of John is the affirmation of spiritual brotherhood and rejection of the alienation of a worldly material civilisation. We find signs of this universal church of John in the different Gnostic communities appearing through the ages.
THE GNOSIS IN THE WEST
France plays a prominent role in the spread of the Gnostic tradition in the West. Mary Magdalene, it is said, fled for safety to the South of France with Lazarus and his sister, Martha. Early French literature tells of her arrival on the shores of Provence. Her Feast Day, July 22, was a major celebration in France during the Middle Ages and is still observed to this day.
Lyon, today France’s second largest city, is also the place from where in the second century the virulently anti-Gnostic bishop Irenaeus penned his writings which helped forever define ‘orthodox’ Christianity. Ironically, until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945, much of what we knew about the early Gnostics came from Irenaeus, one of their fiercest critics.
Southern France is also the area where the ‘Good Christians’ or Cathars (the name derived from the Greek word katharos, meaning ‘The Pure’) emerged in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Cathars received their Gnostic teachings from the Bogomils (meaning ‘beloved of God’), a Gnostic community active in the Balkans since the tenth century.
At the heart of Cathar doctrine is the notion that true Christianity (which the Cathars claimed to receive in a secret line of apostolic succession from St John) is a life lived, not simply a doctrine believed. For them the life of Jesus was a model the ‘Good Christian’ must strive to emulate, not a vicarious sacrifice to be blindly accepted on trust. The existence of the Cathars challenged the legitimacy of the Roman Church as Zoe Oldenbourg explains in Massacre at Montsegur:
After the manner of the Bogomils and the followers of the Eastern Gnostic Prophet Mani, the Cathars believed in a cosmic battle between the principles of Light and Darkness on whose meetings and encounters everything in the universe is based. Darkness was for them dark matter, the unperfected, the transient. They identified all clerical and secular rulers, principally the Roman Church, as the personification of the Darkness.
“Today we are better informed than they were concerning the practices of the Early Church,” writes Zoe Oldenbourg, “and have to admit that the Cathars merely followed a tradition somewhat more ancient than that of the [Roman] Church herself. It was with some appearance of reason that they claimed Rome as the party guilty of ‘heresy’ through her falling-out from the original purity which had characterised the Church of the Apostles.”
As with the ancient Gnostics, Rome saw the Cathars as a threat. “Catharism was spreading with extraordinary speed in Southern France,” points out the French writer Maurice Magre. “It was the radiant cult of the pure spirit which took possession of men’s souls, and it seriously endangered the materialistic Church of the pope.”  We know from their sacred books, primarily the Book of the Two Principles and The Questions of John, which relates a discussion between Jesus and the apostle John, that the Cathars believed they were true Christians faithful to a secret tradition stretching back to St. John. Rejecting most of the Old Testament, whose deity they identified with Satan, the Cathars held the Gospel of John in highest esteem and made use of it in their rituals.
Early in the thirteenth century Pope Innocent declared a Crusade against the ‘Good Christians’ of Southern France, announcing:
On the annual Feast Day of Mary Magdalene, July 22, 1209, the pope’s army prepared to attack the city of Beziers, many of whose sixty thousand inhabitants were devout Catholics, in order to wipe-out the Cathar ‘heretics’. “It was here, in the name of the Christian religion and through the fanaticism of one of the most venerated popes,” says Maurice Magre, “that there took place one of the most ferocious massacres in all history.” When asked how they were to distinguish pious Catholics from the Cathar ‘heretics’, the pope’s envoy the Abbot of Citeaux, replied, “Kill them all, the Lord will know His own.” The fall of the fortress-town of Montsegur in the Pyrenees in 1244 marked the end of the Cathars as a ‘public’ movement.
The Cathars were the legitimate heirs of the early Gnostic Christians and through them of the first apostles. The central tenets of the Cathars, particularly the prominence they ascribed to Mary Magdalene and St. John, confirms they were a manifestation of an underground stream of secret teachings called by the prophet Mani, the universal ‘Religion of Light.’ The persecution and massacres unleashed by the Roman Church again forced the Gnostics underground to reemerge at a later time in fulfilment of the Great Plan.
THE GNOSTIC REVIVAL
Six hundred years after the pope launched the murderous Crusade against the ‘Good Christians’, three French mystics were each inspired to play unique roles in the revival of the Gnostic Johannite tradition in the modern world.
Dr. Bernard-Raymond Fabré-Palaprat (1773-1838) was deeply immersed in the esoteric traditions of France, particularly those relating to the medieval Knights Templar who were said to have imbibed Gnostic ideas while in the Holy Land. Only a few years after the bloody massacres of the Cathars, the Templars met a similar tragic fate at the hands of the pope and king of France. In 1812 Fabré-Palaprat claimed to have discovered a manuscript written in Greek called the Levitikon, containing a version of the Gospel of John. Most historians today believe the work actually dates from around the seventeenth or eighteenth century, but some researchers say it may originate as early as the eleventh century. To Fabré-Palaprat it was an ancient text revealing the truth about the Church of John and the secret history of true Christianity. According to Peter Partner, the author of a scholarly book on the Knights Templar, in the Levitikon “the orthodox presentation of Christ had been excised in favour of a version which eliminated the miracles and the Resurrection, and presented Christ as an initiate of the higher mysteries, trained in Egypt.
Inspired by what he found in the mysterious Levitikon, Fabré-Palaprat set about establishing a ‘Johannite Church’, with himself as the Sovereign Pontif or outer head of ‘John’s Church’. Around 1828 he reorganised the fledgling Johannite community under the name of the “Holy Church of Christ,” or the “Church of Primitive Christians.” Six years later Fabré-Palaprat, on the authority he claimed to have as successor of St. John, publicly celebrated a ‘Johannite Mass’. Facing considerable opposition from the Catholic clergy, the Johannites discontinued their open activities. Fabré-Palaprat retired to Southern France, where in a region alive with the memory of the Cathars and Mary Magdalene, he died in 1839.
On August 6, 1839 Eugene Vintras had finished work in the French village of Tillay when an extraordinary event irrevocably changed his life. An old man knocked at his door and addressing Vintras by his baptismal name ‘Pierre-Michel’, told him the time had come for him to carry out a special mission. The end of the age (that is, the age of the Second Reign, that of Christ) was at hand, and Vintras was to announce the coming of the Holy Spirit and the commencement of the ‘Reign of Love’. The old man ‘whose face shone so brightly you could not look at him,’ again appeared to Vintras while he was on a visit to Paris. Subsequent visionary experiences confirmed the ‘old man’ was the Archangel Michael and Vintras a reincarnation of the prophet Elijah. In addition to Archangel Michael, Vintras told of being visited by the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, as well as other angelic beings, who disclosed to him the secret teachings of the original Christians. Followers flocked to Vintras, who now known by his spiritual name “Elie-Strathaniel,” celebrated Mass wearing a vestment adorned with an upside down cross. “I want this cross to be known as the cross of grace, because this is an age of crime and corruption, having drawn down on all the earth the terrible effects of my Father’s justice,” Christ had told Vintras in a vision.
Vintras, the pious, mild-mannered Catholic, had been transformed by his experiences and as ‘Elijah returned’ radiated a powerful presence. People from all over France rushed to join his “Church of Carmel” or “Work of Mercy,” with its new priesthood which was to replace the ‘corrupt’ priesthood of the Catholic Church. Lacking any formal religious training and with only a basic education, Eugene Vintras, the Prophet Elie-Strathaniel, preached complex rites and doctrines which remarkably resembled those of the ancient Gnostics. As the historian Richard Griffiths explains:
The ancient Gnostics included both men and women in the priesthood, a tradition revived by Vintras in the Church of Carmel.
In 1842, under pressure from the Catholic Church, Vintras was arrested by the French authorities and imprisoned for five years on the trumped-up charge of soliciting donations from people to whom he claimed to reveal the name of their guardian angel. While he was in prison, the Abbe Marechal, known as Ruthmael, took over the community. He apparently began publicly teaching certain rituals that had a sexual content. According to some reports, he confided to his congregation, “Those who feel love for one another should share it often. Every time they do, they are sure to create a spirit in heaven.”
In 1848 the Church of Carmel was formally condemned by the Vatican, and during the years 1852 to 1862 Vintras lived in London, where he published The Eternal Gospel. On his return to France he founded new congregations and a ‘college of prophets’ in Lyon, a city with a strong connection to the Gnostic tradition. For some years the Church of Carmel continued with congregations in Spain, in Belgium, in Italy, and in England. The Church survived Vintras’ death on December 7, 1875, but by then the rites were only celebrated in the utmost secrecy. A Vintrasian church functioned in London up until at least the beginning of the Second World War. From England, Vintras’ followers resettled in other countries, free of the acrimonious scrutiny of the Catholic Church. Others went on to join the new spiritual groups that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Dr. Bernard-Raymond Fabré-Palaprat and Eugene Vintras made unique contributions to the rediscovery of the Johannite Gnostic tradition. The religious movements started by these French visionaries helped prepare the way for the establishment of the modern Gnostic Church in 1890 by Jules-Benoit Doinel (1842-1902). Doinel had for some years frequented esoteric and mystical circles, where he encountered the teachings of Fabré-Palaprat and Vintras. One of these circles, formed around the Countess of Caithness, took a particular interest in ancient Gnosticism. Lady Caithness was well acquainted with France’s occult and mystical groups, including the Church of Carmel. Jules Doinel also entered Freemasonry, being initiated Master in 1885 with the “congratulations and encouragement” of Albert Pike. Dr. Stephan A. Hoeller informs us:
Jules Doinel gathered a following and established the Eglise Gnostique, which was organised along sacramental lines. The teachings of the new church were strictly Gnostic, and in homage to Valentinus, Doinel assumed the ecclesiastical title of Patriarch Tau Valentin II. In a most progressive step he ordained women to priestly and episcopal offices; he also established once again the sacrament of the Consolamentum reminiscent of the Cathars.
Given Jules Doinel’s connections to France’s leading mystics and occultists the Gnostic Church soon became known as “the church of the initiates.” Doinel consecrated the remarkable esoteric writer Papus (Dr. Gerard Encausse) as a Gnostic bishop, and also joined Papus’s Martinist Order. Among Doinel’s acquaintances was Abbe Berenger Sauniere, the parish priest of Rennes-le-Chateau.
At this time a number of gifted esotericists joined the French Gnostic Church, among them Fabré des Essarts, Albert de Pouvourville, Paul Sedir, Lucien Mauchel, Victor Blanchard and René Guénon.
In 1908, Joanny Bricaud (1881-1934), held at Lyon the Holy Synod of Gnostic Bishops, which elevated him as patriarch of the Gnostic Church under the name Tau Jean II. Bricaud had studied the Johannite teachings and greatly admired Eugene Vintras and the Church of Carmel. He was committed to fully restoring the ancient Gnostic wisdom, faithful to the sacred tradition of Saint John. On becoming patriarch he declared:
In The Esoteric Christian Doctrine, published in 1907, a year before he became patriarch of the Gnostic Church, Bricard wrote:
Sadly, the ecumenical brotherhood and openness of spirit cultivated by Bricaud could not prevent persecution and strife befalling the Gnostic Church in France. Bricaud’s successor, the saintly Monsignor Constant Chevillon, Tau Harmonious (1880-1944), was cruelly executed by Nazi collaborators after the Vichy government suppressed the Gnostic Church. Nevertheless it was from France that the Gnostic Church spread to Portugal, Italy, Belgium, and South America. “The Gnostic tradition, which originally had its home in France,” Dr. Stephan Hoeller tells us, “came to be established in England and later in the United States, initially as a result of the efforts of a bishop of French descent who was raised in Australia.”
THE GNOSIS RESTORED
With fascism and communism on the rise across Europe, far away in Australia a young spiritual seeker began questioning the historical foundations of Christianity. In his quest for truth, Richard, Duc de Palatine (born Ronald Powell in 1916), joined “the biggest occult library in the Southern Hemisphere at the Theosophical Lodge in Melbourne,” where he studied “the extant writings concerning the Gnostics, Essenes and Secret Mysteries.” By 1944 he became convinced “that one day he would cause to be formed a Brotherhood which would partially restore the Sacred Lore and encourage people to prepare themselves for the Illumination and Interior Communion with the God within.”
In the 1940s Richard, Duc de Palatine, a learned and charismatic figure, attracted much attention. His insight was uncanny, but for all this, he was perceived as being a very humble person who seemed to exude love and peace wherever he went. In 1948 he told his friends his mission was not in Australia and he travelled to London, where in 1953 he was consecrated as Bishop Richard John Chretien Duc de Palatine by the Patriarch Hugh George de Willmott Newman. The name of Duc de Palatine is a personal and spiritual title.
In October, 1953 the Most Rev. Richard, Duc de Palatine established in London the “Pre-Nicene Gnosto-Catholic Church,” with the stated object of “restoring the Gnosis – Divine Wisdom to the Christian Church, and to teach the Path of Holiness which leads to God and the Inner Illumination and Interior Communion with the Soul through the mortal body of man.”
From his base in London’s Kensington, Richard, Duc de Palatine travelled on several occasions to France where he made contact with bishops of the French Gnostic Church. They encouraged him to fulfil his mission of transmitting the Gnostic tradition to the English-speaking world. He was also received by representatives of France’s leading mystical orders, including the surviving Grand Master of the Johannite Templar Order. In a profile of Richard, Duc de Palatine’s life we read that he held high office in many esoteric bodies:
Through his London based Pre-Nicene Publishing House, Richard, Duc de Palatine issued a series of booklets on Christian Gnosticism, with titles like “The Inner Meaning of the Mystery Schools,” “The Christian Mysteries,” and “Christ or Jesus?” He also published “The Lucis Magazine” as the official organ of ‘The Sovereign Imperium of the Mysteries.’ Reviewing Richard, Duc de Palatine’s early writings it is obvious how far-sighted and spiritually gifted he was. Articles in his magazine ranged from discussions of “The Fallen Angels” and the “Dead Sea Scrolls” to the “Christian Fathers on Reincarnation” and “Spiritual Illumination”. In the book The Key to Cosmic Consciousness, he is described as an “outstanding mystic and illumined teacher and writer” whose “knowledge and experience stems from his own illumination in 1956, after applying the teachings of the early Gnostic Fathers…”
Writing close to fifty years ago, Richard, Duc de Palatine contrasted the Gnostic spirit of tolerance with the dogmatism of the mainstream Churches:
Richard, Duc de Palatine’s magazines and booklets were disseminated around the world and his ‘Brotherhood and Order of the Pleroma’ had branches in South Africa, Nigeria, the USA, and Australia. In 1971 he moved to the United States where he continued his work up to the time of his death in 1977. “He left behind a rich heritage, and because of his pioneering work a breach was made in the consciousness of the people…. but the keys to find the Door are still guarded and can only be found within the Wisdom Schools which through its Rite of Succession pass on the Keys to the Door.”
Since Richard, Duc de Palatine’s passing, the work of the Gnosis, of necessity, has taken on many guises and has appeared in different forms. In the United States the Gnostic tradition restored by Richard, Duc de Palatine is carried on chiefly by Dr. Stephan A. Hoeller, Regionary Bishop of Ecclesia Gnostica, who was consecrated in 1967 by Bishop de Palatine. In Great Britain and Australia the Gnostic work has taken on a private approach in order to implement links with the more esoteric side of the Gnostic tradition. The Universal Gnostic Alliance, a consortium of Gnostic organisations in the Asia and Pacific region, was established in Australia at Easter, 2005. Formally chartered “to perpetuate the work of encouraging the study and propagation of the Ancient and True Universal Philosophy of the Inner Gnosis,” the Universal Gnostic Alliance is faithful to the vision of Bishop Richard, Duc de Palatine, and the Great Teachers of the Gnosis who went before.
EXPERIENCE OF THE HEART
The first followers of Jesus the Christ did not see His teachings as merely intellectual fodder meant for endless debate, nor as a mere set of humanitarian principles and moral pronouncements. The teachings of Jesus were meant to be lived so that the individual person may awake to “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” For as the mystic Angelus Silesius wrote: “Even if Christ were born a thousand times in Bethlehem, But not in you, you would still be lost for all eternity.”
The ‘Secret Church’ still exists in the world in the twenty-first century. Gnostic Christians are a worldwide community united not by a rigid set of beliefs, but by a mysterious bond of brotherhood derived from a shared vision and experience of the living Christ. Gnostic Christianity is experiential. It is about transformation, about a higher consciousness, not about dry words or external forms. Theologies and commandments are the formulations of men. No matter how sublime or noble, rational or logical, they are all man-made. Gnosis is the experience of the divine. Words along with all theological and philosophical discourses are insufficient to explain it. You must taste it, as the Psalmist declares: “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).
The goal of the Gnostic Christian is nothing short of Awakening, of Christ Consciousness. Following the Way of the Christ, as revealed in the Gospels, we are called to “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”
Almost the entire history of Christendom is a protest against the words of Jesus the Christ. Hatred and persecution, hypocrisy and ignorance, intolerance of one’s neighbours: all in the name of Him who gave the command to love your enemies. In the name of Him who said: “My kingdom is not of this world”! Institutional Christianity, with its religious dogmatism and obsession with commandments, is a contemporary example of the same force that confronted and sought to kill Jesus in his own time. But behind worldly Christianity is the interior Church of John, the universal Gnostic Church where the Living Christ continues to impart spiritual knowledge.
This is the other tradition of Christianity, the hidden one, but it is always accessible to seeking souls.
© Copyright 2006 by New Dawn Magazine. This article first appeared in New Dawn Special Issue No. 2. For further information visit http://www.newdawnmagazine.com